Cicadian Rhythms: How Suburbs Saved – and Threaten – the US’s 17-Year Cicadas

Post by Christopher Sellers

With piercing red eyes and a song like the soundtrack from a 50’s science-fiction film, the 17-year cicadas have stormed up out of the soils of the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. for their single month or so of adult life. Though their brief otherworldly chorus is, in human terms, ancient, only over the last century have Americans started to listen less with rank fear, more in annoyance or wonder.

Cicadia maniaFrom the first English settlers, startling upsurges in what were popularly known as “locusts” drew many comparisons between their visits and that biblical plague visited upon the Egyptians. Early New England colonists thought that their arrival to portend the advent of “pestilent Fever,” a belief they attributed to Native Americans. Far into the nineteenth century, as most Americans continued to farm for living, the cicada grub, sustaining itself underground for years off plant roots, was thought to be an “old enemy” of agriculture.   While some naturalists claimed the mature insects to be harmless, that did not stop New Jersey orchardists from blaming a brood which crawled up out of the ground in summer of 1860 for damaging their fruit trees. Into the early twentieth century, reporters recorded the “stories…told everywhere of broods which ate the lumber on houses and barns ‘until they looked like boards fresh from the mill,’ of crops devasted [sic] in a few hours, and of numerous children who died instantly from the poison of ‘locust stings.’” As late as 1911, the New York Times deemed “the seventeen year locust” to be “the most dreaded of our home-grown pests.”

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Job: Digital Humanities Research Specialist

The Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society seeks a part-time digital humanities research specialist to join our small team working on the Environment & Society Portal. This is a flexible, 20h/week position. Negotiable start date between November 2013 and January 2014.

• Serve as liaison between the team and the developer; track project development
• Propose future developments based on digital humanities best practices
• Assist team with the more complex features of the Drupal backend
• Contribute to digital environmental humanities scholarship and outreach
• Evaluate, edit, and publish environmental humanities content; opportunity to create content
• Support project director in research and project management activities as required Read More

Extracting Stories

Workshop: Environmental History of Latin America and the Caribbean – Saisama, Colombia, 8-10 June 2013

Post by Katie Ritson (Managing Editor, RCC)

Sasaima is in the Andean hills of the Magdalena valley, in the region of Colombia called Cundinamarca; walking through these rich, green hills is an object lesson in environmental history. You can see the remains of old plantations, and colonial roads, and fields where coffee is being tended; bananas being grown on smallholdings owned by families from Bogotá; pigs, cows and goats left free to graze at the sides of roads. And eucalyptus trees, huge areas of them, silvery-green against the sky – trees brought here from Australia by idealistic agricultural scientists with little awareness of the irreversibility and the possible consequences of their actions.

I was in Sasaima for a meeting of the authors of a forthcoming book and issue of RCC Perspectives on the environmental history of Latin America and the Caribbean. Within the first hour or two of this workshop, sitting in the book-lined meeting room in Sasaima with a view of the Andes, the term extractivism was being hotly debated. Read More

Research Roundup #2

Welcome to the second installment of the Research Roundup, Seeing the Woods’ quarterly listing of recent publications in the environmental humanities by staff and fellows at the Rachel Carson Center. (For the first installment, please click here.)

Please use the following links to jump between the five sections.

Academic Journal Articles
Edited Special Journal Issues
Popular Media Articles
Book Chapters

Without further ado, here are the fruits of another productive few months for RCC fellows and alumni…
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Five Minutes with a Fellow: Matt Kelly

Five Minutes with a Fellow offers a brief glimpse into what inspires researchers in the environmental humanities. The interviews feature current and former fellows from the Rachel Carson Center.


Matthew Kelly is a senior lecturer in the history department of the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom. A historian of Ireland by training and with considerable interest in the history of Poland, he has developed his interest in the history of landscape during the past few years. He completed his PhD at the University of Oxford, where he was also a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow.

How does your research contribute to discussions around solving environmental challenges?

By focusing on the recent history of Dartmoor National Park, my work seeks to say something about the complexity of land use politics, exposing not only the various interests that seemingly have to be accommodated in a democratic society but also the statutory limits placed on what governments can do. Campaigners enjoyed a degree of success when they understood the intricacies of the policy-making process and took seriously the influence of public opinion, particularly when the material interests of ordinary people were at stake. For instance, it was not easy to persuade a community that suffers water shortages on an annual basis that constructing a reservoir in an apparently barren upland or “waste” was a bad thing. My work suggests conservationists and preservationists rarely succeeded when they took a blasé attitude towards people’s livelihoods or failed to recognize that environmentally harmful occupations embed practices and values that shape community identity.

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Nice Weather (If You’re a Newt)

Chaos and Resilience in Human and Natural Ecosystems

Post by Kieko Matteson

Spring 2013 saw some of the worst flooding in central European history. After a relentlessly rainy May, in which nearly every day of the month was marked by unseasonably cold temperatures and steady downpours, the swollen streams and water-logged soils of Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia were subjected to one more deluge the first weekend of June. The results proved disastrous.

Meteorologists who noted in May that it was the rainiest month on record in Germany in fifty years revised their remarks, then revised them again, first comparing the floods of June to the “hundred-year flood” of 2002, then declaring that this month’s torrents had been the worst in five hundred years. Even now, as the flood waters of the Danube (which reached 8.91 meters in Budapest) have largely receded and politicians have begun to estimate the cost of the damage, the Elbe River continues to surge through northeastern Germany, and thousands of people remain evacuated from their homes.

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For me, as a Carson Fellow in Munich this spring, the experience of seeing the dramatic rise and rapid abatement of the Isar River and the equally sudden transition from dreary daily inundations to spirit-lifting sunshine in the span of a week called to mind my encounter two years ago, on August 29, 2011, with the sudden rains and massive flooding of Hurricane Irene.

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Film Review: Plastic Planet

Post by Ellen Arnold

How much plastic do you think is in your life? Probably more than you realize. Werner Boote’s documentary film Plastic Planet explores the rapid expansion of plastics production and consumption since the 1950s, bringing both a global dimension and personal, intimate perspectives into the discussion. His main goal, and one that he is successful in achieving: to throw light on both the ubiquity of plastic and the illegibility of the plastics industry.

Boote begins his story with his own family – his grandfather was an early plastics pioneer. As he stands on a polluted coastline full of plastics, Boote wonders: What would his grandfather think of the ways in which this lifesaving and revolutionary product that he was so excited about has developed?  This is a reminder of both the complexity of the plastics issue (how can plastic blood transfusion bags be an ill?) and how unbelievably recent and FAST the development and dispersal of plastics (and plastics pollution) has been. As the film develops, viewers (and Boote) are led into the plastics development process – but only so far. Industrial secrets, patented technologies, and competitive industries mean that the means and materials of plastics production are withheld from us, are metaphorically as invisible as the chemical changes that happen within our bodies and ecosystems because of the global reach of plastics pollution.

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Photos of the Week: Erka Urtnast

Only 10% of the Mongolian population are herders. However, their culture dominates perceptions of the country. In this photo series, taken 21-24 June 2008, Dr. Erdenetuya Urtnast offers a glimpse of the landscape and customs of Mongolia outside of the cities.

Gardening for Gardening’s Sake

Post by Jennifer Hamilton

(This post is the latest in a series of reflections on Jeffrey Hou’s recent talk, “Urban Gardening as Insurgent Placemaking.” For the first piece in this series, please click here.)

It “started with the park, but it has become bigger than the park” declared Turkish scholar and activist Nazan Ustundag on Democracy Now early last week. While it is clear that the demonstrations in Turkey are now about far more than the preservation of a single park in Istanbul, it is important not to forget the catalyst. Consider the fact that it is the potential loss of a park that sparked nationwide protests.

Taksim Gezi Park
Taksim Square – Gezi Park Protests, İstanbul. Source: Alan Hilditch via Flickr.

There is something exceptional about the potential loss of green space within cities. Try to turn an old industrial port contaminated with asbestos into a 65-storey casino with four sister skyscrapers, as is happening on the Australian site of Barangaroo in Syndey, and you get years of controversy, several well-written criticisms in the local papers (as in the recent piece by Elizabeth Farrelly) and reams of signed petitions. However, try to turn a small urban park into a shopping centre and you sow the seeds of revolution.

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Photo of the Week: Christof Mauch

Photo: Christof Mauch.

Wiseman, Alaska. Formerly a gold-diggers town.

Wiseman now has 13 inhabitants: eskimos, indians, and a family from Bavaria.

On the road to the graveyard of the town is this container with beer cans. Most people go to the closest city only two or three times a year (the drive takes more than a day each way).

Needless to say: there is no garbage collection.

(Please click the picture for a larger image.)