Environmental Degradation and the Geography of Beer

I’ve been doing some reading around on the collapse of Braunschweig’s water supply in 1891.  I was struck by this little quip, which appeared on January 5, 1892 in the Braunschweigische Anzeigen in an article looking back on the year 1891:

Die Schmerzen, die es Anfang des Jahres und zwischendurch noch einige Male das Okerwasser bereitete, mögen von abgesagten Wasserfeinden und ausgesprochenen Verehrern des Münchener Bräus vielleicht weniger empfunden sein, als von den Hausfrauen, deren feinste Tafelwäsche unter den Einwirkungen des verunreinigten Elements litt, das so klar aus den grünen Harzbergen kommt und erst in der Nähe unserer Stadt jenen Geschmack annahm, der, weniger süß als der Zucker der schuldigen Fabriken, diesen letzteren schon manche berechtigte Verwünschungen eingetragen hat.

Sworn enemies of water and worshippers of Munich brew may have felt the pain that the Oker river water brought at the b of beginning of the year and intermittently since then less than the housewives whose finest tablecloths suffered from the effects of the dirty element, that runs clear from the Harz mountains.  Only in the vicinity of our city does it take on that taste that, being less sweet than the sugar of the guilty factories, justified certain curses directed against the sugar.

Obviously there is a certain facetiousness here, and in my use of the quote.  But it strikes me not only because I recently pointed out that the origin of one’s beer matters in Der Stechlin, but because of the way that beer is implicated in what American environmental discourse imagines as “place connectedness.”  The author, whose name was not attached to the article, may have been speaking tongue-in-cheek, but nonetheless the drinker of the beer from elsewhere is contrasted to the housewife, who depends on the water supplied by runoff from the Harz mountains not far from Braunschweig.

Incidentally, I often wonder about the analytic of “place” which seems to have considerable currency in American ecocriticism especially.  I recently had the chance to read Ursula Heise’s book Sense of Place and Sense of Planet.  I’ll have more to say about it another time, but Heise, who notes explicitly that she is writing from a German perspective, sees this thinking about place as specific to environmentalism in the U.S., and shows that it is caught up in both American and international imaginaries of the socially and geographically mobile U.S. citizen.  But given the way that industrialization and urbanization seems to alienate one from the familiar – and here I’m mostly thinking about Raabe, if only because he writes about this problem so explicitly and so consistently – is place an analytic that is apparent in Germany prior to the twentieth century?  Is “place” to be distinguished from “Heimat,” or when American ecocritics talk about “place,” are they really talking about “Heimat?”  And finally, how much mileage does a project of literary criticism get from these kinds of concepts?

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