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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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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Student Research: Why the Past (Really) Matters

By Yolanda Lopez-Maldonado

Concern has grown in recent years over how our actions have transformed the natural world. This worry has prompted a deluge of news stories about environmental crises and their impact on global societies, such as climate change, food and water security, resource degradation, loss of biodiversity, and rising costs of resource management. But what are the future challenges and risks associated with these past influences? This was one of the issues addressed at “Transformations of the Earth,” an international graduate student workshop in environmental history that took place at Renmin University of China in Beijing from 21 to 23 May this year. The event was organized by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society and Ludwig Maximilian University, and cosponsored by Renmin University of China’s Center for Ecological History.

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Photo: Yolanda Lopez-Maldonado.

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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


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Videos: Carson Fellow Interviews

Several new Carson Fellow interviews are now online! See these and more on our YouTube page.

Dr. Massimo Moraglio on “Mobility and Space” 

Dr.ir. Maurits Ertsen on “Colonialism and Irrigation: The Gezira Plain, Sudan”

Dr. John Agbonifo on “Nigeria: Green Movements and Environmental Governance”

Prof. Mei Xueqin on “Dirty Father Thames”