Michael Chiarappa looks at our environment through the twin lenses of a 30-year academic background and innate care for the relationship between terrestrial and marine landscapes, history, culture and architecture.
In The Spy’s ongoing effort to understand the idea of cultural landscapes, a sometimes-open-ended descriptor of the intersection between land, culture, and history, we thought Dr. Chiarappa the perfect candidate to help us explore the subject.
Chiarappa is Director of Cultural and Natural Resources Initiatives at Center for Environment & Society at Washington College and a research professor at Chesapeake Regional Studies. He was the original Director of CES in 2005 and now returns in a different role.
Before, and since his original directorship at CES, Dr.Chiarappa has taught environmental history at Quinnipiac University and Western Michigan University, and co-authored a 700-page book, Fish For All, An Oral History of Multiple Claims and Divided Sentiment on Lake Michigan about “the political, economic, social and biological complexity of managing one of the world’s largest and most valuable freshwater fisheries.”
“My previous role at CES had a broader job description, and the Center was in a different place. In the past fifteen years it’s come a long way and developed in a variety of directions in terms of how it serves the College and the community,” he says. “I’m happy to be back.”
Chiarappa adds that his current work at CES is the result of Director John Seidel recognizing that folks involved in the study of the environment come from various disciplines. As an environmental historian, Chiarappa observes the inextricable relationship between “built” environments (farmhouse to city), and natural landscapes.
He points out that the Eastern Shore has retained much of its colonial-era contours. While it’s a bucolic agricultural and marine landscape, Chiarappa finds it compelling because it is so close to some of the major urban centers on the East Coast. In his view, Chestertown becomes an epicenter to study the relationships between urban and natural landscapes, and CES a perfect learning environment to do so.
“When we build things, and we transform the landscape, we affect ecosystems, so if you study the history of landscape transformation and how we change the environment we live and work in, that’s going to give you a foothold in being an environmental historian as well.”
Chiarappa developed an early interest in the relationship between the “built” and “natural” environment.
“I was always intrigued by the makeup and the texture of different places and how the landscape could change quickly.” He cites traveling as a boy with his family from urban Philadelphia to the New Jersey Pine Barrens and the ocean beyond as an example of the quick changes in the landscape that fascinated him.
“For those of us who find the interface of land water compelling, that’s where we have a role to play at Washington College’s Center for the Environment and Society because I think the kind of programming we can do by having faculty and staff work together to really to use this place as a mechanism will let us think about issues that transcend the region. It’s an exportable mindset.”
As the CES Center at Washington College continues to evolve in a world challenged by global environmental issues, Chiarappa believes its mission as an environmental study center is urgent and the understanding of cultural landscapes key to appreciating the world we live in.
“I may sound very Thoreauvian and John Muiresque— yes, there is a place for computer modeling— there’s no replacement for actually immersing yourself in the environment. In all its beauty and all its many challenges, it creates a connection that ultimately sustains and reinforces our humanity and our connection to other species.”
This video is approximately ten minutes in length. For more about the Center for Environment and Society at Washington College, go here.