Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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The History of Munich and Its Loam

„Ohne den Lehm daat’s München net geb‘n!“

This post by Julia Schneider, a student of the RCC-LMU Environmental Studies Certificate Program, stems from her research conducted as part of the exhibition project “Ecopolis: Understanding and Imagining Munich’s Environments.”


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Figure 1. Details of clay bricks in Munich, from the Nordfriedhof (left), the Frauenkirche (center), and the Salvatorkirche (right). Photographs by author.

Thinking about houses and buildings made out of clay bricks, it is often cities like those in northern Italy that spring to mind. Bologna, Florence, or Siena; particularly those moments when the sun sets and the city glows red and ochre with all the big churches, towers, and palazzi made out of and covered with red clay bricks and tiles. Clay bricks are Italy. Thus, such an image doesn’t really fit with Munich, our Bavarian capital north of the Alps, quite far away from Bella Italia and its red sun—at least that’s what I thought before writing this article. Continue reading


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Snapshot: Where Geology Meets Early Modern History

A Millstone Quarry in Upper Bavaria

By Katrin Kleemann

 

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Photographs by Katrin Kleemann, CC BY 4.0. 

The Mühlsteinbruch Hinterhör in Altenbeuren, Upper Bavaria—this millstone quarry was the first stop on a recent LMU geology field trip to the Northern Limestone Alps. The site is an official geotope of Bavaria (geotope means “Earth place” and refers to a spot in nature where the Earth’s history becomes visible). At this unique spot you can learn about the area’s early modern history as well as its geology; this is one of very few geotopes that was formed by humans.

Between 1572 and 1860, the quarry was used to produce millstones for the surrounding mills (which were transported on the nearby river Inn), explaining the characteristic round shapes that can be seen at this outcrop. But without the perks of modern technology, how did the quarry workers extract the circular millstones? Using a chisel and hammer to create the outlines of the round shape, they would drive wooden wedges into these circular borders and water the wedges regularly causing the wood to expand and fracture the rock, freeing the millstone from the wall.

Yet it is not just these insights into the innovative techniques used by people in the past that are revealed; this spot is also particularly interesting from a geological perspective. The 28-meter-thick layer is mainly made up of sandstone and marlstone, and belongs to the Helvetic Nappes; sheet-like bodies of rock that were once located in the shallow waters of the southern margin of the European continental shelf, created before the Alps were formed. During the formation of the Alpine mountains, the Helvetic Nappes (layers) were thrust northward and upward, deformed by the continued folding during the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods, explaining why a once-seabed is now found more than 500 meters above sea level. Fossilized oysters with thick shells can be found there, indicating that this spot must have once been located either in shallow water or perhaps at a river delta. The oyster shells had to be thick survive the pressure of strong tidal currents in the coastal waters.

 


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Making Tracks: Tom Griffiths

“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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Uses of Environmental History: Don Worster

This is the fourth 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 Donald Worster

If I did not believe that environmental history is already useful and practical, more so than other fields of historical research, then I would have abandoned it long ago. Seeing nature as part of the many changes and revolutions that have occurred in human history has always seemed to me one of the most useful things in the world. How can we live wisely without understanding more fully how we got here or how the natural environment has interacted with society? When historians have explained more fully the course of history, as Charles Darwin explained the evolution of species, then we will have become the most practical people around. We are not there yet, but we are making progress.

Admittedly, there are historians who still don’t know how to be useful in that way. They assume without question that society has had no important connection with water, soil, climate, energy, or biota. The crying need of our time is to overcome that blindness and explain the global ecological crisis. Historians are most useful when their research reveals some significant truth about how that crisis developed over time, or what we can learn from earlier societies about solutions they attempted and how well they worked.

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The Lyell Glacier in Yosemite National Park, now more accurately called the Lyell Ice Patch. Along with the Earth’s natural climate fluctuations over tens of thousands of years, today’s rapid warming is taking its toll on many natural features. 1883 photo: USGS/Israel Russell; 2015 photo: NPS/Keenan Takahashicaption. Images: NPS [public domain], via Flickr.

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Uses of Environmental History: Paul Josephson

This is the third 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.


“The Need for Public Environmental History”

By Paul Josephson

It is difficult to quantify, but surely both the extent and pace of environmental change have accelerated in the last century? Historians debate the nature of change and its causes, but rarely turn to larger audiences to inform them of their findings. Among the usual explanations they offer are the rapid industrialization of all processes, including in agriculture, with significant capital inputs of chemicals and GMOs; the universality and extent of large-scale technological systems; excessive consumption, especially in North America and Europe, but also growing consumption in China, India, and elsewhere; and power generation based on nonrenewables, especially fossil fuels that contribute to greenhouse gas formation and global warming. Some individuals blame population growth as the major factor in environmental change, among them notably Garrett Hardin in his seminal, if misguided “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) that, together with his later works, revealed deep-seated racism.

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The Uses of Environmental History: John R. McNeill

This is the first 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 the Renmin University’s Center for Ecological History.


 “As Useful as We Want to Be”

By John R. McNeill

Environmental or ecological historians do not “need to become more useful and practical” in anything. They should feel free to be useless as regards global problems if they wish. If their motives for engaging in environmental history are nothing loftier than curiosity, that is no sin.  The great majority of historical work, like the great majority of work in general, makes little to no contribution to addressing global problems. Just because environmental historians work with the environment, and the environment is the locus of some global problems, does not create any special obligation for environmental historians. Historians of slavery do not need to become more useful and practical in addressing human trafficking, just as labor historians do not need to become more useful and practical in addressing mass unemployment.

Indeed, for some environmental or ecological historians, it would require considerable retooling to be able to become more useful in addressing current global problems. Those whose expertise  focuses on the depiction of nature in late medieval Spanish texts or water management in the Chola kingdom[1] probably have no better basis for addressing such global problems as climate change or biodiversity loss as the average citizen. But that should not mean that their topics are illegitimate because they are not deemed “useful.” Usefulness in the context of today’s problems should not be a requirement for historians. If it were, very little history, even environmental history, would be justifiable. Continue reading


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Snapshot: Do You Speak Envhist?

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Should professional historians maintain their independence and objectivity as researchers, or should they address the social use of their field? Are there fundamental conflicts between the two? Do environmental or ecological historians need to become more useful and practical in addressing such global problems as climate change, intensified food production, and biodiversity loss? If so, how and to what extent? What significant insights can our study of the past offer?

These questions formed the foundation of a roundtable forum published in the first issue of the new Journal for Ecological History, edited by Renmin University’s Center for Ecological History. Our new blog series on “The Uses of Environmental History,” which launches later this week, has been adapted from the pieces presented there. Together, these contributions demarcate the evolution of environmental history over the last four decades and project a broader outlook for its future.

Stay tuned!