Unsettling Landscapes and Imaginations

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 Tony Weis

*All images courtesy of the author

I come from the settler-colonial nation of Canada, in a part of southwestern Ontario that sits upon the traditional territories of the Attawandaron, Anishnaabee, Haudenosaunee, and Leni-Lunaape Peoples. Today, nine First Nations reserves together control just over one percent of all land in southwestern Ontario. The landscape must have been beautiful, and still is in small patches, especially along river valleys and lake shores.

The one hundred kilometers between where I grew up, in Waterloo, and where I now live, in London, lies mostly in the Carolinian ecozone, which is severely threatened and home to a disproportionate share of Canada’s endangered species. Most of the large animal species were extirpated long ago with European conquest and farming, and the landscape is now dominated by suburban sprawl, highways, factories, strip-malls, and, most of all, large grain and oilseed monocultures and sheds full of intensively produced pigs, chickens, turkeys, and cows, which people rarely see alive—unless its in the backs of transport trucks, when these animals are on their way to slaughter. Growing up in middle-class suburbia, I thought little of the environment that surrounded me, the history of dispossession it was built on, or the social, ecological, and interspecies relations it concealed. Suburbia is an intensely alienating place in many ways. Read More

Fixing a Nation’s Plumbing II: What We Choose to Ignore

by Vikas Lakhani

This is the second post about India’s National River Linking Project. Read the first part here.

As has been clear in the previous post, I see several fundamental objections to the NRLP. First and foremost, environmentalists have rightly raised serious concerns about the ecological consequences of this grand scheme. They argue that the water storage structures constructed under the NRLP would dramatically alter the supply of nutrients and sediments that are vital for the survival of ecosystems downstream. In addition, the rivers would lose their ability to flush out the rising salinity in the Bay of Bengal. The pilot project of linking the Ken and Betwa Rivers in central India would mean felling millions of trees in the Panna Tiger Reserve. Recently, the Supreme Court granted permission for the pilot to go ahead. With this Supreme Court mandate to carry on the project in the “national interest,” the future of the big cats and the park’s delicate ecosystem remains in peril. Read More

Fixing a Nation’s Plumbing I: India’s National River Linking Project

by Vikas Lakhani

In 1946, British colonialists launched a grand scheme to cultivate groundnuts in the uninhabitable parts of Tanganyika, a former colony that corresponds to the mainland part of today’s United Republic of Tanzania. Under the leadership of the agronomist John Wakefield, the scheme—named the “Wakefield mission”—was driven by the desperation to overcome the “oil crisis” facing Britain after the Second World War: the country was short on the supply of cooking fats. Supported by state capital, modern machinery, human willpower, and unwarranted confidence, the scheme was conceived in such haste that officials even waived the requirement to carry out a pilot project to evaluate its feasibility. The herculean task of cultivating 1.2 million hectares of land was sold to the British public with statistical promises and a rosy picture of taming nature. However, the proponents of the project soon realized that the climatic conditions of Africa were not forgiving. Acting against local wisdom and meteorological data, the scheme failed miserably within half a decade of its conception. After spending £36 million (roughly equivalent to £900 million or $1.4 billion in 2011 prices) and clearing less than 7 percent of the land envisaged for cultivation, it was concluded that nine-tenths of the land area would be unsuitable for crops. Since then, the groundnut scheme has often been used as a metaphor for the waste of public money through large and overambitious projects. This was the story that crossed my mind when I first read about India’s National River Linking Project (NRLP). Read More

The Lager Beer Revolution in the United States

The Taproom is a monthly series that explores the rich history of all things beer. It is curated by Pavla Šimková.

By Jana Weiß

In November 2015, a record that had lasted 142 years was broken: for the first time since 1873, the peak number of breweries passed 4,131. Since then, the number of US breweries has continued to reach new heights. The last time breweries multiplied at this rate was between 1850 and 1873, from 431 breweries in 1850 to over 1,200 in 1860, and 4,131 in 1873. While the number of breweries declined after 1873 until Prohibition in 1920, total beer production and per capita consumption of beer continued to increase—in fact, per capita consumption quintupled between 1860 and 1910, from four gallons to over 20 gallons (roughly 15 to 75 liters).

Today this staggering growth is due to the—historically speaking—relatively new craft beer movement; but back in the nineteenth century, German American immigrants and their lager beer were at the heart of this brewing transformation. It is not a coincidence that the time when the number of breweries in the US reached its peak in the 1870s was also a time when German American migration was steadily increasing. Read More

The Last Kindred Spirit of Moths and Butterflies

Check out the first installment of this post, Insect Profile: The Apollo.

“An interview with Andreas Segerer” 

by Susanne Schmitt and Birgit Müller

We are standing in a hallway across from a hidden treasure: the world’s largest collection of butterflies and moths, holding about 13 million specimens. Some parts of the collection date back to the 1760s; some historic sections have been carefully gathered and annotated by the likes of explorer and zoologist Princess Therese of Bavaria (1850–1925). The collection at the Zoologische Staatssammlung München is a testament to the world’s astounding diversity of butterflies and moths—and of the passion, patience, and curiosity of those who have collected and mounted them. At the office, we meet—in his own words—one of the last kindred spirits of moths and butterflies. Andreas Segerer, one of just a handful of lepidopterists in Germany, speaks to us about his personal and scientific experiences of insect loss, which are deeply entwined. He is the chief moth expert at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology. Read More

Insect Profile: The Apollo

*Featured image: Specimens of  Parnassius Apollo in a collection case at the Zoologische Staatssammlung München. Photo: Susanne Schmitt.

By Susanne Schmitt and Birgit Müller

Classified as moderately endangered, Parnassius apollo is a species of butterfly that inhabits mountain meadows and rocky alpine sites. These creatures’ large wings make them visible from afar, even for visually clumsy humans who lack a predator’s—or insect connoisseur’s—sharp and educated gaze. They are known as Apollofalter in German and Apollo (like the Greek god) in English, and in earlier literature were called the “Crimson-ringed.” It is easy to see why: the butterfly’s lower wings are adorned with startling red circles—one pair, sometimes two—sharply outlined in black on wings that oscillate between white, yellow, and grey. Read More


Oceans, tourism development, geopolitics, Anthropocene, and much more during the 2018 summer semester at the Rachel Carson Center.

Would you like to keep up to date with our latest Lunchtime Colloquia? Then follow us by subscribing to our Rachel Carson Center Youtube Channel for new (and old) discussions!

12 April 2018:

Serenella Iovino on “Reading the Anthropocene with Italo Calvino”

Read More

The Radical Hope Syllabus 2018

This post was originally published by Radical Hope: Inspiring Sustainability Transformations Through our Past | A Group-Sourced Syllabus. It is reposted here with permission.

The project is the outcome of a workshop organized by the Rachel Carson Center and the University of Texas, Austin, in 2017. Read the conference report for this event. (Featured image: Distant Hammers, by Patrick J. Reed)

By Erika Bsumek and John Barry

What is “radical hope” and how is it related to the environment, climate change, or the Anthropocene?  How is hope conceptualized, fostered, and sustained in such turbulent times as ours? In early July 2017, the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, together with the University of Texas, Austin, 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 overwhelming ecological crises, pragmatic pessimism, cognitive dissonance, climate denialism, and scientific realism on the one hand. And, on the other, soothing narratives of “techno-optimism” and an idea that a slight “greening” of “business as usual”—overseen by various experts and elites—will somehow see us through. Optimism is not the same as hope after all. Read More

Making Tracks: Jenny Carlson

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.

*(Featured image: Farmland, Blacklands © Andrew Smith, licensed for reuse (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Geograph)

By Jennifer Carlson

My journey to the Rachel Carson Center began in the 1980s on Texas’s blackland prairie, where my family spent weekends on an old farm that my father’s parents owned east of Austin. While my father, mother, and grandfather cared for our cows, fixed fences, or bought supplies in town, my grandmother swept and scrubbed the old house she and my grandfather had built before work led them elsewhere. Too small to feed cows or drive fence posts, I was her “helper,” but I lived for the moment she’d take off her apron and lead me to the tank, a large pond where the cows drank water. Clad in a blue cotton shirtdress and black leather pumps—the same shoes she wore while teaching second grade—she’d guide me on cattle-worn paths between hackberry, huisache (sweet acacia), and cottonwood trees, pointing out all the birds, bushes, and insects there were to be seen. We kept our eyes open for deadly rattlesnakes and water moccasins, but also for gentler things she could take back to her students: a fallen bird’s nest and a piece of Spanish moss made perfect additions to her classroom “nature table.” Read More

Capturing the Environment

“Visualizing the Environment: Environmental Photography Workshop”

By Sasha L. Gora

This very blog is framed around the idea of seeing the woods, but what about photographing the woods? The common expression,“Can’t see the wood (or forest) for the trees,” communicates the sense of not being able to visualize the big picture. One is simply too close, literally or figuratively, to zoom out. But when photographing environments it can be very powerful to zoom in, to focus on just one tree, or even a branch or ribbon of bark, instead of the woods as a whole.

So how does one photograph the woods and the trees?

This is exactly what members of the RCC doctoral program discussed during the second week of July. Eight photographers, two hours with our cameras, one instructor, one garden, one forest, and one ant attack. Read More

Fifty Years Ago, Cockchafers Belonged to Spring…

“The Cockchafer, Part 2”
(In case you missed it, read part 1, Insect Profile: The Cockchafer here!
*(Featured image by dbgg1979 [CC By 2.0], via Flickr)

We met Ernst-Gerhard Burmeister at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology where he has dedicated most of his professional life to the amazing collection of over 25 million zoological specimens, one of the largest natural history collections in the world. The collection owns more than 100 000 of the approximately 500 000 species of beetles (Coleoptera) in the world. He has been an active defender of the zoological collection in political committees and has advised the region of Bavaria on issues of biodiversity. He has also traveled extensively, following mayfly swarms (Palingenia longicauda) in Hungary, and exploring the fauna of the Amazon at the border between Peru and Bolivia. When he spoke to us about his experience of insect loss, however, he returned to the calm of the sunny conference room…

The first time I experienced that sudden feeling of loss was about 20 years ago when I could not find any cockchafers in my garden in May. I used to collect them every year for my daughter’s birthday until she was 30 years old. She was born in May and it became a tradition between the two of us that she loved. When she was small, it had been absolutely no problem to find cockchafers in the garden; but then we began to see fewer and fewer of them until, finally, I had to collect them from somewhere else. Fifty years ago cockchafers belonged to spring. It was the creature that reminded us that nature was awakening. But people live so differently nowadays that they don’t even realize the loss. Who still goes for a walk on a calm May night and observes the cockchafers buzzing around the streetlights? Who realizes what the type of agriculture we are practicing does to insects?

Read More

Insect Profile: The Cockchafer

“The Cockchafer, Part 1”

*(Featured image: Common Cockchafer (Maybug). Copyright Zoonar/Frank Hecker)

By Birgit Müller and Susanne Schmitt

On a warm night in May, the cockchafer crawls out of the earth for the first time to take flight into the bushes and trees. It has been living below ground for four years since it first hatched: a pale, fat, maggot-like grub that will eventually transform into a winged pupa—easy prey for the mice, moles, foxes, badgers, and hedgehogs that lurk above ground. That is why this little creature has kept such a low profile over the winter, developing its chitinous armor. Come May, it can finally make its debut as the messenger of spring. Read More