Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

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Tales from Piplantri

“A Fable for Today…”

By Vidya Sarveswaran


Way to Piplantri: the road not taken…

We are just beginning to hear the murmurs of a nervous street. The sky above is like handmade parchment. Powder blue with swirls of crimped clouds. The air is heavy with the cloying smell of equally heavy flowers that attract snakes. But they do not worry about snakes here. This is the land of the brave desert warriors. Rajasthan, a state in the northwest of India and the only desert state in the country.


Cow lounging in the marble dust!

Our dusty SUV swerves around to avoid a cow, who looks rather annoyed that we are in her way. We wait for our escort, Champalal: he arrives on his noisy Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike wearing a blood-red turban and an obsequious smile. As we drive through several alleys of this town called Piplantri in the Rajsamand district of Rajasthan, we cannot help but notice the squeaky clean roads, the vibrant signposts and wall graffiti drawn by the children of the village. The houses that pass us are all splendidly bright and wear a medieval look. And suddenly, the motorbike is lost in the raucous voices of villagers and vendors who have all come out to meet us.

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Making Tracks: Sarah Strauss

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.

“Hither and Yon—All roads lead to Munich?”

by Sarah Strauss

It’s really all about the stories. I started my academic career thinking I would be a biomedical researcher, perhaps also a physician, and spend my life in a lab. While taking the necessary science courses, I sought distraction and pleasure (two good warning signs for a need to switch paths) through courses in literature, philosophy, and comparative religion; big ideas like truth and beauty were exciting, but to me, the most interesting parts of these courses focused on the stories people tell. How do people in different cultures make sense of the universe in meaningful ways? During the same period, I spent most of my non-academic time hiking or climbing in the mountains, or on the back of a horse.  Ultimately, I discovered the field of medical anthropology, and realized that it could allow me to focus on the stories that people tell about health, well-being, and the good life. As a medical anthropologist, I could work to understand what it means to be healthy or ill, not only in biomedical terms, but also from the perspective of the narratives that guide people toward beliefs and practices that they expect will give them a good life. Continue reading


Making Tracks: Salma Monani

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.

“70mm is Big!” Rethinking Cinema, Otherness, and Ecological Relations

by Salma Monani

Going to the movies during my childhood in the mid-1970s and early 1980s in India was a rare and occasional outing. Theaters, unlike the multiplexes of today, had one huge “Cinerama” screen, affectionately called “70mm.”  These were so deliciously huge that South Indian restaurants served up their famously enormous “70mm” dosa in honor of the big screen—so big that the crispy crepe roll overflowed into your neighbor’s space at the table.  Before I knew that 70mm referred to the special film stock used for theater projections, and not to the screen itself, I was always delighted that tiny millimeters could suggest something so large. Continue reading


Outsmarting Technology: Elephants as Non-Human-Actors in Wildlife Conflicts

By Ursula Münster

elephant herd

Elephant herd.

What differentiates humans from other animals is a question that has long occupied scholars in the life sciences and humanities alike. For the conservation biologists, farmers, and indigenous Adivasis I met during my ethnographic fieldwork at a wildlife sanctuary in South India, it is precisely the resemblance of certain animal species to humans that puzzles them in their daily lives. Wild Asian elephants in particular are renowned for their almost-human cleverness in this region of the Western Ghats of Kerala. Working and living side by side with elephants, both scientists and forest dwellers highlighted the exceptional intelligence, cognitive abilities, and social behavior of these large pachyderms. These traits make elephants unpredictable actors in wildlife conservation, and their abilities pose enormous challenges for mitigating the severe human-elephant conflicts in this densely-populated and fragmented forest landscape of South India.

“They are just like us” was the judgment frequently made regarding elephant behavior by small-scale agriculturalists, who encounter wild elephants on an almost-daily basis on their paddy fields, coconut plantations, and vegetable gardens at the border of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.

coconut trees destroyed by elephants

Coconut trees destroyed by elephants.

The elephant trenches and electric fences that the forest department built for their protection are not of much use in preventing the hungry herbivores from entering the farmer’s agricultural fields. Continue reading