Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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The Taproom

Everyone’s Favorite Topic: Beer and the Rest of the World”

By Pavla Šimková

beer-a-pint-cup-alcohol-65210When I started doing research in beer history, I had no idea what I was getting into.

I doubt there is a beer pun in the world I haven’t heard yet. People have wished me hoppy holidays. They can barley contain their excitement about interesting beer articles they have just read. They collapse in fits of laughter when talking about the first draft of my project.

I have gotten used to people treating my research as something of a joke, a topic growing out of a personal fondness for the malt beverage. Mostly I play along: When I go to a pub, I’m conducting empirical research. When my pint arrives, I sniff and swirl the glass as if it were Château Lafite and pontificate about strong hoppy-citrus flavors and dark malts with just a touch of smoke. (My friend Malcolm can actually do this—wait until you read his contribution to this blog!) Continue reading


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Student Research: Pollinators – The New Buzzword?

“Pollinator Declines: Impacts on Biodiversity and Agriculture”

By Stephanye Zarama-Alvarado

Think of the evolution of life. Imagine how diverse species have blossomed since Precambrian times and how they fit together to create a delicate ecological balance on our planet. Though hominids have been in the natural world for millions of years, modern humans only began to evolve around 200,000 years ago. And while we have always used and modified nature for our own benefit in order to survive, it has taken only two centuries of capitalist expansion to alter the equilibrium of the natural world, potentially causing its slow destruction with the extinction of several species. Indeed, we have become the dominant species on Earth causing ecological changes on a global scale.

As a biologist specialized in ecology, I have become increasingly concerned about the intensification of anthropogenic activities and their drastic adverse effects on biodiversity and human health over the years. I am all too aware of how many studies have shown that the majority of these consequences is irreversible; how they influence the provision of ecosystem services, resulting in serious problems in productive sectors that affect social progress and economic welfare. One of the issues that has caught my attention most, however, is the threat to pollinators. 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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Student Research: Permaculture – Alternative Agriculture, part 2

Last year, students of the RCC Environmental Studies Certificate Program had the opportunity to attend a three-day workshop with Jochen Koller, Diploma Permaculture-Designer and Director of the Forschungsinstitut für Permakultur und Transition (FIPT). Students gained an insight into the ethics and design principles of permaculture, the diverse spheres of activity, and the practical possibilities. In this short series of posts, students reflect on their experiences at the workshop and on permaculture as an interdisciplinary approach to thinking, planning, and designing.


“Permaculture and the Hummelhof— A Philosophy for Life?”

By Stefan Bitsch

We are 14 people, driving through the calm and gentle landscape of the Allgäu to the first stop of our permaculture workshop. The first thing which strikes us as we enter the 17-hectare farm is that the garden has an unfamiliar feeling to it. It seems both peaceful and, strangely enough, busy, like no other place we will visit on that trip.

In front of the farm, whose façade is paneled with insect hotels, Mr. Hummel is already waiting to give us a tour.

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Insect hotel. Photo: Lea Wiser.

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Student Research: Permaculture – Alternative Agriculture, part 1

Last year, students of the RCC Environmental Studies Certificate Program had the opportunity to attend a three-day workshop with Jochen Koller, Diploma Permaculture-Designer and Director of the Forschungsinstitut für Permakultur und Transition (FIPT). Students gained an insight into the ethics and design principles of permaculture, the diverse spheres of activity, and the practical possibilities. In this short series of posts, students reflect on their experiences at the workshop and on permaculture as an interdisciplinary approach to thinking, planning, and designing.


“Let’s Save the World by Gardening!”

By Marlen Elders

“Permaculture”—a neologism combining “permanent” and “agriculture”—is all about sustainability with the aim of creating a self-preserving world (Koller 2009, 9ff.). A permacultural gardener aims to create a symbiotic interaction between soil, plants, animals, and microorganisms, each of which profits from the other—ideally resulting in a positive outcome for the gardener too. Clearly, the concept comes with an ideology: the ethics of diversity and care that goes beyond bare agricultural methods. This idea is alive and kicking, still evolving, still improving, as the father of permaculture, Bill Mollison, hoped it would. He referred to permaculture as a tool that needs to be tested, modified, and developed further. He encouraged the creation of permaculture networks to exchange experiences and to spread knowledge amongst practitioners (Mollison and Holmgren 1985, 13).

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Jochen Koller (right) with Alexander H. at Hummelhof, Elmatried. Photo by Ursula Münster.

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Making Tracks: Ernst Langthaler

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 Ernst Langthaler

A Pile of Stones in the Midst of a Meadow”

I grew up in a remote village of about 2,000 inhabitants. It was situated at the northeastern fringe of the Austrian Limestone Alps and embedded in a mountainous landscape. Located in the main valley, the central settlement, the Markt (“market”), comprised public buildings (among them a Catholic church, a municipal office, and a primary school) and several dozen private houses belonging to nonagricultural dwellers—employees in the building and manufacturing industries and transport services, as well as small artisans and merchants. In the adjacent valleys and scattered along the mountains, medium-sized family farms dotted the landscape, vast stretches of grassland and forest between them.

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Figure 1: Central settlement and surrounding area of my home village with restored meadow (light brown area) after a landslide, ca. 2005. Photo: Ernst Langthaler.

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