Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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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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Making Tracks: Lisa FitzGerald

In the “Making Tracks” series, RCC fellows and alumni present their experiences in environmental humanities, retracing the paths that led them to the Rachel Carson Center. For more information, please click here.

By Lisa FitzGerald

Environments needle their way into our minds, becoming the settings for our stories but also telling their own tales.

Landscapes push back, shaping our bodies as we move through our lives. As Seamus Heaney wrote, the landscape is “written into your senses from the minute you begin to breathe.”[1] I was raised in Kerry on the west coast of Ireland and that, no doubt, has shaped me. Land positioned on the Atlantic seaboard means a mild and moist climate, battered peninsulas, and roaring tides. It’s where red fuchsias blanket the hedgerows, where ridged and furrowed lazy beds are etched into the landscape. It, too, is etched into and on to my body. Our stories are our engagements with our natural worlds.

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My home place: Ballymacelligott, County Kerry. Photo courtesy of author.

Several years ago, as a fine art undergraduate, I tried to paint pictures that captured that interplay between the body and its subjective environmental experience. I was (in my own mind) painting that effervescent vitality that goes beyond words. For the last several years, theatre, that visceral art medium that involves the artist’s body merging with its surroundings, has been the locus for my exploration of environmental narratives—narratives that are produced as the space around us bears down on our skin, into our senses, and on to our minds. Bodies and space are constantly engaged in the production of a performance, and it is this environment that I review in my recent publication, Re-Place: Irish Theatre Environments. Continue reading


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Making Tracks: Mu Cao

In the “Making Tracks” series, RCC fellows and alumni present their experiences in environmental humanities, retracing the paths that led them to the Rachel Carson Center. For more information, please click here.

By Mu Cao.

When I was little, I spent a lot of time sitting in our small yard listening to funny local stories from my grandma. Though most people in our region consider themselves authentic northeasterners, they are actually quite new immigrants to this land. My grandma’s father carried my grandmother to Harbin (my hometown and the capital city of the northern most province of China) in one of the two baskets hanging from his shoulder pole, when she was 5 or 6 years old—like many other refugees when the war was spreading across central China. For this reason, their homeland stories tend not to be very local; they mostly reflect the folklore of Central China or are about wild nature. It makes sense then that my childhood memories of Harbin recall some of my earliest experiences with the natural environment—an area that was basically thick and boundless forest, rich black soil, and wide rivers.

One of the most common stories we heard was about the hunting life of early immigrants, and how easy it was. To say that they could “use sticks to hunt deer, use gourd ladles to take fish out of the rivers, and just open their windows to let pheasants fly into their cooking pots,” is not an exaggeration. Believe it or not, although in the Qing Dynasty, China was already under great population pressure, massive exploitation in this part of China didn’t happen until the mid-nineteenth century. The Willow Palisade built by Qing emperors, who believed Northeast China was the birthplace of the Manchu minority group—“the land of the rising dragon”—prevented the Han immigrants from exploiting the land. Han Chinese distinguished themselves from other tribes through agricultural production, whereas the Manchus practiced hunting and gathering for subsistence.

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Songhua River in winter, Harbin. Photo: Binsheng Cao.

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Making Tracks: Tom Griffiths

In the “Making Tracks” series, RCC fellows and alumni present their experiences in environmental humanities, retracing the paths that led them to the Rachel Carson Center. For more information, please click here.

“Meditations of a Sputnik”

by Tom Griffiths

I am a “Sputnik,” born in the year the Soviet satellite launched the Cold War into space. Sixty years ago, the launch by the Russians of the first artificial Earth satellite on 4 October 1957 seemed to many in the West a threatening symbol of escalating superpower rivalry. And it did unleash extreme military anxiety and triggered what became known as the Space Race. Twelve years later, in the midwinter of 1969, I remember waking up just before midnight to watch on TV a Saturn V US rocket wreathed in smoke and flame inch its way off the ground at Cape Canaveral. It powered mightily against the pull of gravity and triumphed. Apollo 11 was beginning its journey out of Earth’s atmosphere towards the moon.

I saw this spectacle from a suburban home in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. The house was built by my father on a gentle hill of vacant paddocks in the year 1950—a key turning point in the history of the world, as it turned out. My parents were among those who, after the war, built with earnest commitment the homes that signified their return to family and security. Building materials were scarce and skilled labour was in demand. At the weekend, across Melbourne’s burgeoning outer suburbs, people busied themselves around trenches, timber frames and humble small-roomed dwellings. The first photographs in our family album show the timber frame rising alone against the sky from amidst the grass on the hill, awaiting its brick veneer. Dad queued up each week at the hardware store for a pound of nails—his building ration in hard times—and sometimes enlisted workmates to collect a quota of nails on his behalf so that work on the house could proceed at the weekend.

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The house that dad built rises from the grasslands of Balwyn as the Great Acceleration also takes off. Photo courtesy of author.

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Making Tracks: Lisa Pettibone

In the “Making Tracks” series, RCC fellows and alumni present their experiences in environmental humanities, retracing the paths that led them to the Rachel Carson Center. For more information, please click here.

By Lisa Pettibone

I have had to justify my academic path to many people in numerous contexts on two continents. Moving from a BFA in film production to work in the US Senate and the German Bundestag seems to clash about as much as my MPA (like an MBA where you get paid less in the end) and year of long-distance hiking. The culmination of these experiences—a doctorate in political science—seems a fair synthesis, but just as far from environmental humanities. I’m still not sure how easily the moniker sits with me, but I’m honored to accept it from others.

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The author contemplating a “Lewis and Clark” tree—and thorny environmental questions—in Glacier Peak Wilderness during a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2009. Photo by Amanda Lee “Miss Parkay” Tumminelli.

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Making Tracks: Anitra Nelson

In the “Making Tracks” series, RCC fellows and alumni present their experiences in environmental humanities, retracing the paths that led them to the Rachel Carson Center. For more information, please click here.

“Goolengook and Guernica”

By Anitra Nelson

In the Guernica of today’s universal threat from future climate change, environmental campaigners fight for light-bulb suns, such as the ecologically precious “Goolengook.” In the southeastern state of Victoria, Goolengook was the site of the longest-running forest blockade in Australia’s history. From January 1997, activists kept vigil for more than five years until a final, successful, raid in March 2002 by the government agency responsible.

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Mural of Picasso’s “Guernica” made in tiles and full size. Photo: Papamanila (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons. {FoP-Spain}

During this period, Goolengook became an icon and battleground to protect the old-growth forests of East Gippsland, forests said to have given birth to the eucalypts of southeastern Australia. Covering more than one million hectares, the forests of East Gippsland harbor hundreds of rare and threatened species of plants and animals. Such forests are villi in the lungs of the planet, significant carbon sinks. If, and as, they are cleared—for timber, settlements, agriculture, and even monospecies plantations—the entire planet suffers. Continue reading


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Making Tracks: Paul Sutter

In the “Making Tracks” series, RCC fellows and alumni present their experiences in environmental humanities, retracing the paths that led them to the Rachel Carson Center. For more information, please click here.

By Paul Sutter

There was nothing about my childhood that inclined me towards the environmental humanities—except, perhaps, the entire context in which I grew up. As a product of the Long Island suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, I came of age in the sweet spot of an American environmentalist upswing, among people who had escaped the city for the environmental amenities of the suburbs—or at least among those whose wealth and skin color had afforded them that ability. I did not experience the violent cutting edge of suburbanization, the large-scale mass grading that erased the rural past of so much of the nation’s urban fringe. My hometown—Garden City, New York—was one of the oldest suburban developments built in the United States, the post-Civil War vision of a wealthy New York dry goods merchant named Alexander Turney Stewart, whose choice of name for his new town anticipated Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement by several decades. Levittown, a bit further out on the island and the epitome of a mass-produced postwar suburb, was the product of a later age.

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Photograph of and plans for the Country Life Press facility, which became the Doubleday Publishing Company’s home in 1910. (From The Country Life Press: Garden City, NY, 1919).

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