Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

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Uses of Environmental History: Lise Sedrez

This is the sixth 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.

“Of Water, Narratives, and the Uses of Environmental History”

By Lise Sedrez (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro), 2015

São Paulo, the largest city in South America, is going through a historical drought. So is California, in the USA. That is how newspapers refer to these droughts: “historical,” a “once in a lifetime” drought or, even more dramatically, “an unheard of” drought. By describing droughts in these ways, journalists aim to stress the terrifying and absolute power of nature. But is this really  the case? Droughts may simply be part of the dynamics of a dry and fragile ecosystem (like California’s), or extremely rare— but not unprecedented—events in a wet region (like São Paulo). These descriptors, however— historical, once in a lifetime, unheard of—don’t refer merely to levels of rain and pluviometric records. Were these the only indicators, climate scientists could do a much better job than historians of drafting a history of droughts. But “history,” “lifetime,” and “hearing” are directly connected to social relations, to narratives and memory—and this is where we, environmental historians, have much to offer.


Flooding in Rio in April 2010. Phot: Leonardo Fonseca [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Worldview: Doce River Disaster

“The Bitterness of the Doce River—One Year Later”

By Lise Sedrez

It was way worse than I thought.


Sludge floating on the Rio Doce. Photographs: Lise Sedrez.

Over the last three days, with a group of colleagues, I looked at the Rio Doce and asked myself how we could have done this to the river. Rio Doce has nurtured Brazilian history for hundreds of years, offering water, wealth, food, joy, and beauty. We repaid it by poisoning it with mercury in gold mining operations in the past, polluting it to critical levels with PET bottles and raw sewage, destroying its riparian vegetation and, finally, burying 600 km of it under tons of mining waste.

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Nice Weather (If You’re a Newt)

Chaos and Resilience in Human and Natural Ecosystems

Post by Kieko Matteson

Spring 2013 saw some of the worst flooding in central European history. After a relentlessly rainy May, in which nearly every day of the month was marked by unseasonably cold temperatures and steady downpours, the swollen streams and water-logged soils of Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia were subjected to one more deluge the first weekend of June. The results proved disastrous.

Meteorologists who noted in May that it was the rainiest month on record in Germany in fifty years revised their remarks, then revised them again, first comparing the floods of June to the “hundred-year flood” of 2002, then declaring that this month’s torrents had been the worst in five hundred years. Even now, as the flood waters of the Danube (which reached 8.91 meters in Budapest) have largely receded and politicians have begun to estimate the cost of the damage, the Elbe River continues to surge through northeastern Germany, and thousands of people remain evacuated from their homes.

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For me, as a Carson Fellow in Munich this spring, the experience of seeing the dramatic rise and rapid abatement of the Isar River and the equally sudden transition from dreary daily inundations to spirit-lifting sunshine in the span of a week called to mind my encounter two years ago, on August 29, 2011, with the sudden rains and massive flooding of Hurricane Irene.

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Danube Floods Present and Past: Exploring Historic Precedents Through the Arcadia project

Post by Andreas Grieger

Germany is currently experiencing record floods along some of its major rivers. Earlier this week, the Danube surpassed its historical flood mark from 1501 and reached an unprecedented height of 12.60m, flooding the entire historic district of the city of Passau. Other Central European countries are also suffering from or are preparing for one of the worst floods in European history.

With its waters rising, the Danube has emerged as a major threat for Central Europe; the flood wave is now reaching Germany’s neighboring country, Austria. As can be seen in a selection of articles from the Arcadia project – a collaboration between the Rachel Carson Center’s Environment & Society Portal and the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) – the Danube and its constant floods have shaped and changed human-nature relations for centuries.

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A Note on Recent Floods and Relocation in Australia

Post by Ina Richter

The year 2013 is still fairly young but already there have been major natural disasters. Among these are the tremendous floods in the Australian states of Queensland and New South Wales, brought on by Cyclone Oswald. The cyclone had formed in the Gulf of Carpentaria just north of Australia. It was degraded to an ex-tropical storm when making landfall on Queensland’s coast on January 22. Slowed down by a low pressure system, the storm hugged south-east Queensland for days before moving further south towards New South Wales. In the wake of Oswald, torrential rain and record breaking winds, tidal surges, and even tornados rushed over the East Coast.

Cyclone Oswald

Tropical Cyclone Oswald on 21 January 2013
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author: NASA, MODIS/LANCE

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Five Minutes with a Fellow: Andrea Kiss

Five Minutes with a Fellow offers a brief glimpse into what inspires researchers in the environmental humanities. The interviews feature current and former fellows from the Rachel Carson Center.

pic_kissAndrea Kiss holds an MSc in geography, MAs in history and Hungarian medieval studies from Szeged University, and an MA and PhD in medieval studies from Central European University. She has taught at Szeged University for 16 years, lecturing on historical geography, environmental history, and related disciplines. Since 2010 she has been a research fellow at the Habsburg Historical Institute in Budapest and Szeged University. Her research focuses mainly on long-term changes in the historical environment of Hungary and the Carpathian Basin.

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