Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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Uses of Environmental History: Tom Griffiths

This is the fifth 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.


By Tom Griffiths

Photos courtesy of author

arctic

A haunting view of the Arctic.

A few years ago, when I was writing a history of Antarctica (Slicing the Silence) and researching human experience in polar stations during the long, dark winter, I turned to the medical and psychological studies of life in isolated communities and kept coming up against the limits of faceless, nameless, clinical accounts of deeply personal and cultural matters. In the name of objectivity, rationality, and generalization, scientists and social scientists gutted the real people, and the meaning ebbed away. History, by contrast, spills over with illuminating, specific, named, known, verifiable examples that you can argue with. This person did that here, then, because.  History’s commitment to contingency and particularity has often been seen to weaken its usefulness. But to understand the rigors of the long polar night—and to survive it—people need vivid tales of winters past.

Historians are often challenged about the usefulness of their discipline—and they frequently challenge themselves. The Australian historian and political scientist, Hugh Stretton, besieged by rising economic rationalism in the 1980s, treasured history as a discipline because it has “three qualities which have been scarce in modern social science”: it is “holist, uncertain and eclectic.” Continue reading

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Making Tracks: Karen Oslund

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.

Imagining the Global Arctic
By Karen Oslund

In his What W. H. Auden Can Do for You, Alexander McCall Smith calls Auden “a poet of landscape.” Many landscapes— Yorkshire, Oxford, New York, and Italy—among others, feature in Auden’s poems, but he is also a poet of the sea in his Letters from Iceland, singled out by McCall Smith as “one of Auden’s oddest books.” Letters from Iceland does, in one of its poems about the sea, contain the line which is a source of one of the classic stories about Auden’s working methods as a poet. The line which reads, “Every port has its name for the sea…and the North means to all, Reject” is the result of a printer’s error in proof. Auden wrote the line as, “each poet has a name for the sea,” but then gave into his tendency to “sacrifice meaning for sound” to the extent that he “says things which are not true just because he likes the sound of the words,” and let the error stand.

While McCall Smith might be right in general about Letters from Iceland being odd, Auden is not very remarkable in this instance for saying things which are not true about Iceland just because he liked the sound of them. This book is usually described as a “travelogue” of Auden’s journey to Iceland together with a friend, but it is actually more about his ideas about Iceland before the trip and his working out of those ideas as he traveled in the country. In this voyage, Auden was joining a tribe of European travelers to Iceland—including Joseph Banks, Richard Burton, William Morris, Konrad Maurer—and people who wrote about Iceland without ever having been there, like Jules Verne, in elevating his emotions and desires to find something in the North which he did not experience at home. For Auden, it was the idea of untouched nature and a life unspoiled by the forces of European modernity, something which surely did not exist in Iceland in 1936, if it ever truly had at all. For one group of Romantic travelers, a visit to Iceland and the North was a journey back in time, and they hoped that the landscape, nature, and language of the country would remain preserved there in an unaltered state. But for other visitors, including many members of the Danish service bureaucracy which ruled the island from the late middle ages until the end of World War II, the Iceland they imagined was malleable and transformable, a place where reindeer and musk oxen could be moved from other Arctic places and thrive in an regulated and managed landscape. Continue reading


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Arctic Dreaming? History, Resource Development, and the Future of the Arctic Meltdown

By John Sandlos

We have all heard the news stories: a warming climate is destined to melt huge sections of the multi-year polar sea ice, potentially unlocking the last great untapped reservoirs of oil and natural gas in the world. The media has been preoccupied with this prediction, in part because of the controversy surrounding the Prirazlomnaya oil platform and Russia’s subsequent arrest and imprisonment of the 30 Greenpeace “Arctic Sunrise” activists on charges of piracy (now reduced to hooliganism), some of whom attempted to scale the giant rig to protest the safety and environmental concerns surrounding Arctic drilling. Environmental risks associated with the Prirazlomnaya platform stem in part from specific worries about the safety of the rig. Any resulting oil spill has catastrophic potential as the oil becomes locked under the ice for long periods of time in a cold ocean environment where hydrocarbons will biodegrade only very slowly. The platform is also symbolically important as the first to drill in the icy waters above the Arctic Circle, the vanguard of what environmentalists and many in the media have described as the “madness” of designating the melting pack ice as an opportunity for a resource boom; one that will only further exacerbate the problem of climate change in this most delicate of regions. The Prirazlomnaya platform has, in many ways, become a global flashpoint for competing visions of the Arctic future in the face of rapid environmental change. Will the oil boom bring an Arctic utopia where the economic benefits of oil development produce spinoff industries and spread wealth through the region, or will the exploitation of the potentially vast Arctic oil and gas deposits accelerate the warming process that threatens to severely and rapidly disrupt environmental conditions in the region? Continue reading


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Making Tracks: Shane McCorristine

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.

New Places
By Shane McCorristine

On my first day in Munich I got lost looking for the Rachel Carson Center. But I was close. After wandering around what was (from what I could gather) a Catholic institute and then bothering bemused-looking staff on reception at a frightening gymnasium, I retraced my steps, confirmed I was indeed at Leopoldstraße 11 and looked out for a sign. Like a good geographer I had explored the boundaries, passed through trials of endurance, and could now make sense of this place. I entered RCC at last, dear reader, and although my period there was all-too brief, I have plenty of wonderful memories of the place as well as a formidable and cosmopolitan network of colleagues and friends.

As someone who trained as an historian, is currently based in an English studies department, teaches human geography, and will move to an archaeology department shortly, I am not a typical environmental humanist. But meeting my colleagues in the RCC taught me that there is no such thing as a typical environmental humanist. Indeed I shudder at the thought of such a thing, for the calibre of talent and expertise that I encountered in Munich showed how varied and atypical this discipline could be. Continue reading