Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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Making Tracks: Tom Griffiths

“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

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

“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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Making Tracks: Franklin Ginn

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 Franklin Ginn

Failure lies behind the trappings of academic success: words unwritten, words sunk without trace, applications rejected, snubs both subtle and large.

The tracks I have left: my biography. Like many a small child, a small boy, I killed a lot of bugs. Warm afternoons swatting flies against windows; damp afternoons hunting for slugs, snails, whatever, doused in salt or crushed with bricks. Spiders, centipedes, or— my favorite—millipedes, trapped in empty plastic containers; let’s see who outlives who? I had a graveyard where I buried these dead. Twigs or sticks as memorials. I never killed birds or mammals. But I longed to find dead birds so I could bury them and mark their graves with lollipop sticks. Continue reading


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Making Tracks: Paula Ungar

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.

“Walking the Line between Worlds”

By Paula Ungar

The first thing I wrote of which I have clear memory is a short verse from when I was nine years old. It was dedicated to a bird that got caught in my grandmother’s tenth-floor apartment in Bogotá, to which we had recently moved from the countryside. After several minutes of distressed wings flapping between armchairs and porcelain figurines, the pigeon managed to escape through a window, leaving a solitary feather behind. I stuck it next to my inspired writing—for some reason, I felt the need to attach proof to the volatile words.

We used to live in the countryside, in a small village near Bogotá. If I close my eyes I can still see the silhouette of El Majuy, the mountain that watched over us from behind our house, and the water falling in silver threads out of the watering can when I tended to the garden, changing the color of the earth around the coriander plants from dry grey to rich black. The smell of that black earth often comes back to me, along with the distant barking of the neighbors’ dogs and the awkward feeling on my hands of the legs of scarabs, which visited our porch on cold, rainy afternoons.

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Páramo de Sumapaz, Colombian Eastern Andes. Photo: Paula Ungar.

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Making Tracks: Yan Gao

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.

“Watermarks on My Path”

By Yan Gao

When I started writing this article, my home city, Wuhan—situated at the confluence of the Yangzi and Han Rivers—was undergoing one of the largest floods in the city’s modern history. According to data from the Wuhan meteorological authorities, from 1 June to 6 July, cumulative rainfall in Wuhan’s main districts totaled 1087.2 mm, and the weekly precipitation in Wuhan from 30 June to 6 July reached a record-breaking 574.1 mm. The excessive water paralyzed the entire city: subway stations were submerged, roads were flooded, communities experienced severe drainage problems, there were citywide electricity cuts, and schools and workplaces closed. I was thousands of miles away, anxiously reading news reports. Continue reading