Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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Munich’s Beautiful Botanical Garden

By Samantha Rothbart

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The Munich Botanical Garden may be a little sparse at the moment, but even without the vibrant green foliage that dominates the city in the summer, it is an impressive sight. You might expect the leafless branches to create an air of dejection. On the contrary, they serve to highlight the beautiful structure of the trees and plants—what Roy Campbell called the “clear anatomy” in his poem Autumn.

Even so, new signs of life are starting to soften the severe edges. Green shoots peek through the rich, dark soil in the ornamental garden. Soon, the tulips will begin to flower and the plants will need to be potted and then replanted, Dr. Andreas Gröger explains. He is a botanist and the scientific curator of the Botanical Garden. Though he is not overly fond of the stylized beauty of the ornamental garden—he was initially quite hesitant about having to assume responsibility for it—he acknowledges that it’s a magnet for the “normal” folk who find themselves out and about for the day. The manicured lawns and whimsical flowers are a gateway drug for first-time visitors and would-be botanists. They draw us deeper into the secretive greenhouses of the wild species that so fascinate Gröger, and expose us to what he calls “real ecology.” Continue reading


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Making Tracks: Paul Sutter

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 Paul Sutter

There was nothing about my childhood that inclined me towards the environmental humanities—except, perhaps, the entire context in which I grew up. As a product of the Long Island suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, I came of age in the sweet spot of an American environmentalist upswing, among people who had escaped the city for the environmental amenities of the suburbs—or at least among those whose wealth and skin color had afforded them that ability. I did not experience the violent cutting edge of suburbanization, the large-scale mass grading that erased the rural past of so much of the nation’s urban fringe. My hometown—Garden City, New York—was one of the oldest suburban developments built in the United States, the post-Civil War vision of a wealthy New York dry goods merchant named Alexander Turney Stewart, whose choice of name for his new town anticipated Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement by several decades. Levittown, a bit further out on the island and the epitome of a mass-produced postwar suburb, was the product of a later age.

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Photograph of and plans for the Country Life Press facility, which became the Doubleday Publishing Company’s home in 1910. (From The Country Life Press: Garden City, NY, 1919).

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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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Making Tracks: Franklin Ginn

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 Franklin Ginn

Failure lies behind the trappings of academic success: words unwritten, words sunk without trace, applications rejected, snubs both subtle and large.

The tracks I have left: my biography. Like many a small child, a small boy, I killed a lot of bugs. Warm afternoons swatting flies against windows; damp afternoons hunting for slugs, snails, whatever, doused in salt or crushed with bricks. Spiders, centipedes, or— my favorite—millipedes, trapped in empty plastic containers; let’s see who outlives who? I had a graveyard where I buried these dead. Twigs or sticks as memorials. I never killed birds or mammals. But I longed to find dead birds so I could bury them and mark their graves with lollipop sticks. Continue reading


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Paradigm Shifts in Environmental Thinking: Autonomous Nature by Carolyn Merchant

by Yan Gao

Carolyn Merchant’s book Autonomous Nature traces paradigmatic shifts in environmental thinking from a long-term perspective. Derived from her ever-enduring interest in and perpetual investigations of chaos and complexity theories, Merchant probes into the roots and evolution of the terms natura naturans (“Nature naturing,” or nature creating, evolving, and changing) and natura naturata (“Nature natured,” or nature as experienced in the everyday world) from ancient times through the Scientific Revolution. In so doing, she argues that we should re-conceptualize the human-nature relationship not as one of order and predictability but as one of unruliness and unpredictability. This beautifully written book not only offers a new way to understand the interdependencies between the human and non-human world, but also provides insights into tangible issues such as climate change and environmental justice in the twenty-first century.

The book has two parts. Part I is entitled “Autonomous Nature,” in which Merchant examines natural disasters and the roots of a dualistic Nature—Nature as an unpredictable, disorderly, ever-changing force and Nature as predictable everyday events—in Greco-Roman philosophy, medieval Christian thought, and the Renaissance. Each of the three chapters in Part I starts with a catastrophe, including the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, a major earthquake in northern Italy in 1348, and the bubonic plague outbreaks of the fourteenth century, and then she proceeds to examine how key philosophers, artists, and writers have conceptualized Nature and how the contemporaries of the catastrophes she explores understood the dialectical relationship between natura naturans and natura naturata. Merchant notes that the economic, technological, and intellectual advances in the period from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance gave rise to human confidence in controlling Nature, which sets the stage for Part II.

The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum 1822, restored 2011 by John Martin 1789-1854

John Martin; The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Photographic Rights © Tate (1822, restored 2011), available under a CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licencehttp://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/martin-the-destruction-of-pompei-and-herculaneum-n00793.

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Environmental Knowledge and Environmental Politics in the “Post-Truth” Era

by Jonathan Clapperton and Liza Piper

Nearly one year has passed since we wrote the introduction to the recently released RCC Perspectives volume titled “Environmental Knowledge, Environmental Politics: Case Studies from Canada and Western Europe.” At the time, we wrote in an atmosphere of environmental and progressive social activist optimism: the Paris Agreement had just been signed, US President Barack Obama had recently put a halt to the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, and, for those of us living in Canada, newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had broken a decade of Conservative party rule, promising during the election campaign that the Liberal Party would be good environmental stewards, implement a “renewed relationship” with First Nations, and revive the value of academic research in making knowledge-based decisions. Oh, how times have changed. Continue reading


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“Key Debates in Environmental Anthropology”—A Report on the Inaugural Conference of the Environmental Anthropology Working Group

by Oliver Liebig

On 26th and 27th September 2016, the Environmental Anthropology Working Group (a subgroup of the German Anthropological Association) met at the Rachel Carson Center for their inaugural conference. The meeting was convened to discuss the key debates and standpoints in environmental anthropology, as well as its diverse engagements with current environmental problems, such as climate change, species extinction, deforestation, industrial pollution, the food crisis, industrial agriculture, and water management.

The organizers—Rebecca Hofmann (PH Freiburg), Ursula Münster (RCC), and Carsten Wergin (University of Heidelberg)—conceptualized the meeting as a space for open discussions about the field of environmental anthropology, rather than for longer presentations about participants’ research. The meeting therefore started with all participants introducing themselves and giving brief statements on their research interests and motivations.

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Brainstorming at the environmental anthropology workshop. Photo by Laura Kuen.

Tom Griffiths (Australian National University) gave the keynote talk on bushfire in Australia. He illustrated the role fire has had for Aboriginal people since precolonial times. He showed how fire was and is at the heart of Aboriginal cultivation, through the use of firesticks to strategically burn areas of land to allow particular plants and wildlife to thrive, and how they also used fire to provide space for hunting. After the 2009 tragedy of a bushfire in southeast Australia, non-Aboriginal communities who lived in the forest were seriously harmed. These communities now experience themselves as communities in crisis. Their first question was: “How did the fire know we lived here?” This question then brought up several related ones: “What happened on that day? What does it mean in the long term? How can we renew for the future? How can we better include local histories and knowledges into fire management?” The keynote thus introduced some of the core topics of environmental anthropology: how can anthropologists better understand entanglements between environmental phenomena, social and power relations, and ontologies? Continue reading