Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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Book Shelf Special Feature Part 1: National Park Science by Jane Carruthers

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We were delighted to welcome Jane Carruthers back to the Rachel Carson Center this autumn. Jane has a longstanding relationship with the RCC; she served on its advisory board for six years, the latter three as its chair, and was a great influence on the center in its formative years. She was made an honorary Carson fellow in 2014 in recognition of her enormous contribution to the work of the center. After all the support the RCC has had from Jane, it was a great pleasure for us to host a celebration of the publication of her latest book National Park Science: A Century of Research in South Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2017) here in Munich.

Jane spoke about her book to staff and students as part of our Tuesday Discussion series, and was joined by two other influential environmental historians, Bernhard Gißibl and Libby Robin, who talked us through the contribution that her book makes to the field. We are pleased to present written versions of the three scholars’ remarks on the new book on Seeing the Woods. A full review of National Park Science by Bernhard Gißibl will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Environment and History, an edited draft of which will be featured here on Seeing the Woods next week.

(*These are edited versions of the talks presented at the Tuesday Discussion. All photos are courtesy of Jane Carruthers.)

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Tales from Piplantri

“A Fable for Today…”

By Vidya Sarveswaran

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Way to Piplantri: the road not taken…

We are just beginning to hear the murmurs of a nervous street. The sky above is like handmade parchment. Powder blue with swirls of crimped clouds. The air is heavy with the cloying smell of equally heavy flowers that attract snakes. But they do not worry about snakes here. This is the land of the brave desert warriors. Rajasthan, a state in the northwest of India and the only desert state in the country.

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Cow lounging in the marble dust!

Our dusty SUV swerves around to avoid a cow, who looks rather annoyed that we are in her way. We wait for our escort, Champalal: he arrives on his noisy Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike wearing a blood-red turban and an obsequious smile. As we drive through several alleys of this town called Piplantri in the Rajsamand district of Rajasthan, we cannot help but notice the squeaky clean roads, the vibrant signposts and wall graffiti drawn by the children of the village. The houses that pass us are all splendidly bright and wear a medieval look. And suddenly, the motorbike is lost in the raucous voices of villagers and vendors who have all come out to meet us.

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Lives Wasted: Garbage as a Forgotten Dimension of the European “Refugee Crisis”

by Maximilian Feichtner and Theresa Leisgang

A deflated rubber boat is washed up on the eastern coast of Chios. Once the waves have buried it under rocks and it becomes even more entangled with seagrass, you will hardly be able to see it. But for tourists strolling along the beach, this isn’t the only reminder of the boat landings by refugees who crossed Europe’s borders at night. All across the beaches of the Aegean Islands, where tourists usually swim and sunbathe, refugees leave their life jackets, water bottles, soaked clothes—and the boats on which they started their journey to a new life. The waste is what connects both, tourists and refugees, in their everyday life, as both are caught up in a circle of producing and managing waste. Beyond that, the waste is a material trace of countless people’s struggles to survive and escape violent conflicts. It is a trace that tourists and islanders would like to ignore; a trace, however, that won’t disappear by itself.

About one million people arrived on Greek shores in 2015 and the first few months of 2016, most of them fleeing war and persecution in Syria. Since March 2016, when the EU signed a deal with Turkey to halt the flow of migration to Europe, arrivals via the Aegean Sea dropped dramatically. However, possibly due to rising tensions regarding EU-Turkey relations, numbers are increasing again: 4,609 people reached Greece via boat in September 2017 according to the UNHCR. With them, the amount of discarded rubber dinghies, sports boats, and other waste on the islands will likely amount to tonnes. Their waste comes in addition to the already existing refugee boats, carelessly piled up in the hinterland, turning pastures into ship graveyards. What remains undiscussed in the broader public and political debates is the potential environmental crisis that risks adding another level of complexity to the so-called “refugee crisis” in Europe. Continue reading


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The Taproom: Jeffrey Pilcher

“The Global Invention of Lager Beer”

By Jeffrey Pilcher

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“Around the World in 80 Beers.” Image courtesy of PureTravel.com.

“Around the World in 80 Beers.” It’s an arresting image of the globalization of beer. This map on the PureTravel website depicts each country according to its bestselling or iconic national brand: from Budweiser in the United States and Corona in Mexico, to Tsingtao in China and Oettinger in Germany. What is so striking about the image is that, with the sole exception of Ireland’s Guinness Stout, every label represents a single style: light, crisp, clear, Pilsner lager. The global spread of lager beer can be told as a story of Western cultural imperialism: A European product sails out in the hands of merchants, migrants, and imperialists to upend social patterns and transform landscapes around the world. But modern lager beer is just as much a product of globalization, invented and reinvented in locations around the world. Continue reading


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Mumbai Deluge 2017: Nowadays Rain Gods Have a New Tool—Plastic Bags!

by Ayushi Dhawan

We often do not think twice before buying a plastic bag at a supermarket or a shopping mall. It’s bought because it’s needed and discarded after being used for a short while. How harmful can these everyday practices be to our environment? Mumbai’s recent floods definitely have a story to tell in this regard, where these harmless-looking plastic bags acted as a major pollutant and literally suffocated both the drains and the residents of the city.

Mumbai, the sprawling financial metropolis and capital city of Maharashtra, with a population of over 18.3 million people, came to a grinding halt on 29 August 2017 when torrential rains struck the city. Transportation systems came to a standstill as the suburban train services were temporarily suspended. Along with that, many flights were either canceled or delayed because the runway remained non-operational, marooning countless people. Subsequently, the power supply was cut off in various parts of the city to prevent electrocution. This deluge was instantly compared, by media channels and local residents, to the 2005 floods when the state of Maharashtra was struck by high tides which in turn triggered devastating storms and floods killing 1,094 people in the city of Mumbai. But these comparisons in a way were misleading, since statistically speaking the metropolis received just 12 inches of rain during the flooding this year, whereas, in the 2005 floods, 37 inches of rainfall was recorded, thus over three times more than the current scenario.

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Flooding in Mumbai, August 2017. Photo by News Measurements Network Live, via Wikimedia Commons. Available under a CCO 1.0 creative commons license.

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Making Tracks: Gregg Mitman

By Gregg Mitman

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In Sequoia National Park on a family trip. Photo courtesy of author.

My journey to the Rachel Carson Center began in 1967 in the backseat of a blue Dodge sedan, packed with my father’s engineering precision, headed west on the American interstate highway system. It was a momentous trip in the eyes of my six-year old self, who had spent the better part of his early childhood in doctors’ offices and hospital oxygen tents struggling to breathe. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in America, many an asthmatic had left the East coast and headed West in search of health. But this was not what drove our family to the painted deserts of Arizona, to the giant sequoias of Yosemite, and to the geysers of Yellowstone. We had come from Pennsylvania across the Continental Divide to see the splendor of America’s national parks. For the next six weeks, home was a car, canvas tent, Coleman cook stove, and campgrounds on and off the beaten path. I didn’t know it then, but we were living a textbook chapter in American environmental history, one focused on the history of leisure, a growing middle-class, and the consumption of nature in postwar America.  Continue reading


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Doktorandentag 2017!

Eight new members of the RCC’s doctoral program and two visiting doctoral students presented their projects at the center’s annual “Doktorandentag.” Organized and moderated by members of the program, the format allowed each student to present a *snapshot* of their research followed by a discussion with their peers, doctoral program board members, RCC fellows, and staff. Eight different nationalities, at least six different disciplines/interdisciplines, and 10 very different topics made for a fascinating and enriching day for everyone involved!