Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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Munich’s Beautiful Botanical Garden

By Samantha Rothbart

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The Munich Botanical Garden may be a little sparse at the moment, but even without the vibrant green foliage that dominates the city in the summer, it is an impressive sight. You might expect the leafless branches to create an air of dejection. On the contrary, they serve to highlight the beautiful structure of the trees and plants—what Roy Campbell called the “clear anatomy” in his poem Autumn.

Even so, new signs of life are starting to soften the severe edges. Green shoots peek through the rich, dark soil in the ornamental garden. Soon, the tulips will begin to flower and the plants will need to be potted and then replanted, Dr. Andreas Gröger explains. He is a botanist and the scientific curator of the Botanical Garden. Though he is not overly fond of the stylized beauty of the ornamental garden—he was initially quite hesitant about having to assume responsibility for it—he acknowledges that it’s a magnet for the “normal” folk who find themselves out and about for the day. The manicured lawns and whimsical flowers are a gateway drug for first-time visitors and would-be botanists. They draw us deeper into the secretive greenhouses of the wild species that so fascinate Gröger, and expose us to what he calls “real ecology.” Continue reading


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From the Stable to the Table—What Do We Eat When We Eat Raw-Milk Cheese?

By Lena Thurn and Maria Fixemer

The question of which cheese to buy is not simply a question about what to eat for lunch—at least not for the US cultural anthropologist Heather Paxson and other so-called post-Pasteurians who set a specific value on their food. Post-Pasteurians don’t believe that pasteurization—which means to heat treat raw milk in order to kill all the microorganisms, the good and the bad, that naturally live inside milk—necessarily enhances the quality of food. For them, the Pasteurian age—and Paxson claims that US citizens in general still live in a Pasteurian world—is the industrial age of sterilizing everything in order to avoid potential “biohazards” and legal vulnerability, while accepting the loss of all the healthy, naturally occurring microbes and germs. Pasteurization is the simple option for ministries and health departments, which is why specific rules on milk products exist. In the USA, these rules are slightly stricter[1] than in the EU—which proves that raw-milk cheese plays a specific role in the cultural traditions surrounding food in countries like France, Switzerland, or Germany, where raw-milk products only have to be labeled. Still, the question of whether to buy raw-milk cheese or not also exists in Europe. It is a question that ranges between two contrasting poles: safety and freedom. And this, in turn, makes the question about the cheese a genuine political question. Drawing on Foucault’s “biopolitics”[2], Paxson refers in her articles on raw-milk cheese to “microbiopolitics.” Continue reading


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Worldview: One Piece at a Time

Guest post by Judith Selby and Richard Lang

Judith Selby and Richard Lang are artists who collaborate in an ongoing project to collect plastic along Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. They also recount their adventures in Plastic Forever, the blog they jointly manage. This is a  follow-up post to last week’s Snaphot on Seeing the Woods. All photographs are courtesy of the authors.

For related content about the journey and transformation of waste, take a look at our RCC Perspectives volumes: Out of Sight, Out of Mind and A Future without Waste?


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Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang with “Trophy Fish.”

Our story is one of human inventiveness and metamorphosis. It is about how the simple act of picking up trash landed us on national TV, with money in our pockets to continue the work we love, to begin a marriage, and to lose ourselves in a compelling vocation. All of this forged in the crucible of trying to make a visual blight into something good to look at. So, yes, it is about art making. But we wish to point out that in this era of everything standing in for everything else, a world made meaningless by the glut of meanings, something of consequence happened. Bending over, picking up, bending over, picking up one piece at a time. Several tons of plastic collected—one piece at a time.

In 1999, information about a mysterious patch of garbage in the middle of the North Pacific was just beginning to roll in. Charles Moore, a boat captain returning from the Transpacific Yacht Race, came across a befuddling density of plastic. He engaged the help of oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, and their research showed some alarming results. On the planktonic level, plastic particles numbered six-times the number of living creatures. Plastic does not “biodegrade”—as it floats in the ocean, it is simply broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, wearing down to the molecular level. Plastic enters the food chain with some ugly results. Albatross chicks have died by the thousands with their gullets filled with plastic. Chemicals leach out of debris, creating a disruption in the sensitive endocrine systems of birds, fish, and mammals. Dangerous levels of toxins are showing up in humans. Continue reading


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Nurturing My Greens with High-Tech? Reflections on Vertical Farming and the PlantCube

by Marlen Elders

When I first saw designs for the plantCube, a smart, fully automated machine for producing perfect vegetables, it seemed more like a high-fashion kitchen device than a sustainable alternative for growing vegetables. The plantCube was created by Munich-based start-up agrilution, whose cofounder, Maximilian Lössl, spoke with us at a Tuesday Discussion at the RCC last July. The company is developing and manufacturing an automated small-scale vertical farming machine meant to enable urban citizens to grow their own food at home. With the plantCube, you don’t need a balcony or garden—not even sunlight or soil. The only thing you need is a white machine that looks like a freezer, electricity, an Internet connection, and a mobile phone. Via app you can remotely control everything from ordering seed mats to the development of your plants inside the cube.

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The plantCube developed by agrilution. Used with permission.

Although it has obvious benefits—it avoids long transportation, is free of pesticides, produces little waste, and is nearly non-perishable (thanks to a “holiday mode” that allows you to put your plants to sleep for a while)—I was skeptical about this invention. I was concerned by the idea that the fresh healthy vegetables I eat would not have touched juicy chilly dark soil, nor felt fresh breezes; I was concerned that they are not even able to experience a single ray of real sunlight. Could a plant growing on a nutrition mat in a clean white cube that automatically provides it with LED light, maintains a suitable temperature, and dispenses water in precise doses really be healthy at all? Continue reading


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Paradigm Shifts in Environmental Thinking: Autonomous Nature by Carolyn Merchant

by Yan Gao

Carolyn Merchant’s book Autonomous Nature traces paradigmatic shifts in environmental thinking from a long-term perspective. Derived from her ever-enduring interest in and perpetual investigations of chaos and complexity theories, Merchant probes into the roots and evolution of the terms natura naturans (“Nature naturing,” or nature creating, evolving, and changing) and natura naturata (“Nature natured,” or nature as experienced in the everyday world) from ancient times through the Scientific Revolution. In so doing, she argues that we should re-conceptualize the human-nature relationship not as one of order and predictability but as one of unruliness and unpredictability. This beautifully written book not only offers a new way to understand the interdependencies between the human and non-human world, but also provides insights into tangible issues such as climate change and environmental justice in the twenty-first century.

The book has two parts. Part I is entitled “Autonomous Nature,” in which Merchant examines natural disasters and the roots of a dualistic Nature—Nature as an unpredictable, disorderly, ever-changing force and Nature as predictable everyday events—in Greco-Roman philosophy, medieval Christian thought, and the Renaissance. Each of the three chapters in Part I starts with a catastrophe, including the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, a major earthquake in northern Italy in 1348, and the bubonic plague outbreaks of the fourteenth century, and then she proceeds to examine how key philosophers, artists, and writers have conceptualized Nature and how the contemporaries of the catastrophes she explores understood the dialectical relationship between natura naturans and natura naturata. Merchant notes that the economic, technological, and intellectual advances in the period from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance gave rise to human confidence in controlling Nature, which sets the stage for Part II.

The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum 1822, restored 2011 by John Martin 1789-1854

John Martin; The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Photographic Rights © Tate (1822, restored 2011), available under a CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licencehttp://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/martin-the-destruction-of-pompei-and-herculaneum-n00793.

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Snapshot: Start with a Bang

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For many, a New Year celebration would not be the same without fireworks. But have you ever noticed what happens to all that leftover packaging wrapped around the rockets and bangers? It seems that an awful lot falls to the floor and gets swept up along with the broken bottles and spilt food that litter the city streets on New Year’s Day. This is just one pile yet to be collected in Munich, where this year 140 employees have already helped gather 50 tonnes of post-party rubbish, an increase from last year’s figures. That’s a lot of waste for a couple of hours of wonder and dazzling lights…


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Toward a Beautiful Rural Life

by Zhen Wang

Jenny Chio’s book A Landscape of Travel: The Work of Tourism in Rural Ethnic China attracted me because of its connection to my current research project at the Rachel Carson Center. One of the reasons for this is that we share the same research area—southwest China. My own research focuses on the changing landscape of ethnic minority villages in Sichuan Province; Chio’s book tells a story of two ethnic minority villages located in Guangxi and Guizhou provinces respectively. Together, these are three important places in southwest China. Another main reason is that we are both interested in how minority peoples’ living environments and everyday lives have changed and been shaped by the influences which have come from China’s rapid urbanization and economic development during the last nearly four decades. Continue reading