Sourdough Cultures

By: Matthew Morse Booker

Introduction: An Embodied Multispecies Environmental Humanities Experience

As one of the first Alumni Fellows at the Rachel Carson Center (RCC), I wanted to return something to the remarkable community of RCC staff, students, and fellows. In North Carolina I am part of the Sourdough Project, a global public science experiment using sourdough bread culture to explore the biological diversity in our homes.[1] With some effort, sourdough allowed us to share an embodied, multispecies environmental humanities experience together.

Family Sourdough

This culture entered my family tree around 1900, the year that 22-year old Charles E. Bunnell and his wife Mary Ann Kline migrated to Kodiak, Alaska to work as teachers.[2] According to their daughter Jean, the Bunnells got the culture as a gift from a “sourdough,” a prospector in the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, who in turn made it locally or brought it from unknown origins outside Alaska.[3] Read More


The Uses of Environmental Humanities series explores diverse and creative ways of thinking with the Environmental Humanities in responding to socio-environmental challenges. Contributors address the influence of the Environmental Humanities and ways in which we might use this field of study, offering insights into the interactions between societies, science, politics, and culture. The series is curated by Samantha Rothbart.

“Environmental Inhumanities”

By Bethany Wiggin

A Freudian slip opens this essay on the uses of the environmental humanities, and it also introduces the EH program that I direct at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH). Inspired by many others, EH at Penn  fosters research collaborations with scientists as well as with collaborators whose environmental expertise may not be readily translated into academic norms of either the humanities or sciences. A good definition of EH foregrounds its intent to “inhabit a difficult space of simultaneous critique and action.”[1] This space lies beyond the research university’s existing disciplinary and other corporate structures: more welcoming, more fluid–better attuned to the people it systemically excludes with knowledge structures predicated on centuries of black and brown oppression. This essay highlights the Philadelphia place-based projects I know best. They’re often on water; they try to imagine and invite other relations to land. What we make together in these liquid spaces often does not look like conventional “research.” That’s precisely the point.

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Stimmenspur: Sound Trails in the English Garden

The album-cover of the audio experiment, which you can download or stream to your phone. We are currently working on a shorter lunchtime version as well as a guided tour that features parts of the experiment. (Photo by Vera Kovács, 2017)

By Vera Kovacs

Have you ever burst into tears when a song came on the radio that reminded you of a loved one lost? Have you ever avoided going a certain route or into a room in your house where you once had a bad experience? Have you ever mimicked the hand gestures of a loved one you missed because it comforts you in a familiar and yet very powerful way? The human brain is one of the biggest mysteries in the world, so it comes as no surprise that certain sounds, places or movements will activate emotions, memories, and instinctive reactions in us. The knowledge that resides within us is not just a cognitive function, but also an embodied experience that we, as humans, project into everything that surrounds us. Moreover, things that we hear, see, touch, smell, or do, inadvertently change the way we experience the world; they change us. How can we enrich the field of the Environmental Humanities by taking seriously the way in which sensory experiences affect our lives? Katharina Müller, friend and co-dreamer, and I, believe the project we have created, Stimmenspur – Sound Trails in the English Garden, can help to answer the question of sensory enrichment. Read More

Environmental Histories—Environmental Futures: Perspectives from Germany and Italy

Workshop Report (17-21 June 2019, Villa Vigoni, Italy)

By Claudio de Majo

June 2019 saw a group of German and Italian scholars come  together in the German-Italian Cultural Center of Excellence Villa Vigoni to discuss national perspectives on environmental history. The event was convened by Roberta Biasillo (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm), Serenella Iovino (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), Christof Mauch and Claudio de Majo (both from the Rachel Carson Center, Munich).

From the first session on Monday afternoon, it was clear that the participants came from an array of diverse backgrounds. While environmental history was a trait-de-union for several German and Italian participants, with senior scholars such as Christof Mauch and Gabriella Corona representing environmental history in Germany and Italy respectively, the group also included participants with backgrounds in literary studies and the fine arts, such as leading environmental humanities scholar, Serenella Iovino.

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2020 Visions for Environmental History: Magical Infrastructures

This is the third post in a series on “2020 Visions for Environmental History” being published jointly by NiCHE’s blog The Otter ~ La loutre and Rachel Carson Center’s blog Seeing the Woods, with posts by Lisa MighettoAlan MacEachernArielle Helmick, and Claudia Leal. The series is intended to promote discussion at a session of the same name at the World Congress for Environmental History in late July.

Magical Infrastructures 

By: Arielle Helmick

Lisa Mighetto and Alan McEachern both talked about the sustainability of conferences and conference travel in the previous posts in this series: I’d like to open this discussion up to talk about sustainability in academia more generally. At the Rachel Carson Center—which our fellows have sometimes nicknamed Nirvana, or referred to as a magical place for academics—where I work as managing director, we have had many opportunities to both refine and redefine our vision for the future, and sustainability has been at the heart of this. We have always called ourselves a center, though this is a bit of sleight of hand, at least from an infrastructural perspective. In the terms of the university landscape (and according to our funders, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research), we are a large research project. And it is this word ″project″ that has become more and more a source of worry as we’ve moved through our 12-year tenure (we turn 10 on 1 August 2019, if anyone is counting). Research projects in Germany, and probably in many other countries, have clear start dates, and clear end dates. They are not built to be sustainable. Read More

The Anthropocene: Challenging the Disciplines

eugenio photo 1
Workshop Report (8 April 2019, Vienna, Austria)
Vienna Anthropocene Network, University of Vienna

By Eugenio Luciano

On 8 April 2019, the University of Vienna hosted the workshop “The Anthropocene: Challenging the Disciplines” organized by the recently established Vienna Anthropocene Network. The 12th floor Sky Lounge of the university building at Oskar-Morgenstern-Platz 1 granted the participants a breath-taking rooftop view over the city of Vienna. The surrounding mixture of medieval churches and cathedrals, mountains, and modern architecture constituted the perfect setting to discuss history, nature, and science at the intersection of perhaps the most debated concept of the last decade: the Anthropocene.

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In Conservative Bavaria, Citizens Force Bold Action on Protecting Nature

*This post was originally published on the Yale Environment 360 site in April 2019 and has been reproduced here with permission. The featured image shows activists gathering in Munich to show support for Bavaria’s biodiversity referendum in January 2019. Photo: Georg Kurz

By Christian Schwägerl

Christian Schwägerl is a science journalist and author. In the past, he has collaborated with members of the RCC on several publications and events, including the exhibition: Welcome to the Anthropocene: The Earth in Our Hands (see here and here for print and digital companions to the exhibition).

Alarmed at steep declines in insects and wildlife, Bavarian voters backed a referendum aimed at changing destructive farming practices and repairing damaged ecosystems. Now, Bavaria’s initiatives are inspiring other German states to move to stem the loss of biodiversity.

Bavaria is known around the world for its Munich Octoberfest, beautiful alpine panoramas, old castles, and cars from the Bavarian Motor Works (BMW). But within Germany, Bavaria is known for something else: it is by far the most conservative of the country’s 16 federal states. Bavaria’s staunchly traditionalist governing party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), has been in power continuously since 1946, pursuing a conservative agenda relating to family, bioethics, immigration—and the environment. Over the years, it has restricted the construction of wind farms, thwarted new environmental regulations for farmers, and blocked imposing a speed limit for cars on autobahns.

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2020 Visions for Environmental History: Well-Grounded

This is the second post in a series on “2020 Visions for Environmental History” being published jointly by NiCHE’s blog The Otter ~ La loutre and Rachel Carson Center’s blog Seeing the Woods, with posts by Lisa MighettoAlan MacEachernArielle Helmick, and Claudia Leal. The series is intended to promote discussion at a session of the same name at the World Congress for Environmental History in late July.


By Alan MacEachern

In late July, I’m off to the 3rd World Congress of Environmental History in Florianopolis, Brazil. Perhaps because of the effort and expense of getting there, it is a relatively modest global conference, with the program listing 385 presenters, including 86 from Brazil. Of the 299 international presenters, a full 88 are from the United States, another 19 from China, 19 from the UK, 6 from Canada, 1 from Lesotho, and so on. I have calculated that the 299 of us will fly approximately 3,027,300 kilometers to reach Florianopolis, and 3,027,300 kilometers to return home. The fuel burned for our air travel—that is, from just our 598 seats, not the 598 flights in which we fly—will release approximately 1,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Put another way, international travel for the WCEH will reduce the Arctic summer sea ice cover by approximately 4500 square meters, the size of 3 hockey rinks.[1] Read More

Changing Landscapes of Indigeneity: CHE Place-Based Workshop

Workshop Report (13–16 May 2019, Madison–Wisconsin, USA)
Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Center for Culture, History, and Environment

By Daniel Dumas 

In May 2019, a group of staff, doctoral candidates, and Environmental Studies Certificate Program students from the Rachel Carson Center traveled to Wisconsin in order to take part in a place-based workshop organized by the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The RCC’s participation in CHE’s place-based workshop has become an annual tradition, strengthening ties between the two environmental humanities centers. This year, Professor of Anthropology and American Indian Studies, Larry Nesper, organized the workshop, which sought to explore the changing landscapes of Indigeneity within present-day Wisconsin. Over the course of four days, the workshop’s 40 participants learned from and met with three Indigenous Nations: the Ho-Chunk, Menominee, and Oneida Nations.

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2020 Visions for Environmental History: The Trouble with Conferences (Part 1)

This is the first post in a series on “2020 Visions for Environmental History” being published jointly by NiCHE’s blog The Otter ~ La loutre and Rachel Carson Center’s blog Seeing the Woods, with posts by Lisa MighettoAlan MacEachernArielle Helmick, and Claudia Leal. The series is intended to promote discussion at a session of the same name at the World Congress for Environmental History in late July.

The Trouble with Conferences: Part 1

By Lisa Mighetto, Rachel Carson Fellow 2019

If you are an environmental history scholar, chances are you have attended academic conferences to advance your career. If you are a student or new professional it is likely that you have been strongly encouraged to participate. At some point, you may be asked to organize a scholarly meeting. So important are conferences in the United States that the American Council of Learned Societies requires its member organizations to hold these events annually. Conferences foster the networks and intellectual cross-pollination that result in publications, projects, workshops, and other scholarly activities. A conference that occurs annually demonstrates a field’s credibility (critical mass), continuity (the idea that it will build on previous work and gain momentum for the future), and maturity (it will stand the test of time). The conference is a manifestation of the scholarly community—an indication that there is a cohesive group that goes beyond individual institutions and, in many cases, national borders. Read More