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: Tom Griffiths

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.

“Meditations of a Sputnik”

by Tom Griffiths

I am a “Sputnik,” born in the year the Soviet satellite launched the Cold War into space. Sixty years ago, the launch by the Russians of the first artificial Earth satellite on 4 October 1957 seemed to many in the West a threatening symbol of escalating superpower rivalry. And it did unleash extreme military anxiety and triggered what became known as the Space Race. Twelve years later, in the midwinter of 1969, I remember waking up just before midnight to watch on TV a Saturn V US rocket wreathed in smoke and flame inch its way off the ground at Cape Canaveral. It powered mightily against the pull of gravity and triumphed. Apollo 11 was beginning its journey out of Earth’s atmosphere towards the moon.

I saw this spectacle from a suburban home in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. The house was built by my father on a gentle hill of vacant paddocks in the year 1950—a key turning point in the history of the world, as it turned out. My parents were among those who, after the war, built with earnest commitment the homes that signified their return to family and security. Building materials were scarce and skilled labour was in demand. At the weekend, across Melbourne’s burgeoning outer suburbs, people busied themselves around trenches, timber frames and humble small-roomed dwellings. The first photographs in our family album show the timber frame rising alone against the sky from amidst the grass on the hill, awaiting its brick veneer. Dad queued up each week at the hardware store for a pound of nails—his building ration in hard times—and sometimes enlisted workmates to collect a quota of nails on his behalf so that work on the house could proceed at the weekend.

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The house that dad built rises from the grasslands of Balwyn as the Great Acceleration also takes off. Photo courtesy of author.

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Making Tracks: Anitra Nelson

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.

“Goolengook and Guernica”

By Anitra Nelson

In the Guernica of today’s universal threat from future climate change, environmental campaigners fight for light-bulb suns, such as the ecologically precious “Goolengook.” In the southeastern state of Victoria, Goolengook was the site of the longest-running forest blockade in Australia’s history. From January 1997, activists kept vigil for more than five years until a final, successful, raid in March 2002 by the government agency responsible.

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Mural of Picasso’s “Guernica” made in tiles and full size. Photo: Papamanila (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons. {FoP-Spain}

During this period, Goolengook became an icon and battleground to protect the old-growth forests of East Gippsland, forests said to have given birth to the eucalypts of southeastern Australia. Covering more than one million hectares, the forests of East Gippsland harbor hundreds of rare and threatened species of plants and animals. Such forests are villi in the lungs of the planet, significant carbon sinks. If, and as, they are cleared—for timber, settlements, agriculture, and even monospecies plantations—the entire planet suffers. Continue reading


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Making Tracks: Andrea Gaynor

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.

“The Long Path to the Ever-present”

by Andrea Gaynor

In a more romantic life, my love of nature would have begun in early childhood, fostered by hours spent in bushland on the family farm finding delicate flowers, collecting outlandish seed pods, and watching the intricate manoeuvrings of drab caterpillars seeking places to pupate. In fact I grew up in a middle-ring suburb, in a modest, modern house near the edge of a swamp—not so close that we ever saw a tiger snake on the back lawn, but near enough that an old paperbark tree flourished down the bottom of the yard. I would peel its bark into delicate sheets and write secret messages on them. We had ducks with names derived from suburban industrial food culture (Coco and Kellog), and a vegetable patch where I attempted to grow oddities like loofah gourds and okra. Some of my earliest memories of the bush are from a summer walk in the hills east of Perth. It was hot, and it seemed as if everything was trying to prickle or bite me—spiny wattles and hakeas, ants, sticks. I much preferred the familiar and comfortable domestic nature of my back yard.

Later, we moved to a new house built on recently-cleared bushland. Remnants of the previous ecosystem were all around us, from the scorpions in the basement and frogs in the swimming pool, to the bobtail lizards that turned up on our front lawn and the big old jarrah tree framed by my bedroom window. We fed the bobtails snails with strawberry jam, and made cubby houses with grasstree leaf flooring in the bush on the vacant block next door. Here was the bush as domestic nature and I was captivated, even as I was implicated in its suburban destruction.

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As a child, holding a bobtail. Photograph: Andrea Gaynor.

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Making Tracks: Ruth Morgan

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.

“Undertaking Doctoral Studies in Environmental History Led Me to People, Places, and Subjects That I Had Never Imagined”

by Ruth Morgan

I’m probably the person least likely to have ended up in the environmental humanities. I grew up in the suburbs of perhaps the world’s most isolated city—Perth, Western Australia—seemingly far from the great outdoors and environmental concerns. Or so I thought. It has only been in retrospect that I have been able to piece together the fragments that led me into environmental history, and so to the Rachel Carson Center.

It had taken me some time to even recognize that I had long been fascinated with the past, and that this interest in different places and cultures had influenced my eclectic choice of undergraduate studies at the University of Western Australia. Following a combined Bachelor of Arts & Bachelor of Economics and a brief foray into the world of journalism, I returned to the university to undertake doctoral research under the supervision of RCC alumna Andrea Gaynor. I shared with Andrea a desire to explore something “relevant,” something that was of interest to the wider community, something that would allow me to unravel the present. She introduced me to environmental history, and the rest, they say, really is history. Continue reading


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Making Tracks: Cameron Muir

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.

“A Place Where All But Man Is Vile, and Every Prospect Displeases”

by Cameron Muir

Reading the other Making Tracks posts I am struck by how often an author’s childhood experiences shapes the subject of his or her environmental research decades later. Now I understand I am destined (doomed, perhaps?) to carry Dubbo with me forever.

Playing in the erosion gully on our farm

This is a town where people would string a Confederate flag across the rear window of their ute, where the bumper stickers declared “No ute, no root,” and where recreation included shooting at road signs. Continue reading


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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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