Laurent Litzenburger. “Une Ville face au climat: Metz à la fin du Moyen Age (1400-1530)”.

Laurent Litzenburger, chercheur associé au CRULH (Université de Lorraine), est l’auteur d’une thèse consacrée aux enjeux du changement climatique, centré sur Metz et le pays messin à la fin du Moyen Age (1400-1530). L’ouvrage qui en est issu doit être publié aux Presses Universitaires de Nancy.

A cette occasion, un financement participatif est organisé pour contribuer à la publication de l’ouvrage.

Il est possible d’en savoir plus sur l’ouvrage et le projet de financement en cliquant ici 


1897 flood on North Saskatchewan River

From the Prince Albert Advocate:

June 29th, 1897 Town and Country

Early last week a dispatch was received in town to prepare for a flood which is stated was surely coming down upon us, saying the water had risen twenty-seven feet at Edmonton in a few hours, and was carrying everything before it. The news did not create much alarm here, however, as the citizens felt it was next to impossible for the Saskatchewan to overflow its banks to the extent of doing any considerable damage. A few days later the water commenced to rise, and was soon a turbulent stream, some nine or ten feet above the usual level, flowing at the rate of seven or eight miles an hour, and carrying enormous quantities of mud and sand in solution, and bearing along on its bosom numbers of logs, besides driftwood and debris. After about three days, however, the water began to subside, and is now about stationary, although quite high yet, and the water is quite thick and milky looking. The water was not within twelve to fifteen feet from the level of the banks, and no other inconvenience was occasioned that the temporary suspension of traffic on the ferry, which was tied up to the shore for a couple of days as a matter of precaution.

— Merle Massie

The visible environment

Yesterday was Earth Day 2014, but to be honest I hardly noticed. There was very little Earth Day talk on my twitter feed nor the blogs I regularly read. I tweeted one link to some historical pictures from the 1970 Earth Day, but even that was in a National Geographic article from 2009. So I started wondering why it hadn’t been a bigger deal to me, especially as someone who works on environmental issues.

I think that the relatively invisibility of Earth Day to me this year is because the environment has become so visible. We no longer need a special day to bring environmental issues to the fore. Environmental problems are being talked about on news channels constantly. Information on dying species, climate change, and pollution is everywhere. We see the Visible Earth in the Anthropocene in ever-more detailed images. But do we really see? What do we see and what do we miss in the information overload?

Next Monday I am going to be in Tallinn, Estonia, participating in a roundtable on the environmental humanities hosted by the Estonian Centre for Environmental History (KAJAK). In preparation for the event, the organisers have asked the participants to prepare a five minute opening statement about our experiences in cross-disciplinary environmental humanities. I haven’t decided everything I want to say, but I am going to include this: Environmental humanities are about making humans visible in environmental issues.

While other environmental disciplines are good at focusing on changes to physical, chemical, and biological make-up of the Earth, environmental humanities are the experts at understanding how humans fit into those changes. Humanities is about seeing human motivations, desires, ideas, and values put into action by humans. The actions may be in many realms–political, social, religious, economic, etc.–but the thing that ties them together is people. These people need to become visible. Their histories and cultures need to be explored and exposed. That is the only way forward for addressing environmental issues. It is simply not enough to describe what the environmental concern is–we have to understand the relationship of humans to the Earth. This is what environmental humanities can and should do.

That is precisely what I’ve been trying to do with this project about animal reintroduction in Norway and Sweden. I’m not all that interested in the biological success or failure of the animals per se. I’m interested in how and why humans decided to bring those animals to the places where they reintroduced them, and how humans have responded since then. I’m interested in how people react when they realise that animals “are people too”, i.e. that animals act in their own best interests and don’t always do what others want or expect. I’m interested in how people tell stories about these species, stories which explain how people understand their relationship with non-human nature.

In formulating these reflections about Earth Day, it struck me how we adults have to work so hard at seeing those relationships yet children don’t seem to have a problem seeing it all around them. A couple weeks ago my 7-year-old daughter made a little book. She wrote all the text herself (she didn’t even ask for help with spelling) and made the illustrations. I didn’t know she was working on it until showed it to me finished. Here is her little book:

Click to view slideshow.

I think she has made the environment and people visible in her book. She sees the things in the forest and she sees that we have a relationship with it. That relationship is not just about ‘not doing’ things but also about ‘doing’ things. The third page with the little pictures is a checklist. When she made the book, all the boxes were empty. Then she went outside to the little forest next to our house to find and check off all the things. She was very disappointed that she couldn’t find a squirrel that day (but we did see several on Easter, so she can check it off now!). Her little book is about the experienced, fully human and yet fully nature environment.

Environmental relationships are what we need to make visible, on Earth Day and every other day.

— Dolly Jørgensen, The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

Jan-Henrik Meyer Announces Series of Talks

Berlin Brandenburg Colloquim for Environmental History

— Rachel Carson Centre LMU - News and Events

Environmental history and knowledge at the Yale conference

Last weekend we took the train up to New Haven, for Yale University’s Northeast Environmental History Conference, organized by Paul Sabin.  It was my first visit to Yale (which was a bit overdue, since the Yale press was kind enough to publish my first book, 17 years ago).  Lovely campus.
Students presented a terrific array of papers — a good sample of current work in American environmental history.  The papers were diverse in place and time – ranging from America’s War of Independence, to the Ottoman Empire, to India, the Brazilian Amazon, and the world’s oceans.  But one aspect I found especially interesting was the attention devoted to knowledge as a category of historical analysis.
I’ve always seen environmental history and the history of science as (potential) allies.  Their relation sort of defines my own career path, which started with history of science and gradually shifted towards environmental history (see here, here, hereand here as examples of blog posts on science and environmental history).
But it seems only quite recently that environmental historians have really taken on board the notion that knowledge requires focused historical analysis, alongside power, politics, economics, and the movements and transformations of matter.  So it was great to see this happening at this conference.
Here is some of what we heard.  Steven Elliott (Temple) discussed the environmental history of America’s War of Independence, noting the role of environmental knowledge in the Continental Army’s selection of encampment sites.  Faisal Husain (Georgetown) used the flood pulse concept (which describes the relation between a river and its flood plain) to explain some aspects of the history of the Euphrates River during the Ottoman Empire.  Matthew Shutzer (New York University) examined the role of geological knowledge (especially about coal) in India’s political evolution.  Adrián Lerner Patrón (Yale) showed how rivers in Brazil’s Amazonia have been understood and depicted, and how this related to ambitions to impose rational management on them.
After lunch, Peter Oviatt (MIT) discussed the science of mushroom farming (who knew?) and the formation of a new paradigm of industrial mushroom production.  Laura Martin (Cornell) explained the relation between the science of ecological restoration and radiocarbon dating.  And Leah Aronosky (Harvard) discussed illustrations of fish specimens produced by the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842, and their role in enabling comparisons with specimens from elsewhere.
These papers considered several key themes relating to science and environmental history: the influence of knowledge on practical human choices, the political roles of knowledge, the relation between knowledge and technocratic expertise, the distinction between context-independent and situated knowledge (especially in industrial contexts), and scientific practices in the field.
It was all very interesting.  If the papers in this conference are any indication, environmental history is gaining a new analytical sophistication regarding the formation, manipulation and application of knowledge.

— Stephen Bocking - Environment, History, Science

Cross-border activism against renewable energy

There’s an interesting piece in Mother Jones today about how and why conservative interests really, really, hate renewable energy – solar and wind – and are campaigning to close it down.  It’s partly a matter of self-interest (the Koch brothers and other oil interests, as well as utility companies, are among those most fiercely opposed).
It’s also about partisan politics: the Obama administration supports renewable energy, therefore conservatives must be against it.  And of course the fact that solar and wind energy are part of an effective response to climate change (that well-known liberal plot) only makes it more urgent they be resisted.
But it’s also interesting to see how readily conservatives in Canada have jumped on the anti-renewable wagon.  Ontario conservative leader Tim Hudak has committed himself to opposing solar and wind energy.  He argues that renewable energy is too expensive (even though nuclear power, which he supports, has much more to do with Ontario’s rising electricity prices), and that it kills jobs (although quite a few thousand people in Ontario are now busy building solar panels and wind turbines).
I suppose anti-renewable activism, like climate change itself, has no problem crossing borders.

— Stephen Bocking - Environment, History, Science

Giant Mine and the underground parliament

Hi readers: As the final reflection post for the MOOC on Scientific Humanities convened by Bruno Latour, I composed this short report on a scientific or technical controversy/debate. It’s a bit late, so I don’t think BL himself will comment, but I hope some readers enjoy it…

At the abandoned Giant Mine in Yellowknife, a controversy I’ve been tracing for parts of this course, a kind of toxic parliament has convened below the surface of the earth. The participants are metaphorically but also sometimes literally drawn underground by arsenic: specifically, [the 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide][1] buried in subterranean chambers there, the byproduct of over half a century of gold mining and smelting. This massive toxic presence has sparked controversy over who is responsible for it and how to ensure it does not escape its interment and contaminate the environment. As a historical geographer, I have been [working with a historian and local community members][2] to both document and intervene in this controversy—in effect, attempting to both shape and join the underground parliament gathering to govern this site. The stakes for this institution are high: arsenic trioxide does not degrade and will remain toxic to life forever, so creating durable yet flexible technological and governance interventions is critical.

The origins of this parliament are, of course, both political and socio-technical. Arsenic came to be stored underground after [attempts to engineer a solution to air pollution problems from gold processing at Giant Mine][3] led to the problem of the persistent materiality of arsenic, now in deadly trioxide dust form. These decisions were made (and contested) by experts such as mining engineers; the public and its representatives had little direct say in the matter of underground storage. The issue entered the public realm, however, when the federal government inherited the mine site and its toxic basement from the bankrupt mining company in 1999. Again, [plans for the containment or disposal of the arsenic][4] were mooted by scientific experts, with the public largely contained to the sidelines (although, somewhat confusingly, the experts and the regulators were employees of a government agency). The engineering solution was to freeze the arsenic underground, to be maintained in its frozen (therefore inert and immobile), through the use of thermosyphon technology (discussed in Module 3).

As so often in politics, the first bricks of this new parliament were the ones hurled by protestors. In this case, in 2008 the city government (in response to public concerns) and the local aboriginal First Nation triggered a public review of the project by the territorial government (recall that the agency proposing the solution is a federal one). The resulting [environmental review process][5] lasted several years, between scoping, reporting, and public hearings. Particularly during the 2012 public hearings, intense debates occurred surrounding the technical feasibility of the freezing plan, the feasibility and cost of alternatives (such as exhuming and reprocessing the arsenic), and the regulatory oversight of the project. At public meetings, [citizens expressed their anxiety and concern][6] about the proposed freezing and water treatment processes—as well as their doubt and suspicion of the expert reports prepared to justify them. As one noted, “I ain’t a scientist and I ain’t an engineer, I’m just a common citizen that lives in the community and is faced with the worry of what might happen.” He also lacked faith in public authorities to oversee the work properly: “It’s a constant reminder to me of the government’s lax attitudes toward industrial development in the North. So, when they say they’re going to clean something up, I want to believe them. But I have difficultly believing them.”

So here we have all the elements of a scientific humanities controversy: expert-driven technical processes, questions of public (and civic) authority, uncertainty about the outcomes of socio-technical interventions, and an overriding, if troubling, reminder of the deep entanglement of nature and society in the Anthropocene (as well as an example of the uncanny ability of waste, in its persistent materiality, to trace such associations). Yet, through the interventions of concerned citizens, activists, and local residents, we can see halting efforts towards disrupting the exclusive, anti-politics of technical decision-making and opening opportunities for ‘non-experts’ to intervene in (potentially) meaningful ways in the Giant controversy. For instance, one of the key recommendations advanced by citizen-activists during the public hearings was for the establishment of an empowered [independent oversight body][7] to provide ongoing feedback and governance of parts of the project (especially given the situation where the project proponent, the federal government, is also the regulator). Although the environmental assessment agency endorsed this recommendation in its [decision][8] last year, not surprisingly the project proponent has resisted establishing such a body with anything more than a consultative role.

Secondly, and here’s where our latest work on this issue comes in, local activists and First Nations have raised [critical questions around the (very) long-term governance][9] of this project, which proposes a solution “in perpetuity” to the question of arsenic management. Such questions were poorly addressed, indeed virtually ignored, in the technical planning process. Working with these citizen groups, we are exploring the issue of [how to communicate toxic hazards (and their containment) to future generations][10]—not unlike the problem created by nuclear waste storage, for instance. We believe that any solution to this problem is unlikely to be found simply in the domain of experts, but rather in a literal *parlement* where people, things and ideas (like “toxicity”) can be represented and given voice. The goal, then, is to convene a discussion where the actors include not only those ‘present’ (literally, being there now), but also those in the future whose presence we may struggle to conceive, but whose interests are no less at stake than our own.



— Abandoned Mines

John Sandlos Receives Research Award

— Rachel Carson Centre LMU - News and Events

Environmental history in NZ: seven reasons why it’s important

Why should we study New Zealand’s environmental history? and how is it different from “conventional” history? These are the questions that Paul Star asks in his essay entitled Environmental history and New Zealand history, first written in 2008, but recently republished on Environment and Nature in New Zealand. Star offers seven compelling reasons why it […]

— envirohistory NZ

Beaver for Lent

Today’s the last day of Lent, which got me thinking about beaver. That might not sound like an obvious connection but they are in fact related. During the Middle Ages, fasting throughout Lent was common, which meant that meat from hoofed animals (cows, sheep, etc) and birds was forbidden. So fish stepped up as the standard Lenten fare. For the most part, this fish probably came in salted or pickled forms and was not particularly tasty. Even though most people these days think the restriction is about eating meat, the dietary restriction wasn’t about mammals & birds versus fish, but about land versus water. Thus, other animals that spent their time in the water qualified as aquatic and could be eaten at Lent.

This was the case for beaver. Beaver was classified as an aquatic animal in cooking manuals, such as John Russell’s Boke of Nurture from c.1460 which starts the section “Carving of fish” with the recommendation to serve beaver tail as the meat in pea soup or frumenty (a kind of cracked wheat porridge) (line 547). A 1650 version of De Alimentorum Facultatibus (On Foodstuffs) likewise starts its chapter ‘De Animalibus amphibiis’ (‘The amphibian animals’) with beaver, followed by otter and frog.

When Gerald of Wales described beavers in Wales, he remarked that beaver was eaten as fish in Germany and Scandinavia:

The beavers have broad, short tails, thick, like the palm of a hand, which they use as a rudder in swimming; and although the rest of their body is hairy, this part, like that of seals, is without hair, and smooth; upon which account, in Germany and the arctic regions, where beavers abound, great and religious persons, in times of fasting, eat the tails of this fish-like animal, as having both the taste and colour of fish. (Itinerary through Wales, Chapter 3)

The beaver's tail shown as a fish tail in this illustration from Platearius, Livre des simples médecines, c. 1480. Paris, BnF, Français 12322, folio 188.

The beaver’s tail shown as a fish tail in this illustration from Platearius, Livre des simples médecines, c. 1480. Paris, BnF, Français 12322, folio 188.

The beaver tail was sometimes depicted in a very fish-like manner in medieval and early modern drawings, such as this image in a medicinal tract from the late 15th century. If you have seen a beaver tail, you can see the resemblance. I noted that when I saw a real tail at the Jamtli museum. The tail is scaly, very much like fish scales, and the meat inside is said to be more like fish than red meat.

Beaver tail on exhibit in Jamtli museum, Sweden. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

Beaver tail on exhibit in Jamtli museum, Sweden. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

The beaver isn’t the only mammal that can be eaten during the fasting season of Lent: cetaceans like whales and dolphins qualify, as do rodents mammals who spend a lot of time in the water like otter. After the settlement of the New World, the capybara which is native to South America was added to the list of acceptable Lenten ‘aquatic’ foods in 1784 (see Moreira et al., p. 307 for the interesting capybara case).

Even though the beaver tail was most like a fish, it is possible that all the beaver meat was eaten under the ‘aquatic’ exemption just like capybara which doesn’t have the fish-like tail. In a 1756 Swedish treatise by Nils Gissler, he noted that

Beaver meat is eaten by everyone who catches this animal, and it is said it tastes like pork (p.221).

Enjoying the smoked beaver starter at 1221 in Riga. Photo by FA Jørgensen. All rights reserved.

Enjoying the smoked beaver starter at 1221 in Riga. Photo by FA Jørgensen. All rights reserved.

When I was in Riga this week, I finally had the change to taste beaver meat and I can tell you that it doesn’t taste like pork. I had hoped to eat some last summer when I went on a beaver safari, but since I was out on the very first trip of the season, the smokehouse hadn’t yet delivered the beaver meat. We ate dinner at Restorāns 1221, which is doing some fusion cuisine with local ingredients prepared in new ways. As I mentioned in my previous post, Latvia has lots of beavers after its reintroduction efforts. I had the smoked beaver starter with pine nuts and pineapple vinaigrette. The beaver was tasty but it has a strong flavour. I picked up the notes of castoreum, although not as strongly as when I drank castoreum liquor! So without knowing it, I was doing a good job at eating right in Lent. Perhaps the medieval recipes for pea soup or porridge with beaver tail could make a comeback next.

— Dolly Jørgensen, The Return of Native Nordic Fauna