Reply To: 3. 3 March – River History

Author Replies
Sanna Karlsson # Posted on December 3, 2015 at 12:13

One of my fellow students wrote the following about the articles:
”I must admit that I found the reading of the articles almost unbearably boring. My impression was that the authors just stacked up historical facts without putting them in a context or creating a comprehensible narrative. Should not all this information be connected to some socioeconomic factors, ecological consequences or a zoomed out perspective on Austrias role in global trade – in order to justify itself as History?”
I agree that stacking up information bit by bit can be perceived as boring and may not serve its purpose since the relevance of the context is left out. Since I did not attend the seminar, I am not sure if Winiwarter answered why the context is left out. I come from a background of natural sciences, but has now in my Master come into being an environmental historian. I am new to the concept of an actual ”historian” and how history should be written. What I can recall from a course in what history is in the beginning of the programme, is that one has to truly specify what the study concerns and what it does not look into. To be specific is the key I believe. In this, there is always a context. Not a pile of facts. For what does a pile of facts really mean? Can it lead forward a correct understanding of a situation, and what to do about it? History, what I understand, is always placed in a context. What, when, who, where things happened. And as my fellow student put it: what consequences were made. I think it would be interesting to ask Winiwarter myself what has come out of the articles. Maybe it has served a purpose despite, I should not say that it may have not.

My fellow student goes on to say:
”But she (Winiwarter) also explained to us that in her understanding the very detailed and long term information their project managed to produce is a better foundation for policy makers, than as a comparison the eco-biography of the Rhine by Cioc (2006). She argued that it would be artificial to “speak for the river” (as Cioc tried to give a voice to nature) since we could not possibly know what the river would say. And that she avoids grand narratives because they are a 100 % likely to be wrong in some aspect. I do understand that she feels that way.”
Here we might have an answer to my above question I would like to ask Winiwarter. What purpose the articles have made for the public. I do understand that by piling up information, the policy makers will find it easier to make sense of it all and actually apply it in policy making. If one thinks about it, how often concerning environmental issues is this made? That it is a piling up, giving policy makers something to work with? Perhaps it is not as often as could be needed. But this is not anything I know for sure. Any way, I understand Winiwarter´s intention and think it is a good one. But then my fellow student might still be right about that the texts are not considered to be traditionally historical, since it is out of context. Be it so, but I believe policy making is of higher priority in this case. An alternative way could have been to write the text in context, that is historical, and at the end pile up a summary of information that can easily be applicable in policy making.
I would like to address the part where Winiwarter suggested that one can not ”speak for the river”, in the case of ”The Rhine” book. I have read the book myself a while ago. I know many of my fellow students did not like how the book was written. It was merely a description of the history of the river, especially concerning the pollutions of the river, but also the present state (year 2000) where the river to a large extent had been purified. The reason why they did not like the book was that there was mostly facts and not any engaging discussion or reflection from the author, that served a purpose. Yet, I must say I found the book much worth of reading. The actual facts I believe some how spoke for themselves, and then the reader had to make up his or her mind about what to do with the information.
Any way, back to the utterance ”speak for the river.” I do not agree with Winiwarter that one can not do that. The river can not speak for itself in our language, therefore we have but no choice to try interpret what is essentially good for the river. To me it is blatantly clear that if a river is polluted decade after decade and the fish is dying because of it, could there be any other voice from the river but ”please purify me!”? This is somewhat abstract, for a river in itself do not have feelings. But the fish and sea life? In the end, pollution of rivers affect us too. We can not drink the water or eat the fish. My conclusion is therefore that we do good in interpreting what is good for the river and give it a voice.

One of Winiwarter´s articles is about the reconstruction of the Danube river landscape in Vienna. They used a system called GIS to be able to do this and looked at early historical maps of the river back from the 16th century and onwards. I found this tracing back of past, long-forgotten landscapes, quite intruiging. I wonder what was their motivation to do this. It seems to me that in a world where much industrialization is going on, new modern buildings and factories are constantly developing and wanted. Of course though, on the other hand, green areas are also much appreciated to be cultivated in the midst of it all. What I have never heard of however, is how an old river is reconstructed.
A normal river is snaky in its appearance and moves and changes locations throughout time. Today many rivers in cities, and also in the landscape, are rectified and do therefore keep a straight structure no matter if time passes by. However, this can cause submersion. I do not know if the intention of the reconstruction of the old Danube river was to simply avoid submersion, or for the esthetics of an old version. Nevertheless, I think it esthetically was a great idea.