Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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Uses of Environmental History: Lise Sedrez

This is the sixth in a series of posts exploring the uses of environmental history. The series has been adapted from contributions to a roundtable forum published in the first issue of the new Journal for Ecological History, edited by Renmin University’s Center for Ecological History.


“Of Water, Narratives, and the Uses of Environmental History”

By Lise Sedrez (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro), 2015

São Paulo, the largest city in South America, is going through a historical drought. So is California, in the USA. That is how newspapers refer to these droughts: “historical,” a “once in a lifetime” drought or, even more dramatically, “an unheard of” drought. By describing droughts in these ways, journalists aim to stress the terrifying and absolute power of nature. But is this really  the case? Droughts may simply be part of the dynamics of a dry and fragile ecosystem (like California’s), or extremely rare— but not unprecedented—events in a wet region (like São Paulo). These descriptors, however— historical, once in a lifetime, unheard of—don’t refer merely to levels of rain and pluviometric records. Were these the only indicators, climate scientists could do a much better job than historians of drafting a history of droughts. But “history,” “lifetime,” and “hearing” are directly connected to social relations, to narratives and memory—and this is where we, environmental historians, have much to offer.

Superakvego_en_Rio_de_Janeiro_en_2010_liencf_Niterói_6_strato

Flooding in Rio in April 2010. Phot: Leonardo Fonseca [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Day 1. The Danube Excursion: Munich—Deggendorf

Written by David Stäblein


Munich —> Winzer —> Mühlham —> Deggendorf


The bus ride from Munich to Deggendorf along the Isar river

The landscape en route from Munich to Deggendorf is dominated by the flat valley of the river Isar. The river has carried a lot of material from the Alps to the lower part of the river near Deggendorf. This is the reason the soil here consists of an eight-meter-thick layer of river sediment. The Isar valley is surrounded by hills, in a landscape where erodible brown soil has been heavily deposited. The colluvium from this landscape, combined with the river sediments, makes the area the perfect place for agriculture (primarily sugar beet and corn). The Mühlbogental is an area near Deggendorf which has become the focus of concentrated industry; here lies a paper mill, as well as a BMW production site that was built on subsidies to discourage migration out of the region.

To the south of Deggendorf the Isar flows into the Danube (Donau in German), which was, in former days, only constrained in its meandering by the Bavarian Forest (a cool, infertile, and mountainous range dominated by gneiss) in the north east. Today, many dikes bound the naturally wandering landscape of the Danube, and the ancient current is limited by a row of hydropower plants spanning the whole of the Danube’s course through Bavaria. Together, the hydropower plants in Bavaria produce around 15 percent of Germany’s electricity supply. All the best spots for these plants have been occupied, which means that the expansion of hydropower is only possible if the plants become more efficient (to reach the goal of 17 percent). The flood defenses around Deggendorf were first installed in the 18th century and have since been expanded and modernized. Throughout the year (especially around June and August) numerous small flood events (below HQ 30) hit the area, but the dikes and polders usually prevent severe damage to surrounding communities. Continue reading


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Radical Hope: Inspiring Sustainability Transformations through Our Past

Conference Report (Rachel Carson Center, Munich, Germany, 3–4 July 2017)

By Erika Bsumek and John Barry

Hope by Vaclav Havel

Hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world
Either we have hope within us or we don’t.
Hope is not a prognostication—it’s an orientation of the spirit.
You can’t delegate that to anyone else.
Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy
when things are going well,
or the willingness to invest in enterprises
that are obviously headed for early success,
but rather an ability to work for something to succeed.
Hope is definitely NOT the same as optimism.
It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well,
but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out.
It is hope, above all, that gives us strength to live
and to continually try new things,even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.
In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing
to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily,
without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.

In early July 2017, the Rachel Carson Center, together with University of Austin, Texas hosted a two-day workshop on “Radical Hope.” It brought together 21 people from a variety of continents and disciplinary perspectives to explore and exchange ideas on that renewable and essential resource: hope. A resource that is often sadly and noticeably lacking in academic and popular conversations on the dominant framing of the Anthropocene in terms of ecological “crisis,” pragmatic pessimism, and scientific “realism.” Continue reading


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Snapshot: Katrin Kleemann Takes First Prize in Photo Competition

Katrin Kleemann has been awarded the jury’s first prize in the LMU GraduateCenter’s “Mein Forschungsgegenstand/My Research Object” photography competition for her photo of the Laki fissure in Iceland. Katrin is a doctoral candidate in the Rachel Carson Center’s Doctoral Program Environment and Society and a research associate of the Environment & Society Portal. Her research project studies the impacts of the Icelandic Laki fissure eruption of 1783 on the northern hemisphere.

The GraduateCenterLMU has been organizing this photo competition every year since 2009. The winning photographs will be displayed in the offices of the LMU Graduate Center and used by the LMU Munich to promote doctoral candidates’ diverse research. All the submissions to the competition can be viewed here.


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Danube: Environments, Histories, and Cultures

A Place-Based Workshop

4–11 June 2017

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Route along the Danube. Photo modified from David McGregor, CC BY-SA 2.0

Winding through Central and Eastern Europe, the once longstanding frontier of the Roman empire, the Danube, has carved its way into the landscapes and cultures of the countries it traverses. But the marks of humans, imprints of the Anthropocene, are also clearly visible on the river itself—and on the ecologies and landscapes surrounding it. By uncovering and reading landmarks across time and place, the interactions between societies and rivers can be recounted from different perspectives as multifaceted environmental histories. Continue reading


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ProEnviron Presents…

Workshop: Envisioning Environments—Visual Media for the Environmental Humanities

By Arun Adhikari, Maximilian Feichtner, and Fabian Zimmer

“And action!” Katie Ritson, the master of ceremonies for the evening, claps her hands. Gradually, people unglue from the buffet, where they have been busy chatting and grabbing drinks and snacks, and they move to the conference room to find a good place to sit. For some, this means the front row, as they are eager to have a clear view of what they’re about to see; others hurry to find a place somewhere in the back, out of sight. There is a lot of nervous laughter and chuckling. The reason for all the excitement is announced on the folded leaflets lying on every seat: “ProEnviron presents! Short Films from the Envisioning Environments Workshop.”

(Our Daily Oil—Texaco’s Legacy, by Maximilian Feichtner)

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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.

Winter of Songhua River Harbin part

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

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