Postcard from the Wadden Sea

Dear Corridor Talk colleagues:
This month I made it to the Wadden Sea coast for the first time since our project began! It felt unreal to be standing on the mudflats – experiencing the physical landscape for the first time in well over a year. I picked up this postcard and thought of you, and now I’m typing these words into my computer, but I’m not sure how well they capture what I want to share. Still – under the circumstances, it seems more important than ever to think about how we mediate and communicate natural landscapes. I am not sure how photos can really express the dynamism of the Wadden Sea area. The images that I wanted most to capture are the most ephemeral ones – cranes glimpsed in flight, footprints on the mud at low tide, the changing winter light over the rehydrated peatlands.
I hope you are all doing well and I hope we can meet in person somewhere this year!
Love from
Katie

A pair of cranes
Footprints. Maybe an Oystercatcher?
Stapeler Moor Nature Reserve

Boar, Borders & Bright Ideas

On 22 March we had a lively and exciting discussion with Luděk Brož and Laura Kuen, who are part of the BOAR ERC project “Veterinarization of Europe? Hunting for Wild Boar Futures in the Time of African Swine Fever,” based at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. The parts of our respective projects that deal with species mobility and boundaries have a lot of potential for productive dialogue and cooperation, and we are looking forward to talking more in the near future.

Image: Richard Bartz via Wikimedia Commons

The wild boar has interfaces with all of the Corridor Talk field sites, but is particularly closely linked to hunting practices in the Bavarian Forest National Park and Šumava National Park, and the ethnographic methodologies proposed by BOAR have similarities to those developed by Jon and George in the Pyrénées. So besides the happy alliterative trio of bears, birds, and bark beetles, we expect to have some boar making an appearance in Corridor Talk in the future too.

Even with the pandemic preventing us from meeting in person, the rapport on zoom is encouraging.

Sandpipers and the Art of Letting Go: Narratives of Conservation in the Wadden Sea

In a new article for Arcadia: Explorations in Environmental History, Eveline de Smalen writes about poetry and nature conservation in the Wadden Sea. The history of conservation in the Wadden Sea reserves a starring role for birds. Birds were important for its conception, central to its policies today and contribute to its success as a protected area, but they can also help us think about nature reserves conceptually and critically assess their role in society. Nature reserves are often considered static, unchanging and ahistorical places. This article provides a reading of Ed Leeflang’s poem “The Sanderling” to show how literature about birds can help us think about nature reserves as historical places shaped by a multitude of more-than-human agencies, and marked by loss.

Read it here.

Seminar “Literary and Visual Landscapes”

Corridor Talk postdoc Eveline de Smalen was recently invited to give a talk as part of the University of Bristol’s Environmental Humanities Centre’s “Literary and Visual Landscapes” seminar series. The talk had to be held digitally and was recorded. You can watch “Nowhere, Somewhere, Elsewhere, Here: Nature Conservation and Cultural Representations of the Dutch Wadden Sea” below.

First Year: Research Roundup

The Corridor Talk project celebrates its first birthday today and aside from the our brief kick-off meeting in Leeds in February 2020 (see photo below), team members have not met in person at all. Visits to field sites have been limited due to the ongoing pandemic and interactions with project partners severely circumscribed. Nonetheless, regular digital meetings have kept us in touch and on target and we approach the second year of the project with a round-up of what we have achieved so far and a look ahead to the next few months – whether or not these will be spent in lockdown.

Continue reading “First Year: Research Roundup”

Workshop “Ecology in German Literary Criticism – Recent Developments and Approaches”

Corridor Talk PI Katie Ritson was recently invited to give a talk as part of the workshop “Ecology in German Literary Criticism – Recent Developments and Approaches,” funded by the DAAD University of Cambridge German Research Hub. The Research Hub produced a podcast about this workshop, which can be found here (the discussion of Katie’s Corridor Talk research starts at minute 24:45). Inevitably the workshop had to be held digitally and Katie’s talk, entitled “Aufklärung am Rande: The Wadden Sea in German Literature” was pre-recorded, meaning that we can now post it here too.

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Image on this page: Wadden sea in Germany, Hallig Hooge and Pellworm © Ralf Roletschek via Wikimedia Commons

“Corridor Talk” Workshop

The Corridor Talk project held its first workshop and AGM on 9 November, hosted by the Rachel Carson Center in Munich. The workshop was held online as the COVID crisis made travel impossible. All six members of the Corridor Talk team were present.

Report by Graham Huggan

Chair: Dr. Katie Ritson (RCC Munich)
Participants: Corridor Talk project team
National park and other project-partner representatives: Pavel Bečka (Nationalpark Bayerischer Wald / Národní park Šumava); Etienne Farand (Parc National Pyrenees); Marco Heurich (Nationalpark Bayerischer Wald); Thierry Lefebvre (IUCN); Meindert Schroor (Waddenacademie); Hannah Wilting (Nationalpark Niedersächsisches Wattenmeer).

The discussion focused on three sets of questions, each of which had previously been distributed to the project partners along with a brief information package about the project. (1) To what extent do the Corridor Talk project’s main aims and objectives speak to your own, and how might the work done by the Corridor Talk team help you achieve them? (2) Which of these aims and objectives are shared between the participating national parks, and how might the project contribute to these? Which aims and objectives are specific to your particular park? (3) Has the COVID crisis forced you to rethink any of these aims and objectives and/or to come up with new ones? Should the Corridor Talk project be reframed as a result, and if so, how?

Continue reading ““Corridor Talk” Workshop”

“Corridor Talk” AGM

The Corridor Talk project held its first workshop and AGM on 9 November, hosted by the Rachel Carson Center in Munich. The workshop was held online as the COVID crisis made travel impossible. All six members of the Corridor Talk team were present.

Report by Graham Huggan

Chair: Prof Graham Huggan (University of Leeds)
Participants: Corridor Talk project team
International advisory board: Prof Irus Braverman (University of Buffalo); Assoc. Prof Sabine Höhler (KTH Stockholm); Prof Jamie Lorimer (Oxford University)

The main purpose of the AGM was to obtain feedback and advice at a relatively early stage of the project (nine months in) from the three members of its international advisory board. Consequently the meeting focused on the following three pre-distributed sets of questions: (1) What is your sense of what the team has done so far? What are the main strengths and weaknesses of the project? (2) What might the project need to reconsider, for example, in light of the COVID crisis? (3) What are the best ways of bringing out the connections between the three sub-projects, and of maximizing the project’s collaboration with the participating national parks?

The ensuing discussion covered a lot of ground, and advisory board members not only made a series of helpful comments in relation to the prompts given above, but also asked a number of pointed questions to clarify the project’s conceptual apparatus and methodological aims. For example, in response to Braverman, Co-PI Huggan explained how the project had come into being and what its main research objectives were, namely (1) to ask what humanities approaches might have to add to contemporary and historical conservation debates, (2) to gauge the effectiveness of these approaches in contributing to the conservation of European transboundary national parks, and (3) to enquire into the ways that humans and animals move in and across these parks, and to reflect on the implications of these different forms of mobility, which explicitly or implicitly challenge the territorial boundaries on which the parks are historically based. Huggan and other CT colleagues explained that the choice of parks, while to some extent revolving around the location and expertise of the project team, was down to the fact that all they were all transboundary entities, and that this allowed the team to focus on boundary issues and the cross-cultural/cross-species questions these issues raised. While the case studies are specific, they have the potential to magnify issues that affect conservation practice across Europe and present new approaches to understanding conflicts. Höhler pointed out that the relationship between boundaries and mobilities (the project’s other key term) effectively meant that the project was organized around considerations of space rather than, as the original project proposal had implied, considerations of species, and without suggesting a wholesale readjustment she suggested that members of the team might want to reconsider the ‘single-species’ approach adopted in the three individual work packages (sandpiper, bark beetle, brown bear). Lorimer concurred with this, adding that one of the project’s likely strengths lay in its proposed reconfiguration of space, not least in light of the changing conditions and circumstances produced by COVID. This represents an opportunity – already picked up on in the project – to reflect on what human ‘mobility’ might mean when it is restricted, and on the historical limits of national parks as a form of contained space.

Some consideration was given in the subsequent discussion to possible shortcomings of method. The advisory board was largely satisfied that the project’s methods, especially the use of immersive AV material (work package 2), were suitable to its aims; Höhler advising that the Covid-related immobility provided an opportunity to work on theoretical and conceptual models that could bring the different approaches together. Höhler suggested that ‘invasion’ might not be the best term to use given its emotive connotations, but conceded that the work package in question (work package 3) was explicitly designed to question its own vocabulary, and that some of the work already produced by the project had questioned it further (e.g. with regard to invasive species). Some doubts were raised by all three members of the advisory board, Braverman especially, as to whether the four main sites chosen for study lent themselves to meaningful comparison. It was pointed out in response that the project had a fourth work package designed to look at overlaps and crossovers, and that it was too early to tell what might turn out to be common ground. In the last part of the discussion it was suggested that the question of visitor behaviour in the parks, particularly when critically viewed, would need to be gauged against the fact that improving infrastructure was granting access to visitors who had previously been excluded from them, and that the larger issue of access might at one level be used to cast doubt on the very validity of national parks. Are national parks anachronistic, Braverman asked, and have the historical ideas of protection bound up in them been in part designed to shore up the authority of mobile social elites? This was a provocative note on which to end, but an appropriate one, showing that the project has a social relevance beyond its immediate concerns with human and animal movement in some of Europe’s best-known national parks. 

The Covid Chronicles Part III: Intractabilities

This is the third in a series of blog posts chronicling research in the time of Covid19. In writing these pieces, we are exploring ways to try and use the pandemic restrictions as a means of thinking productively about our case study areas and the mobilities (and now immobilities) that are coming to bear on them.

A shot rings out across the valley, shattering the silence that we’ve come to associate with lockdown. In this quiet corner of the French Pyrenees, the local hunting community has just been given special dispensation to restart the hunting season, in spite of the widespread restrictions on movement for the general public. The sound of the shot is swiftly followed by that of hounds barking excitedly as they pursue their quarry. I ask my neighbour, a keen hunter himself, to explain the story. ‘It’s the damage the wild animals cause’, he says, ‘something like €130 million worth of damage to crops and trees. Especially the deer and the wild boar. Do you know there are 40 deer just here in the wood behind our houses? We have to control their numbers for the foresters. I’m going out on Saturday to help.’

Red deer caught by a camera trap in the French Pyrenees © J.Carruthers-Jones

Two days earlier I’d received an email circular from France Nature Environment, a major French nature conservation NGO. They were also keen to tell their story. There’s no reason, they argued, for creating two categories of citizen: those who can practise their leisure activities because they carry weapons and those who can’t because they carry only binoculars. They acknowledged that wild boar numbers were problematic, highlighting other measures that could also have a significant effect on managing their population whilst not threatening other key species in the trophic cascade. The focus of their story, however, was that everyone should be given the right to access nature for leisure, even during lockdown.

COVID-19 regulations, it seems, are no exception to the issues surrounding nature conservation, even in this remote corner of Europe. Lockdowns are in many ways defined by the key themes – boundaries and mobility – that concern us in the ‘Corridor Talk’ project. In France, clear boundaries are specified for our movements during lockdown. Normal daily exercise must take place within a radius of 1km from our homes. Spatial limits are monitored by the police, albeit less rigidly now than during the first lockdown. A signed ‘attestation’ specifying a valid reason for going out, such as buying food, must be completed and brought along whenever one leaves the house. Rightly or wrongly, the existence of different rules for hunters and non-hunters, with different rights of mobility and different boundaries, has the potential to create conflict.

The human/non-human animal divide also separates users of the landscape into two distinct publics, and this binary is frequently seen as a driving factor of conflict. As my colleagues on the ‘Corridor Talk’ project have pointed out, conservation conflicts are often described as ‘wicked problems’. They represent intractable struggles between competing outcomes, some of which are good for humans and others good for non-humans. These are never truly resolved, nor do they simply go away; rather they’re reworked over time towards compromise solutions that are more acceptable or less acceptable to different actors. Humans have been living alongside other species in the Pyrenees for millennia, and while so much has changed during this time it was only as human presence increased pressure across the entire landscape that intractable conflict in the way we experience it now began to emerge.

In Work Package 2 of the ‘Corridor Talk’ project, ‘Immersions’, we explore a classic example of an intractable conservation question, focusing on how humans and large carnivores, specifically bears, coexist in the same landscape. Our main aim is to consider how people move through wild spaces such as national parks, and how they experience the wild species they encounter in these spaces. A focal point of the research is the brown bear, a number of which have been reintroduced to the French and Spanish Pyrenees in recent decades in order to boost their dwindling population. Their reintroduction speaks directly to the idea of ‘connectivity’, a much-used term in conservation science which is central to the project, evoking the key concepts of mobility and boundaries that are also played out during lockdown. In telling the story of human relations with bears in this region, attitudes are often classified by the media into those that are strongly opposed to reintroduction – typically hunters and sheep farmers – and those strongly in favour, typically environmentalists. This polarisation of opinions not only masks the complexities of the story but can contribute to the intractability of the problem. A more constructive telling of the story would not only give all of those involved a voice, but also require them to listen to each other. All those who move through or have a stake in this mountainous landscape have a story to tell: the shepherd, the environmentalist, the hunter, the National Park warden, the tourist, perhaps even the bear, if we knew how to hear it. One simple way to listen is to observe the respective behaviours of these stakeholders. Bears for example go where they will, having no awareness of national, local or protected area boundaries. Their movement decisions are based primarily on the physical geography of the landscape and the suitability of the habitat this offers them.

Brown bears (Ursus arctos) caught by a camera trap in the French Pyrenees © ONCFS EQUIPE OURS

One male bear, recently reintroduced on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, promptly crossed over to the French side and stayed there. The mobility of the bears across administrative regions is clearly at odds with the fixed spatial boundaries of grazing rights afforded to shepherds. The conservation choice to reintroduce bears and protect their mobility rights has arguably had a negative impact on the livelihoods of sheep farmers who can’t change location, and whose flocks are now vulnerable to predation. Whilst sheep farmers are on the frontline of this apparently intractable conservation conflict, a diversity of other voices clamours to be heard. Tourists appear favourable to visiting areas where there is the possibility, however remote, of spotting a reclusive wild animal. At the international level, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) promotes the conservation and restoration of bear populations where they are threatened, warning that the drawing of boundaries, even those as simple as fencing off an area of cropland, can in fact exacerbate rather than alleviate conflict. The traditional conservation response to protecting biodiversity has been exactly the opposite of this. National parks were established to protect threatened species, yet their relatively small size, especially in Europe, along with the fragmented nature of the landscapes in which they are situated, undermines such a static approach to the long-term conservation of these species. The impact of national parks on conservation might be more significant if they more closely resembled what the IUCN classifies as wilderness areas: ‘large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, which are protected and managed so as to preserve their natural condition’. This idea has grown in prominence in France since President Macron announced in 2019 an ‘objectif de 30% en pleine naturalité’ (a goal of 30% of French protected areas to be fully natural), and a strategic review of protected areas for 2020-2030 is currently underway. This ambitious goal still seems some way off, however. In the meantime, as the Pyrenean bears move towards hibernation and sheep flocks have now mostly been brought down to lower altitudes for winter, silence descends on the higher mountains, a seasonally imposed lockdown as man and nature cycle through their annual rituals. In the foothills, the hunting season has only just begun.

What to Read: New Book on the Bavarian Forest National Park

This is the first of our reviews of new publications related to our project interests. To read about our own project publications, please see the Publications page on this website.

The Bavarian Ur-Wald: History, Politics & Nature in the Bavarian Forest National Park

by Graham Huggan

Urwald der Bayern: Geschichte, Politik und Natur im Nationalpark Bayerischer Wald. Ed. Marco Heurich and Christof Mauch, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2020

The appearance of this comprehensive volume commemorating 50 years since the establishment of the Bavarian Forest National Park (Nationalpark Bayerischer Wald) in 1970 is serendipitous. The essays contained within it offer some illuminating perspectives that will be highly relevant to our project as it moves forward over the next couple of years. As might be expected, the overall tone of the volume is celebratory, and the park, which is now visited by well over a million people every year, is largely seen as a resounding success in both economic and ecological terms. At the same time, the individual essays, as well as Marco Heurich and Christof Mauch’s excellent introduction, point to the contemporary as well as historical challenges involved in managing the park – a contested space which has been assembled around deeply contested terms. For one, in spite of the Urwald of the title, the Bavarian Forest is not technically speaking ‘primeval forest’; nor is it, by any stretch of the imagination, a ‘wilderness’ (Wildnis), although both of these terms continue to play an important role in how the park is seen and acted upon, as a popular symbol of the regenerative properties of the wild.   

The essays also make clear that the park has been a political project, and that politics has a continuing role to play in confronting such challenges as mass tourism, invasive species, and accelerated climate change. Key political as well as ecological questions raised here include whether nature is best left alone or adapted to human needs and interests; whether large national parks such as the Bavarian Forest should be managed according to conservationist or preservationist impulses; and what is meant – and to whom – by the multifaceted and, in some respects, historically troubled term ‘national park’.

Another issue concerns the implications that the national park has for particular (nonhuman) species – both those in need of protection and those seen as threatening the biodiversity of the park. A case in point here is the popular motto ‘Natur Natur sein lassen’ (‘let nature be nature’) adopted by the Bavarian Forest’s first director, Hans Bibelriether, whose retrospective closes the volume. The motto, since extended to Germany’s other national parks, has been used to justify a policy of non-intervention. Its best-known instances revolve around the spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) that has alternately been seen in the Bavarian Forest, but also other national parks affected by it, as a valuable ‘natural disturbance’ agent and as a vicious pest. The romantic echoes of ‘Natur Natur sein lassen’ are in potential conflict with the day-to-day demands of park management; they also highlight popular public perceptions of what a protected area ‘should look like’. As Thomas Michler and Erik Aschenbrand’s essay here convincingly shows, preservationist slogans such as ‘Natur Natur sein lassen’ have the kind of mass appeal that can have valuable knock-on effects for conservation. However, they also have the potential to create or consolidate romanticized misunderstandings, even systematic erasures such as the rounding up and eviction of Indigenous peoples to make way for some of the US’s most celebrated national parks.

That such conditions tend not to apply in Europe is no reason not to remain vigilant. It also reminds us, as Bernhard Gissibl mentions in his essay, that national parks are effectively transnational or even global entities, and that their histories, however much they may reflect particular national interests, repeatedly collide and intersect. While the entire volume is of relevance to our own project, special mention should be made here of an informative chapter by a member of our own research team, Pavla Šimková, on the fraught political history of park management on the park’s ‘Czech side’, the adjoining Šumava national park, and what the effects of these historical legacies are for current transboundary management practices. An equally wide-ranging chapter by Martin Müller and Nadja Imhof explores the symbolic as well as material importance of altered landscapes where not-always-wished-for transformations, such as those engineered by the bark beetle, have been produced by natural means.

The slightly opaque term ‘natural means’ is itself open to question, and one of the many valuable insights of this volume is that ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, whose meanings have in any case never been stable, are inextricably entwined. The contributors and editors have produced a book which, in addition to being readable in its own terms, also raises many of the questions that our own project asks. I suspect that, as does this book, our project will leave many of those questions unanswered; but perhaps that’s only fitting for the inherently but also productively contestable status of its primary research locations: national parks.