Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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Making Tracks: Mu Cao

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 Mu Cao.

When I was little, I spent a lot of time sitting in our small yard listening to funny local stories from my grandma. Though most people in our region consider themselves authentic northeasterners, they are actually quite new immigrants to this land. My grandma’s father carried my grandmother to Harbin (my hometown and the capital city of the northern most province of China) in one of the two baskets hanging from his shoulder pole, when she was 5 or 6 years old—like many other refugees when the war was spreading across central China. For this reason, their homeland stories tend not to be very local; they mostly reflect the folklore of Central China or are about wild nature. It makes sense then that my childhood memories of Harbin recall some of my earliest experiences with the natural environment—an area that was basically thick and boundless forest, rich black soil, and wide rivers.

One of the most common stories we heard was about the hunting life of early immigrants, and how easy it was. To say that they could “use sticks to hunt deer, use gourd ladles to take fish out of the rivers, and just open their windows to let pheasants fly into their cooking pots,” is not an exaggeration. Believe it or not, although in the Qing Dynasty, China was already under great population pressure, massive exploitation in this part of China didn’t happen until the mid-nineteenth century. The Willow Palisade built by Qing emperors, who believed Northeast China was the birthplace of the Manchu minority group—“the land of the rising dragon”—prevented the Han immigrants from exploiting the land. Han Chinese distinguished themselves from other tribes through agricultural production, whereas the Manchus practiced hunting and gathering for subsistence.

Winter of Songhua River Harbin part

Songhua River in winter, Harbin. Photo: Binsheng Cao.

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Knowing Nature: The Changing Foundations of Environmental Knowledge

Conference Report (Beijing, China, 25–27 May 2017)

By Katrin Kleemann

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Photo: Katrin Kleemann.

Historians like traditions and they like to invent them. Helmuth Trischler, director of the Rachel Carson Center and head of research at the Deutsches Museum, made this remark as he looked back at the conference’s five-year history. In May 2017, international scholars came together in China for the fifth time since 2012 to discuss environmental history. Jointly organized by the Center for Ecological History (CEH), the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG), and the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC), the conference took place in Beijing at the Renmin University of China from 25 to 27 May. Its 24 participants came from North and South America, Africa, Europe, and of course Asia.

The opening ceremony included welcoming remarks by several prominent faculty members of Renmin University: Vice President Dayong Hong; Xingtao Huang, dean of the School of History; and Mingfang Xia, director of the CEH and a senior professor in the School of History. Shen Hou, deputy director of the CEH and associate professor of history at the university, provided translations both during the opening ceremony and throughout the conference. Continue reading


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Losing Home: The Yi People and Environment in the Liangshan Region

by Zhen Wang

Liangshan (凉山) is a mountainous region of 60,423 square km2 that occupies much of the southern part of Sichuan province, on the border with Yunnan province. It has the largest population of ethnic Yi nationally, totaling nearly 50% of the 4.5 million inhabitants in 2010. In recognition of the large percentage of ethnic minorities, Liangshan is designated as an autonomous prefecture and directly controls 1 county-level city and 16 counties.

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© Fei Tian (田飞) 2016. Anning River

My research project “The Changing Landscape of Ethnic Minority Villages in Southwest China” began in November 2014, and since July 2016 it has been sponsored by the State Ethnic Affairs Commission of the People’s Republic of China. In November 2016, our research team visited 21 families in 7 villages across 4 townships and 1 county. The area covered was from Anning River Valley (安宁河), the largest river in the Liangshan area, to the mountainous Dafengding Nature Reserve (大封顶自然保护区), an important panda habitat. The reserve can only be accessed for a few months each summer before it is once again blocked by heavy snow. Continue reading


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Toward a Beautiful Rural Life

by Zhen Wang

Jenny Chio’s book A Landscape of Travel: The Work of Tourism in Rural Ethnic China attracted me because of its connection to my current research project at the Rachel Carson Center. One of the reasons for this is that we share the same research area—southwest China. My own research focuses on the changing landscape of ethnic minority villages in Sichuan Province; Chio’s book tells a story of two ethnic minority villages located in Guangxi and Guizhou provinces respectively. Together, these are three important places in southwest China. Another main reason is that we are both interested in how minority peoples’ living environments and everyday lives have changed and been shaped by the influences which have come from China’s rapid urbanization and economic development during the last nearly four decades. Continue reading


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Making Tracks: Yan Gao

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.

“Watermarks on My Path”

By Yan Gao

When I started writing this article, my home city, Wuhan—situated at the confluence of the Yangzi and Han Rivers—was undergoing one of the largest floods in the city’s modern history. According to data from the Wuhan meteorological authorities, from 1 June to 6 July, cumulative rainfall in Wuhan’s main districts totaled 1087.2 mm, and the weekly precipitation in Wuhan from 30 June to 6 July reached a record-breaking 574.1 mm. The excessive water paralyzed the entire city: subway stations were submerged, roads were flooded, communities experienced severe drainage problems, there were citywide electricity cuts, and schools and workplaces closed. I was thousands of miles away, anxiously reading news reports. Continue reading


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CfP: “Transformations of the Earth”—International Graduate Student Workshop in Environmental History

Location: Renmin University, China

Conveners: Christof Mauch (Rachel Carson Center), Mingfang Xia (Renmin University), Donald Worster (Renmin University)

This conference is open to advanced graduate students and early postdocs, regardless of department, discipline, or country. The purpose of the conference is to provide promising, but inexperienced scholars an opportunity to present their work in progress (e.g., a chapter from a dissertation) before an international group of peers and a panel of senior mentors in the field.

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Beijing. Photograph: Flickr, Nikolaj Potanin.

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