environmental history plant-thinking

A Dandelion Story, from Medieval Herbals to Whole Foods

By Luna Sarti

Probably the most hated weed in North America, dandelion has over the past couple of years secured a space on the shelves of “premium retailer” grocery stores, such as Wholefoods and Sprouts Farmers Market. Having grown up eating dandelion greens, I am certainly grateful to Wholefoods for validating my weird commitment to treat “weeds” as valuable plants which I protect in the lawn. Week after week, as I observe homeowners in my neighborhood invest energy, time, and money in the Sisyphean enterprise of lawn maintenance, I delve deeper and deeper into the history of dandelions: when did dandelion become a weed, and why is now the time for its shifting back into “a specialty food”?

In 1990 Peter Gail, known as the “King of Dandelions”, published The Dandelion Celebration: A Guide to Unexpected Cuisine – an attempt to change the perception of dandelions and prompt the American public to recognize them as food. Dr. Gail, who earned a Ph.D. in Plant Ecology from Rutgers University and was Associate Professor of Urban and Environmental Studies at Cleveland State University, advocated for plant literacy as a strategy for fighting inequalities in access to industrialized food.  As the director of the Goosefoot Acres Center for Resourceful Living in Ohio, he had a significant role in spurring concern of pesticide use dangers and environmental awareness.

Cover of the 1990 edition of Peter Gail’s
The Dandelion Celebration

In The Dandelion Celebration Gail reports how dandelions, under the name “ciccoria”, used to be a popular food not only for Italian-American communities, but also for many individuals with diverse national and cultural backgrounds, including the English, Germans, Koreans, Lebanese, Greeks, and Armenians (12). Dandelion, which is defined as “an invited species” in the Introduced Species Project (ISP) sponsored by Columbia University, was broadly understood as a crop and used in an incredible number of dishes. As a matter of fact, the ISP stresses how evidence shows that throughout history “dandelions have been purposely carried across oceans and continents by human beings”, and “European settlers brought these plants intentionally to America”.

Peter Gail remarks how Italian-American communities who considered the plant an asset of their diet used the word “ciccoria” to refer to dandelions. Like for many other plants, the history of the name “dandelion” is debated and unclear. However, it is interesting to observe that such a linguistic variance, with different names assigned to the plant depending on its attributed value, characterizes much of the history of the social life of dandelions. The Italian “cicoria” indicates in fact an edible bitter plant (“ciccoria” pronounced and spelled with a double “cc” seems to indicate a dialectal variant), while any dictionary will indicate that the proper translation for dandelion is dente di leone (literally “lion’s tooth”) or tarassaco (from taraxacum officinale).

Most discussions of the English word dandelion focus on its likely derivation from the French “dent-de-leon”. In The names of plants, David Gledhill traces the origin of the term taraxacum to “the Arabic names tarakhshagog, for ‘disturber’, or to talkhchakok, indicating” -like the term cic(c)oria – “a bitter herb” (371). Although the history of plant names presents innumerable challenges, including the issue of identification, it is interesting to observe that two main semantic areas are activated by etymological research around dandelions. The reference to plant morphology, its behavior, or its flavor suggests in fact the existence of two distinct epistemological approaches to dandelion, both at the intersection between plant and human experience. In one approach, with etymologies highlighting the pointy leaf shape or the ubiquitous presence of the plant, the origin of the name is traced back to the phenomenological characteristics of dandelions as they emerge through sight and observation. The other approach, on the contrary, focuses on the plant flavor and properties when ingested by humans, thus proceeding through taste and a form of “metabolic understanding”. We could perhaps consider the two approaches as the result of either a botanic or a medical understanding of plants.

Image from MS Egerton 747. London Library.

As a matter of fact, earlier medieval texts seem to prefer the definition “lactuca” under images of dandelions, which might be explained by the fact that dandelions, like other plants in the family, produce a milky substance when cut. The term “dens leonis” (lion’s tooth) which highlights the morphology of the plant seems to be a late term. It appears in fact in the most popular 16th-century herbals written in Latin by the Italian Pietro Andrea Mattioli and the German Leonhart Fuchs, and rendered in English by William Turner. I could not find the Latin “dens leonis” in any of the medieval herbals I consulted, nor in canonical Latin texts such as Pliny’s Naturalis Historia. In Dioscorides’ On Medical Material and Theophrastus’ Enquiry into Plants there are references to plants which are usually identified as dandelions, but there seem to be no references to the lion imaginary regarding the appearance of the plant. According to a 1526 German edition of the Hortus sanitatis, the term “dens leonis” was coined by a German surgeon who was very fond of the plant.

The issue of naming came to constitute the coordinates orienting my journey through shifting understandings of dandelions. As a matter of fact, in my own experience, the more Italian name of “dente di leone” slowly erased the familiar terms “cicoria” and “piscialetto” (literally “pee-the-bed!”) that I learned while foraging the herb as a vegetable with my grandmother in the fields around Badia Pozzeveri (a place which recently gained fame for its Field School in Medieval Archaeology and Bioarchaeology).  It wasn’t until I moved to Florence and started going to an urban school that I learned that the plant, with the name of “dente di leone”, was a weed. The awareness of the distinction between weed and food came for me with a new name, which erased the more familiar term “cicoria”.

A dandelion plant in the city center of Florence, Italy. Photo by author.

Weeds occupy ambiguous space in thinking about and with plants. Scholars in plant-ecology and plant- philosophy encourage us to reflect on such an inherent ambiguity with the aim to engage in a way of thinking that is “edifying, conversational, and interpretative” rather than “demonstrative” (Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala, xii-xiii).” The assignment of plants to the category of weed, ornament, or food in fact allows us to expose the different patterns of human ecological practices – growing crops, making roads, maintaining city surfaces, designing backyards – while reflecting on their underlying cultural assumptions. Among the multifaceted directionality of plant-thinking, the distinction between weeds and non-weeds constitutes an interesting site for exploring the implications and contradictions of taxonomic approaches to the world. Being defined in relation to human interests and spaces, such a distinction is not only based on a hierarchical organization of living beings, but also on shifting socio-economic practices that define what plants are allowed to exist or not and where. The fact that certain plants have been historically understood as either food, ornaments, or weeds speaks to the many socio-economic variables at play in the categorization of plants. Names often preserve traces of the social life of plants. With this in mind, along with a lot of other personal reasons, I will continue to pay attention to the story of dandelions, and their ambiguous existence on the border between weeds and food.

Author Bio

Featured Image: Dandelion plant in the city center of Florence, Italy (detail). Photo by author.

Arctic environmental history Intellectual history Interview

The Floating Coast: an Interview with Dr. Bathsheba Demuth

Bathsheba Demuth is an environmental historian at Brown University, specializing in the United States and Russia, and in the history of energy and past climates. She has lived in and studied Arctic communities across Eurasia and North America. Earlier this month, we met virtually to talk about her latest book project, The Floating Coast: an Environmental History of the Bering Strait, which unravels the transformative processes that reshaped Arctic ecologies since the dawn of the industrial age. 

A site where different socio-economic arrangements interacted for the last 150 years, Beringia has a lot to teach us. In this conversation, we discuss how the intermingling stories of American capitalism, Soviet socialism, and indigenous cultures push us to consider the ways in which different economies interact with non-human animals, plants, minerals, and water in its various forms. Perhaps, these stories offer us the opportunity to reshape conceptions of history, hopefully developing a more capacious ethical space when arranging the trajectories of the future.

The Floating Coast_B Demuth(Salmon)

LS: Describing the story of change in Beringia over the last two centuries, you show how capitalism and Soviet socialism were characterized by economic strategies that were based on strikingly similar obsessions with production, extractionism, violence and the assumption that change will bring improvement, in spite of loss. From the point of view of Beringia, we can group these attitudes as being foreign. You make a crucial ethical distinction between foreigners who killed for something else, be it wages, profit or success, and Beringians who killed for food. Could you comment further on this fundamental difference, particularly in relation to the way historians and economists have traditionally dismissed both fishing and subsistence economies?

BD: If you abstract people into their most general groups, The Floating Coast deals with capitalist folks, socialist economies, and then with the indigenous people of the Bering Strait region, who all have different ways of imagining and organizing their economies. The concept of subsistence can push people  to subscribe to a kind of teleology between hunter-gatherers, agricultural society, and then industrial society whereas part of what Beringia shows is that this sense of progress between these economic forms only works if you ignore the broader ecological implications of people’s actions. Instead of thinking [Indigenous Beringia] as subsistence economies, we should look at them as economies that are not based on maximal extraction and that take into account the need for other kinds of life to flourish in order for human life to be meaningful and rich and provided for. This is something that is very different from the extractivist impulse of either the Soviet or the American ways of conducting things as they emerged in the Bering Strait.

The FLoating Coast_B Demuth 4

LS: Going against this theological sense of progress when looking at economies based on foraging-hunting, agriculture and industry, recent historical research on fishing seems to be particularly keen to view fishing communities and indigenous economies in general as examples of more successful forms of adaptation which were disrupted by approaches based on violence and extractionism. As a person who has engaged in working and living with such communities, would you agree with this view?

BD: I would want to guard against a knee-jerk romanticism about either fishing communities in the case of histories of fishing or indigenous communities in the Bering Strait. That kind of romanticism is an impulse which comes out not of those communities themselves but rather of a dissatisfaction on the part of people living in modern industrial society with the terms that those societies impose on them. This can result in an urge to look at indigenous folks to find “all the answers” because they are doing things differently than “we” are, without actually taking seriously the ethical precepts that come with indigenous practices and intellectual traditions, particularly the set of behaviors that are required vis-à-vis each other and vis-à-vis other kinds of beings in the world. So I do think it is important to not just have a romantic gloss on Beringia’s past and understand it as a very different way of living, one which pushes us to see that the ways in which we value the world around us have a serious impact on it. We do actually have the capacity to change the parameters by which we assign value regardless of the societies we are in. This opens up the possibilities for different kinds of social arrangements rather than seeing capitalism as an inevitable byproduct of a certain set of industrial relationships or seeing socialism as the only possible antidote to capitalism. I think it actually increases our vocabulary of what is possible.

LS: It was, in fact, surprising to see that something we are taught to see as two very different things, capitalism and Soviet socialism, surfaces throughout the book as being in reality very similar in terms of how the non-human world is perceived and treated. Was this something you expected?

BD: No, it wasn’t expected. I wrote it intentionally because this is what I found in the archives and in the course of doing the research, but it was not what I initially anticipated finding. In some ways, I started this project because I thought that looking at the Bering Strait represented this lovely natural experiment that I could watch play out as a place where you have very similar ecological conditions but very different ideological conditions by the 20th century. I was surprised of the degree of which they often ended up resembling each other, although not all the time. There were real and very materially important differences in the ways the two projects impacted people’s lives and changed the environment around them. But I think that socialism and capitalism operated from a very similar sense that the world that is not people -which we often call “nature”, or “the environment”, or “the world out there”-is really just for humans to turn into wealth. It’s an approach based on a very constrained vision which draws a hard line between human beings and the rest of the world.
When the Soviet Union develops its response to capitalism and its attempt to create a society that, according to the original understanding of the Bolsheviks, was supposed to overcome all of the ethical limitations of capitalism, particularly the demoralization and alienation of being a capitalist worker, they were only looking at people. It was not a worldview that could take into account a more capacious ethical space. And so in some ways that means that both systems have the same operating DNA. If you are looking at history from the perspective of a whale or a walrus or a reindeer, they were treated more similarly than differently. This doesn’t mean that on the human front they are similar histories at all, but part of what I wanted to do in this book is imagine what it looks like if you shift that focus and include other kinds of beings in your historical frame and what that does to our thinking about how these two systems really functioned practically.

LS: You extensively analyze theories of linear, accelerated time that were forced upon Beringia with the coming of foreigners and how such notions of time correspond to the new sets of material relations and imaginaries that foreigners introduced to Beringians. Can you comment on how Beringia influenced your choices when structuring time in the stories you tell in The Floating Coast?

BD: Yes that is a good point. I did not actually realize I was writing about time for quite a bit of the process of assembling the book. From the first draft onward I wanted this to be a work where the initial frame or the initial encounter between the reader and what was happening in a particular section was not necessarily an introduction to a person or a human-made situation. The classic historian way of opening a particular article or chapter involves  an anecdote about an activity and then move into the analysis. Instead I usually open with an animal or some other aspect of the “environment”. Sometimes it is the voice of the walrus, sometimes it is ice, or the way the plankton forms and matter transforms. Without me actually being initially conscious of it, this writing process introduced me to the fact that life in the context of Beringia exists on all kinds of temporal frames. This is something that I intuitively grasped onto because of my experience in the place. When you live in the Arctic -and I spent quite a bit of time there over the last two decades including some years where I just lived there full-time-  the kind of temporality of other beings and of the seasons themselves is so very present in your life, partly because Arctic seasons are far more extreme and pronounced than in temperate regions.

And you also spend a lot of your life organized around the temporalities of other animals: are the caribous migrating? and when are they migrating? and are the fish running up the river? These kinds of concerns make you really live your life on the time of other beings in the environment with you. These concerns helped the historical argument because they introduce the fact that the temporalities of these different animal populations influenced larger trends in human history or played into them or became caught up in them in very different ways. So, in the book particular events don’t just have one human-driven time operating in them. They have all these other cyclic times that are also a part of the picture. And I think this helps bring in the sense that human actions in this particular part of the world are deeply embedded in a set of ecological actions that are complex and ongoing and run into what people are trying to do or thwart them or change them or get trampled over by what people are doing. There are multiple times and multiple kinds of ways of thinking about time that are operational simultaneously.

LS: I was wondering if you could comment on the relevance of personal experience in writing history because I felt like in the book you refrain from including any references to how this aspect informs the writing of an ecological history of the place. 

BD: I think it is a historian’s impulse that I don’t feel like I am the story. So I talk very briefly in the preface and somewhat in the conclusion about how I have lived up  north for large periods of time, but I don’t actually go into it very much. I wanted to take some time off between high school and college and I convinced my parents that I should take a gap year.  I found a host family in a town called Old Crow which is about 80 miles north of the arctic circle in the Yukon Territory who needed help with their dog team. I stayed in Old Crow for more than two years because I ended up falling in love with being there and with the job of taking care of and training the sled dogs and all of the other work: the fishing, hunting, and gathering firewood and just kind of the day to day life in a “subsistence community” in the far north. It very much changed the way I thought about history. Part of what I was picking up on was the way in which my daily life was so intensely structured around interactions with the dogs, with other animals in the environment, with the weather, with the ways in which my host family understood the world around them. And so by the time I finally left the Arctic and went to college these ideas about the relationship between how we imagine the natural world and how the natural world influences our imagination was my foremost preoccupation. It was such a preoccupation that I took it all the way to grad school because I was still thinking about it. And that is how I ended up more or less trying to find excuses to go to the Arctic and think about the Arctic for my entire adult life.

The Floating Coast_B Demuth

LS: For sure, as a reader, I can say that this compelling preoccupation emerged as the keystone of The Floating Coast.  Being often associated with transformations caused by climate change, the Arctic has increasingly become a site of anxiety and fear, but you complicate the imaginary of the Arctic in unexpected ways. What can the history of Beringia do for us in relation to climate change?

BD: It’s not an easy question, but it’s a totally fair question. I would say, and this is true both of this book and of my teaching environmental history, that what I find useful about the history of Beringia, is that it gives me hope. I think it is very easy to fall into the idea – particularly after the end of the Cold War – that the highly extractive growth-driven capitalism that we live in now is the inevitable result of historical processes. And for a lot of young people in the US, particularly the undergraduate students with whom I work now, who were not even alive when the Soviet Union existed, there has never been a model other than capitalism or Chinese style, hybrid, communist-capitalist production. This has been their whole world. I feel like the story of Beringia introduces them to the diversity of human experience in terms of ways in which people have managed their lives vis-à-vis each other and vis-à-vis the wider environment, including forms of capitalism that are far less rapacious. It makes us think of the contingencies that lead to the system that we live in now, which is not inevitable but rather based on specific operations of power and on a series of historical events that are not predestined but actually result from people’s values and choices – some of which we can actually change.

People who have grown up in an advanced industrial technological society are often anxious about change, – what if we don’t have as much stuff, what if Amazon can’t get everything to me in 48 hours.

One of the things that the environmental humanities and environmental history allows is to think with people in past times and places that did not have those things and yet also have had incredibly rich, meaningful, productive, and socially valuable ways of being in the world. This is something that I have found useful to think with as opposed to just getting stuck on this here we are, it is all quite terrible, I throw up my hands kind of feeling. Not that I don’t sometimes do that but… There actually are examples of other ways of being in the world. And this is hopeful.

All photos courtesy of Dr. Bathsheba Demuth.

Book reviews environmental history history of science Intellectual history Water

History of Fishing: a Voyage of the Mind into Amphibious Adaptation

By Luna Sarti

In doing research on rivers, one starts to wonder what fish live in the river waters and what role inland fishing has had throughout history in the relationship between the river and its human communities. Finding sources is not that easy, however, and one has to skim through materials such as cookbooks, oral histories, or other forms of personal memories. The few scholars who have dealt with the history of fishing stress, in fact, how fishing has had a very minor role in most official histories because, as Eric Leed puts it in his book The Mind of the Traveler: from Gilgamesh to Global Tourism, we often tend to be unable to “regard place as anything but terrestrial,” mostly assuming that “societies are boundaried, centered, contained, and enduring structures,” which is “a view of history filtered through the results of history” (19). 

History of Fishing. (Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg)

Histories of fishing are more than niche studies tapping into ‘minor’ topics for the purpose of originality. Understanding fishing throughout history is extremely important, if only to prompt one’s own imagination to picture how humans populated the earth by using composite strategies that allowed them to survive through the shifting climates of the Holocene. As Dietrich Sahrhage and Johannes Lundbeck observed in their groundbreaking A History of Fishing, “in contrast to hunting, fishing has, since its inception in prehistoric times, always retained its importance in food production” (2). More recently, inFishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization, Brian Fagan draws on evidence from archaeology, geology, and genetics to show how “a significant intensification of subsistence fishing” occurred across different parts of the world in the period of global warming that followed the Ice Age, which favored the formation of thriving tidal areas and wetlands (73). By presenting a fuller view of how human food practices shifted over time, histories of fishing not only activate new temporalities and an ecological sense in the development of human societies, but also provide very interesting perspectives on strategies of human adaptation in the face of changing environments and rising waters. 

While most historical research is often conceptually associated with the agricultural revolution and the development of state-organized civilizations and cities, thinking about fishing requires a temporality that undoes any distinction between history and prehistory. As a practice, fishing has in fact not only characterized both Homo sapiens and extinct species of the genus Homo, but has also variously co-existed  with societies on the move that practiced foraging and hunting and trading, and with sedentary communities, which increasingly relied on agricultural and animal farming as much as on manufacturing and commerce. More noticeably, as historian Brian Fagan remarks in Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization, “the technology used both for subsistence fishing and for catching tens of thousands of anadromous fish, including Pacific salmon and the giant sturgeon of the Danube, has changed little in ten millennia” (11). Artifacts from ‘prehistoric times’ are still recognizable as fishing tools to individuals who are the least socialized in such practices, while others can be deciphered by looking at the tools that were used in fishing communities such as those of the Beringians in Siberia and Alaska, and the Gidjingali in Australia. 

Prehistoric fishing gear, nets, weaving etc. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

It is a fascinating way of thinking that adds significant tools to our kit for the imagination of human pasts and futures. Such a versatile mind is not only highly desirable but also hopefully highly productive in the formation of new generations. 

The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History (Chicago University Press)

Histories of fishing don’t simply activate longer temporalities. By looking at contemporary societies which are still relying on fishing technologies to develop literacy in artifacts from archaeological sites across the globe, in fact, historians of fishing complicate the distinction between the past and the present which is a fundamental asset of linear time. Thus, the continuity of fishing practices across societies beyond the time frame of modernity unsettles the European-born paradigm of progress. As John Gillis writes in The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History, digging into fishing throughout time and space reveals how by being  “trained to think of agriculture as the highest stage of civilization before the advent of the urban-industrial age,” we still tend to place foraging-hunting practices in the category of “the primitive” or, in the best case, in that of “a last resort for the lower classes of society” (14).

Since both the technology and the practices involved in community fishing have been strikingly stable across time and space, histories of fishing draw on anthropological research from the past two centuries to glimpse into a past that would be otherwise inaccessible. In doing so, this “alternative account of global history” -to use Gillis’ wording in The Human Shore– gestures towards the possibility of looking at foraging-hunting not simply as the myth of certain environmentally friendly utopia but as a way of living that is more likely to sustain human existence through the capacity to read the landscape and adapt to its changing features (4). Brian Fagan reports, for example, how a DNA research on the Chumash civilization shows that they had probably settled in the Santa Barbara Channel region thousands of years in the past and suggests that, when the Spaniards arrived in 1542, they found not a ‘primitive society’ but “a highly adaptable and flexible culture that had survived, and usually thrived, in a harsh, drought-prone landscape” (88). Similar stories emerge from other fishing societies that didn’t apply farming or industrial models to fishing, such as the Gidjingali in Australia and the Beringians in Alaska, who were mentioned above.

In spite of centuries of urban dwellers’ bias, practices such as fishing, hunting, and foraging, allow for more flexibility on the side of humans. It’s a way of living that not only requires an intimate knowledge of micro-environments, but also involves a considerable capacity to engage with complex environmental factors. Although reproducing that model is impossible, we can still study and recover some aspects of those practices and of that knowledge.

Swiss prehistoric lake dwellings. as pictorially restored by A. de Mortillet. Wellcome Collection

By focusing on fishing, historians make two narratives–that of history and that of prehistory–which collide. In such a process a new narrative surfaces, one in which some communities that disappeared from history, losing against modern conceptions of progress, might in fact have successfully lived for long spans of time by more successfully adapting their living practices to the shifting behaviors of their local flora, fauna, and waters. By engaging with this uncomfortable narrative, readers are forced to consider whether contemporary strategies of production and urban life might be the unsustainable consequences of failing strategies of adaptation. As a person interested in repairing the damages of extractionist economies, industrial farming, concrete cities, and low efficiency housing, I ponder the question of adaptability that stems from histories of fishing. The thought of people who were living with unstable waters seems fascinating and encouraging.

Perhaps many will argue against such a positive vision of fishing communities and identify elements of  romanticism in the narrative, which carries at times the trace of an idealized perception of otherness. However, the question seems worthy of debate.

Featured Image: Hans Hillewaert. Fishing down the food web, a North Sea perspective. Inspired by the work of Daniel Pauly. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

environmental history history of science Intellectual history Water

Acqua Panna: When History Makes Bottled Waters

By contributing editor Luna Sarti

In their Plastic Water: The Social and Material Life of Bottled Water (MIT Press, 2015), Gay Hawkins, Emily Potter, and Kane Race investigate “how and why branded bottles of water have insinuated themselves into daily life and the implications of this for safe urban water supplies” (xxii). In asking what is at work in the decision to move from drinking from the tap to drinking from the bottle, they advocate for an understanding of market arrangements in relation to consumers who recognize the distinct qualifications surrounding the product while incorporating the product into their world (xxxiii).

Plastic Water (book cover)Although a diversity of elements and devices have been identified in the making of water into a “fast-moving consumer good” (FMCG), there is some agreement between scholars in identifying narratives of nature, purity, and human health as the key elements in the processes whereby bottled water has been transformed into a FMCG in the last few decades. However, there seems to be an emerging trend in the bottled water business to feature history as a crucial element in  branding their products. Such a shift toward historicity should not be underestimated. Hawkins, Potter, and Race suggest, in fact, that the bottle of water should be approached “as an unfinished or entangled object” whose nature demands careful elaboration (xvi). Using Evian as a case study for bottled spring waters, they discuss how waters become singularized and distinguished by analyzing dynamics captured by processes of rebranding and “the ways in which they generate multidimensional relations that feed back into market processes and shape them in predictable and unpredictable ways” (34). If for a long time it was important to detach the imaginary of bottled waters from human activity and position them on the side of nature by stressing ideal characteristics such as spring waters untouched quality and their  uncontaminated features, one should start wondering why historical dates are increasingly appearing on spring water brands such as Poland Spring, Acqua Panna, and San Pellegrino (all managed by Nestlé Waters).

Since the key issue with water is that it can be turned into a market object in many different ways, it is crucial to pay close attention to the specific historical processes whereby it is “rendered economic” in the sense described by Fabian Muniesa, Yuval Millo and Michel Callon  in their introduction to Market Devices (3). Such a shift towards a historical aura for bottled waters could have interesting implications, particularly for social and historical analyses.

Picture of Acqua Panna’s new 1 L plastic bottle. © 2015 Nestlé

This question first came to my mind when noticing that following the cross-platform campaign that Nestlé Waters North America launched last May, Acqua Panna’s bottle label emphasizes the year 1564, the Italian word for Tuscany (“Toscana”) as well as a stylized fleur de lis, the emblematic symbol of Florence, and – only on the glass bottle- an explicit reference to the Medici family. The year represents such an important detail that it is also impressed in the plastic bottle, whereas the glass bottle has the brand name “San Pellegrino” impressed which replaced “natural spring water” that characterized the old bottle. While for decades water companies tried to construct an imaginary that severed their water products from human interaction, Nestlé Waters seems to be now trying to establish a sense of historicity for Acqua Panna by connecting today’s bottled waters to Florence and the time of the Medici. 

That history represents an important aspect of Acqua Panna’s identity, particularly since its acquisition by Nestlé Waters in the late 1990s, is confirmed when looking at its official website. While traditional informative sections of bottled waters focus on themes such as water quality, mineral content, PH levels, and the water shelf-life, Acqua Panna has included since the early 2000s a section on its history, which is now addressed as the fourth question in their FAQ section for the US website.

FAQS section – 4. What is the history behind Acqua Panna?

“Acqua Panna takes its name from the Villa Panna Estate in Tuscany, a summer estate that was owned by the noble Medici family of Florence. The Medici family were of the most renowned art patrons in history. Their court included some of the most celebrated artists & visionaries including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, and Botticelli. The iconic fleur-des-lis symbol was their crest. The Medici family acquired over 3,000 acres of land in Scarperia, Tuscany in order to turn it into an untouched hunting reserve. They officially limited its borders with an act, dating back to 1564.  That decree still exists and guards the land where Acqua Panna flows.” From The US website of Acqua Panna.  © 2015 Nestlé

Certainly, in 1564 the bandita of Scarperia, which included the villa of Panna and local springs, was transformed into the Duke’s game reserve, thus effectively preventing the local community from accessing the spring water within its borders. However, the Bando focuses on establishing the borders of the reserve, and the Medici never bottled their water nor commercialized it. It was the Marquise Luigi of Torrigiani who acquired the reserve in the 19th century and started bottling and selling Acqua Panna (as Acqua sorgiva di Panna) in Florence.

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Text of the 1564 Bando printed in Florence by Giunti (Florence, National Library)

Using WebArchive it is possible to look at the way in which the historical discourse was reshaped over time. A snapshot of the website taken between August 8, 2013, and July 14, 2014, shows how Acqua Panna originally featured a proper story line on their website, spanning from Roman times to the year 2006. The story line pinpoints several events for each century. For the 16th century we find the aforementioned establishment of the reserve in 1564 and the construction by the Grand Duke Francesco I of the oratory at Villa Panna in 1572. Moving forward, the timeline includes the image of an extant cabreo documenting the estate in 1792, along with the location of the villa of Panna, and then shifts to the year 1860 when the Marquise of Torrigiani for the first time sold the waters from the estate in Florence in 54-liter demijohns. For the 20th century, there are references to the year 1910, which is highlighted as the year when the Marquise Luigi Torrigiani started to use liter bottles for Acqua Panna, the year 1938, when the Count Contini Bonaccossi who bought the estate from the Torrigiani family founded the “Società Panna”, and then the acquisition of the company by the San Pellegrino Group in 1956, which was later bought by Nestle in 1997. All of these references to events that somehow signal a shift in the commercialization of this water have disappeared in the 2019 rebranding.

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A snapshot of Acqua Panna international website between August 8, 2013 and July 14, 2014. Retrieved from Webarchive on August 12, 2019. For a complete list of snapshots between 2003 and 2019 see*/

As I continue to investigate the complex processes that make the international assemblage that is today Acqua Panna, I ask myself why history is becoming more important to constitute contemporary bottled waters and why a particular history has been selected in the process to singularize Acqua Panna from other waters. Inspired by Plastic Water to rethink packaging as “something that helps bring new realities and practices into being that have socially binding effects” (6), I wonder if this historicization of the label and of bottled waters might be an attempt to play against the growing awareness of what plastic waters mean for our material world. Perhaps, as public discourse around the impact of plastics in marine ecosystems grows and campaigns against bottled waters intensify, it becomes difficult to sustain the association between nature and bottled waters that for so long played a role in the marketing of plastic water. It would make sense then to reshape the narrative around Acqua Panna and place it at the center of the Medici myth. Away from nature, via history, this bottle shapes a time-honored lifestyle.

Cover Image from the Acqua Panna website on August 8, 2013. Retrieved via Web Archive on August 12, 2019.  Copyright – 2011 Sanpellegrino S.p.A. © 2015 Nestlé

environmental history US history Water

Rethinking Flood with the Trinity River

By Contributing Editor Luna Sarti

Something that always surprises me in the perception of river flooding is how we tend to reduce different floods to recurring iterations of the same phenomenon. Historical river floods are in fact usually evoked by means of the year in which they occurred and in relation to the most noticeable urban area that they affected. On one hand, this way to refer to different floods standardizes each event and effectively erases the heterogeneous causes that contribute to their occurrence. On the other hand, the ‘by-year-label’ allows a low degree of difference which is functional to comparatively measure the magnitude of devastation that each iteration causes. This way of thinking about floods contributes to divert the discussion of how and why each flood takes place towards a more “sensational” narrative, which is typical of “disaster culture” (Robert C. Bell and Robert M. Ficociello). Is a flood just a flood among others? Shouldn’t we learn to reflect on each flood separately?

Aerial View of Flood in Fort Worth in 1949, photograph, May 17,1949;( accessed June 24, 2019),University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, Fort Worth.

The Trinity River in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex provides an interesting case for a reflection on river floods. Between 1908 and 1949, in fact, following the occurrence of increasingly severe flooding events, local authorities created a system of levees that will soon be dismantled. According to the Trinity River Vision Authority, in fact, the current levee system is not only inadequate for contemporary flood risk, but prevents the development of river ecology as well as direct access to the river. Launched in 2002 and supervised by the Trinity River Vision Authority, the Trinity River Vision Project promises flood damage reduction, ecological renewal, and opportunities for recreation and development. The project advocates for the Renaissance of local river culture and draws on a “holistic approach to flood protection” in order to safeguard Fort Worth and transform it into a riverfront city.  

Master Plan
Homepage of the Trinity River Vision website.

The language of the Master Plan prompts a certain level of risk, that of flooding, and at the same time provides us with a well-designed solution that guarantees safety while enhancing beauty. It enables a positive vision of the future that capitalizes on fears of loss caused by uncontrollable events as well as on the feeling of awe that providential technology can inspire. The reference to the theme of “renaissance” seems not coincidental in that in its “holistic” vision the project advocates for a beautified city which redirects the community towards the river as a source for pleasure, entertainment, and relief. Much could be said on this reference. However, what concerns me here is that the Trinity River Vision Authority capitalizes on the tension between an enhanced sense of flood risk and an already-made providential solution without providing an adequate contextualization of flooding. 

Located at the junction of Clear Fork and West Fork of the Trinity River, Fort Worth has experienced several episodes of extreme flooding, most noticeably in 1844, 1866, 1871, 1890, 1908, 1922, 1949 and 1989, while flash flooding is a frequent occurrence. The Plan only includes an introductory remark on the 1949 flood as “a massive flood” that “destroyed much of the city” and continues with “the river reached a depth of 52 feet and a width of 1.5 miles, killing 10 people and leaving 4,000 citizens homeless” (9). However, the Report on Trinity River at Dallas and Fort Worth, presented by the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors on March 11, 1949 provides us with a much more complex scenario for understanding the occurrence of that “massive” flood (Committee on Public Works; id: 11324 H.doc.242). According to the document prepared by the Board of Engineers on March 11, 1949, in fact, the population of Dallas had increased from 295,000 in 1940 to 483,000 at the time, and of Fort Worth from 178,000 to 318,000 (5). The Board of Engineers connected flood risk to this “extraordinary growth” which “accelerated development and utilization of the reclaimed flood-plain lands at both cities for residential, commercial, and industrial purposes” (6). Drainage is thus identified as a significant issue, because existing infrastructures did not seem to be able to sustain both discharge and storm waters. Such a historical reflection allows a more refined understanding of the elements that produce flooding, which is less about nature and devastation, and more about policy and social behaviors.

Video capturing the effects of flooding in  Fort Worth Flood in 1949. More footage on the Texas Archive of the Moving image FWPD Collection.

The plan might well achieve its goals and represent a great solution for certain flooding patterns. However, as is often the case with landscape design and engineering, the solution might also be provisional. The question that remains open is if the plan effectiveness will be reduced by changing rain patterns and how layers of historical interventions will interact with such a future scenario. Reclaimed land, diverted rivers, forgotten creeks, and streams play a crucial role in the patterns that are followed by storm waters. It is not clear if the plan took such history into account, although some aspects seem to be partially informed by a historical perception, particularly in an effort to mimic the river’s original topography. A more systematic historical perspective would enhance important reflections on the interactions between the river and the urban fabric, with its shifting economic and cultural assets. Since the plan already aims to presents the river as a pedagogical site (17), it would be interesting to create learning opportunities that also aim to prompt flood culture as a preventive civic tool.

Engaging with local historical research contributes to enhance a different perception of the site’s present-day configuration and provides people with more accurate tools for developing a sense of flood risk and awareness. River flooding which often occupies the margins of our imagination, and thus rarely activates our sense of risk, has been in fact increasing and is expected to increase even more over the coming years,  according to research presented in the Annual Disaster Statistical Review and in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. An intellectual engagement with a relational history of flood can enhance levels of awareness and thus reduce those psychological post-flood impacts, particularly anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, which are often unaccounted for and have been highlighted by recent publications such as Climate Change and Public Health, edited by B. S. Levy, and J. A. Patz and published by Oxford University Press. From this perspective, risk is not to be understood in Ulricht Beck’s sense as “the perceptive and cognitive schema” that “opens a world within and beyond the clear distinction between knowledge and not-knowing, truth and falsehood, good and evil” (5-6). On the contrary, an adequate discussion of the conditions that produce flood moves stories of flood away from the semantics of dreadful risk towards a vision of the future that is shaped by an informed sense of risk.

I became interested in the history of the Trinity River in Northern Texas because continuous warnings for local flash floods prompted me to wonder why flooding could occur in inland Texas. The site unsettled the axioms of my European sense of Texas by introducing unexpected elements such as green grass, magnificent trees, abundant rain, and encroaching waters. Acknowledging the Trinity River prompted me to reflect on the history of the relationship between settlers, water, and land in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The river also prompted the crucial questions on flooding that opened this reflection.

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Photos by author. The levees system on the Trinity River West Fork.

Is it appropriate to classify each flood occurrence in relation to spatio-temporal categories, particularly in public historical discourse? Wouldn’t it be more effective to refer to each flood in relation to the specific processes that caused it? Engaging with more detailed stories of individual floods would contribute to enhance a defined sense of risk which is easier to navigate than undefined fears of the inexplicable and the unexpected. This informed sense of risk is as important a prevention measure as works of engineering, STEM, and public science.

Cover Picture: Flooded Homes Near Downtown Fort Worth in 1949 Flood of Trinity River, photograph,Date Unknown; ( accessed June 24, 2019), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Tarrant County College NE, Heritage Room.

Arctic environmental history Global History history of science

Consuming the Anthropocene

by guest contributor Alexis Rider

April 22 was Earth Day: an annual, global, day of mobilization to push for environmental reform. Often painted as the origin story of the environmental movement, Earth Day, which began in 1970, was originally about regulation and education, centering around issues like the ozone hole, oil spills, and pesticide use. 49 years later, in 2019, Earth Day is tinged with greater urgency: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has given us 12 years to act against the climate crisis, the hottest 20 years in recorded history have occurred in the past 22, the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IPBES) has announced a million species are at risk of extinction, and extreme weather is increasing as frozen and remote parts of the globe melt at an alarming rate. In response, Extinction Rebellion shut down central London, a teen more savvy than global political leaders leads weekly strikes for climate, and glaciers have Twitter feeds that articulate their own demise. Still, though, political inaction is palpable.

Extinction Rebellion(5)
Extinction Rebellion protesters in London, April 2019. Photo: Wiki Commons

Recently, and with fervor, the concept of the Anthropocene has been deployed within academia to articulate the extent and urgency of the global environmental crisis. Originally articulated by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and limnologist Eugene Stoermer at the turn of the millennium, the ‘Anthropocene’ is the proposed name for a new geologic epoch, one which aims “to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology” (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000). In the logic of Anthropocene, humanity has become a forcing mechanism in global natural processes, producing a clash between ‘human’ or ‘shallow’ time, and ‘deep’ or ‘natural’ time. The ‘Anthropocene’ is an acknowledgement that human activities are changing the world at temporal scales far beyond the histories, lifetimes, or political terms humans normally operate within and imagine.

Graphic of the deep temporal history of the planet. Image: Wiki Commons

In the basic conception of the Anthropocene, there are two actors: mankind and the environment. This sweeping and seemingly compelling divide at once highlights the separation of the two categories and collapses it: if humans are geologic force, we can no longer imagine ourselves outside of nature. Thus, as Dipesh Chakrabarty suggests, the Anthropocene brings to an end “the age old humanist distinction between natural history and human history” which have underpinned Western notions of modernity (Chakrabarty, 2009). In academia, it also challenges traditional divisions of intellectual production—humanities on the one hand, the sciences on the other—that C.P. Snow famously, if problematically, diagnosed as The Two Cultures (Snow, 1959). So, by revealing the inherent interactions of this purported dualism, the Anthropocene is a powerful concept, one that has been gobbled up by the academic world as a new and innovative way to articulate environmental crises, and to revolutionize traditional siloes of thinking and learning. But perhaps the voracious consumption of the Anthropocene should give us pause. If consumption has been the central engine of producing the Anthropocene—for centuries humanity has rapidly exploited the planet for commodification—what of such a rapid and uncritical consumption of the idea itself? What, exactly, are we doing as we ingest and reproduce Anthropocenic thinking?

Critics of the Anthropocene have rightly pointed out what the concept obfuscates: the long and entangled colonial, patriarchal, capitalist histories of environmental exploitation in which humans were not understood as a homogenous group, or as naturally equal. Such critiques are eloquently laid out in, for example, Jason Moore’s Anthropocene or Capitalocene? (2016) and Heather Davis and Zoe Todd’s, “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” (2017). On top of this, far from the revolutionary concept it is purported to be, Anthropocene-thinking is rather familiar: a species-level framework can be found in the environmentalism of Earth Day and it’s more bureaucratic iterations: the IPCC reports and the historic efforts to develop global responses to climate change, from Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment (1972) to the Kyoto Protocol (2005) and beyond. History has therefore shown us that this logic, appealing as it may be, doesn’t hold: in Kyoto, for example, efforts to flatten humans into a monolith were led by developed nations—the main burners of fossil fuels—who deployed a claim to a unified planet to shirk their greater responsibility. The end result of these deliberations is, as argued in ‘Carbon tax: Challenging Neoliberal Solutions to Climate Change,’ a neoliberal model of carbon credits, allowing capitalism and consumption to persist, transforming the air itself into a commodity (Andrew et al., 2010). Conceptually, politically, and pragmatically, then, the simplistic version of the Anthropocene is neither new or revolutionary, nor, it seems, effective. Can the idea of humans as geologic agents in any way help us imagine and do more?

While the ‘human’ of the Anthropocene is overly simplistic and rife with problems, the concept’s attention to temporal diversity could perhaps be its redemption. The collision of shallow and deep time begs the question: How can we make sense of, articulate, or engage with an ancient planet in our fleeting moment with it? In trying to hold multiple timescales in our hands at once, the Anthropocene can help push us to different sources, like natural archives; different timelines, like those traced by plastics or corals; different knowledges, particularly indigenous; different framings, such as a position of care; and fundamentally different definitions of what ‘freedom’ should look like. These shifts invert the equation of the Anthropocene by demanding immediate and sustained attention to the structures that have obscured these different ways of being or knowing, those same structures which have helped shape the dominant narratives of environmental action and political and social change.


To explore one example briefly. Ice is a productive illustration of the alternative spatial, temporal, and relational modes of thinking possible in a less anthropocentric Anthropocene. Today, as vast chunks of ice detach from Antarctica and high mountain glaciers rapidly retreat, ice is the fragile icon of the climate crisis. But ice also gives us access to an unparalleled natural archive, both in the form of ice cores and in the form of icebergs, which as natural chronometers have recorded the deep history of the planet. These archives remind us that the ebb and flow of ice has shaped the surface of the earth as we know it, and that as interglacial beings, we are subject to the whims of a mass of matter that not only moves, but changes state. But to understand all the facets of the frozen material, Western scientific knowledge-production is not enough. As Julie Cruikshank recounts in Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination, to the three First Nation women who are her interlocutors, glaciers “are wilful, sometimes capricious, easily excited by human intemperance but equally placated by quick-witted human responses” (8). How and why glaciers move, and the natural and social stories they tell, are multiple, entangled and complex: we should treat them, and all matter, human or nonhuman, as such.

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Liliehöökbreen Glacier, Svalbard. Photo by Author.

By rethinking the meaning of ice, by considering existence at conflicting and complex timescales, and by privileging and being attentive to non-Western epistemologies—which, as Zoe Todd notes, are founded on relationalities that are too often touted as ‘new’ by the West—the Anthropocene can open up to ontological reform, to new systems of governance, and revolutionized modes of knowing (Todd, 2016). The result is a radically different relationship with self, others, and place than that which has underpinned so much of Western thought and society—and justified violent modes of extraction, colonization, and consumption—since the Enlightenment. If freedom, long defined as the liberation of humans from nature, is reconceptualized, the Anthropos of the Anthropocene could be diminished. In humble and thoughtful ways, with an eye to moderation, the idea of the Anthropocene can and should still be consumed.

Alexis Rider is a Ph.D Candidate in the History and Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, “A Melting Fossil: Ice, Life, and Time in the Cryosphere, 1840-1970,” asks how ice, an ephemeral and ubiquitous substance, has been deployed by diverse scientific disciplines to understand geologic timescales. Alexis completed her MA at the New School for Social Research, and her B.A. in English Literature and Philosophy at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, which is where she is originally from.