The Road to Comps Part 6: Different Approaches to the History of Natural History in the United States

The final section of the first portion of comps prep has the longest title, and the longest entry. These books are mainly a cross section of methodologies used in framing historical accounts of Natural History in America.  The best part about looking at these different approaches is that the content was generally useful as well.  They also criss cross the same time periods, geographies and often the same people.

The Poetics of Natural History

This history of Natural History in the Unites States starts with botany. In fact, most histories of Natural History start with Botany. Irmsher’s The Poetics of Natural History opens with two Quaker botanista, or rather plant enthusiasts, and their lasting exchanges of letters and botanical specimens. Moving chronologically Irmscher turns then to the museum collections of both Charles Wilson Peale and P.T. Barnum (some specimens being the same ones as Barnum purchased the last remnants of Peale’s museum to create his own).

Rattlesnakes and woodpeckers fill the ways, but it is descriptions obtained from the field and from people in the field. Of Course Audubon’s work is described as the “pinnacle of the poetics of natural history ” with his expert renderings of birds in something of a suggested habitat. That is not to saw that everything was 100% correct and this is where Irmscher offers another method of gleaning truth from facts.

What Irmscher’s work does it provide an avenue for information to disperse that does not necessarily require structured education, although it does require literacy, at least for the descriptions of Audubon’s birds of Holbrook’s snakes (North American Herpetology). It is the sources of information and not the information itself that is important to Irmscher’s analysis. The work goes well into his chosen project to expand the importance of storytelling and collecting beyond the “belles lettres” and to its beginnings in concrete experience.

A word about the rattlesnakes. Recently our natural history museum  hosted an Audubon exhibit filled with his amazing artwork, some sketches, and more ephemera. Of all the works and labels the one with the eagle and the rattlesnake stand out the most because the text belabored the fact that Audubon had gotten the snake wrong. This is what Irmscher and some of the following authors are working on: the idea that facts aren’t necessarily the only place to find truth. That is to say, that just representing the facts is something the least useful way to relate, or even understand history. This is also symptomatic of having the fully scientific collection curators serve as the exhibit curators. Nine and a half times of of 10 this comes off as condescending and doesn’t provide the visitor–reader or museum patron–with anything illuminating that they can take away and keep or use in their lives. Turns out historians, museum curators, and people in general could learn a lot from filmmakers in this sense:

Since we are not being pedantic as Werner Herzog advised above, looking at The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes may be one of the best examples of the academic establishment cutting off its nose to spite its face. Again we are looking at sources, and where knowledge is created and how it is traded. The greatest geological event in North American recorded history is forgotten to history and is only reintroduced as seismic scientists attempt to reconstruct the earthquakes to answer questions unrelated to settlement of the Mississippi River Valley in the early 19th century.

Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquake

Conevery Valencius’s research runs the gamut of personal letters and as many newspaper reports as she could kick up in the archives.  The biggest revelation is that the earthquakes were part of everyday life and for a while were on everyone’s lips and at the end of everyone’s pens.  The synthesis of these common sources provide a glimpse into the largest issue of the professionalization of the sciences in the late 19th century–that is, not trusting anyone outside of the profession.

By the time civilization had roared past New Madrid, the impact of the once ubiquitous earthquakes had been relegated to the annals of tall tales of westward expansion and were taken with the same mount of salt as stories of blue oxen and giant lumberjacks.  As it happens, I first read about the earthquakes in high school in a Wild West Magazine article that retold the tale of a murder uncovered by the earthquakes. Valencius mentions the same story briefly as the remains of a murdered slave were uncovered after a chimney collapse.

Coming from a geologic background into the History of Science this has been one of my favorite books from the readings. Not just because of the history, but because Valencius easily justifies the use of “vernacular” science in the case of the earthquakes and provides an excellent precedent for doing the same thing with other historical events. To go further on this point of vernacular, the tide is now turning towards utilizing the stories of indigenous peoples (where they can be found) in relation to larger European and American historical events The most recent being the discovery of the HMS Terror in areas that match up to Inuit tales, tales which also include incidents of cannibalism among desperate seamen. Valencius’ work also means that now those in between indigenous knowledge and learned professionals can also have a voice in the history of American science. Especially revealing is the fact that this isn’t just an exchange of information, it is the creation of knowledge.

Humboldt Current

That aptly named Humboldt Current (which ironically has been renamed the Peru Current) attempts to reframe some American exploration in the light of Humbolt’s “ecological” pursuits. Many well-known names in America were students (in the philosophical sense) of Humbolt’s work to provide evidence of an intricately connected world. J.N. Reynolds, Clarence King, George Melville, and John Muir are all connected mainly through their adoption of Humboltian idea(l)s.

Whether or not the book succeeds in convincing any of the deeply rooted professionals that some exploration is not imperialistically motivated (several reviews indicate it wasn’t) is immaterial. The book provides another angle to look at not only exploration, but ironically, empire, ecology, environmentalism, and nature. That some  expeditions were undertaken for explorations sake, or to prove some pet theory (in the case of Symmes’ Hollow Earth) seems to be beyond belief for more than a few historians. Many of these people also have a problem differentiating between exploration and exploitation (and that says nothing of using the word “exploitation” as a neutral descriptor for environment use a la anthropological theory).

How the Canyon Became Grand

Some of those environments can become cultural even though they have zero survival/subsistence value. The case of the Grand Canyon is one such event. How the Canyon Became Grand is strikingly similar to The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes in that it charts a discovery, forgetting, and rediscovery of something. Anyone on a road trip to visit the Grand Canyon should read this book. Not only to understand how the canyon became grand, but because it is kind of a meta trip as in visiting you are becoming part of that story and its reasoning.

For me, the most interesting parts of the book looks at the first Europeans to see the canyon in 1540. The Spanish were far from embracing Enlightenment thinking in Europe and they were in no way going to waste important colonial time on anything as novel and romantic as a giant hole in the ground.

Fluvialism in the mid 19th century and the geological surveys a few decades later provide adventure and natural spectacle that was part of the great American West. For the exact same reasons the early Spaniards ignored the canyon, 19th century Americans made it Grand. Pyne’s analysis and charts that record the mentions, descriptions, and other engagements with the Grand Canyon foreshadow many of the projects going on in Digital Humanities today. Pyne’s idea that the Grand Canyon became an important American icon because a select group of educated elite gave it  meaning can serve as avatar for any number of American Icons. After all, visits to the canyon or for that purpose. Since you really have to be going there to get there (as it isn’t conveniently on the way to anywhere) it seems that not only is Pyne right about the Canyon, but his results can be applied to nearly anything that educated elite decided to “give meaning.”

American Curiosity

American Curiosity is a lot like the ecological exchange book in the previous post–i.e. that knowledge wasn’t a unidirectional commodity no more than pigs or plants were. Parrish’s work situations the colonial Americans, in the earliest years including women, Native Americans, and slaves, not in reference to London, but in concert with the capital. Think of these “white men in London” in the 1790s as the educated elite of Pyne’s Grand Canyon Analysis. Any and all information was useful during the colonial period. This seems to be the case in any colonial possession of Great Britain, but Parrish stays focused on the American holdings.

Parrish’s work reveals the adversarial nature of colonization was a driving force in the early diversity of natural history “knowledge makers.” This also explains why, as Great Britain came to dominate the continent all enterprises became less diverse. This coincides with the treatment of the Native Americans as well, following the end of the French and Indian Wars, many Native people were on the losing end of decisions that left them with no one to offset British power. This more or less was the case for natural history providers as well.

Correspondence from women were important in practice but failed to be printed in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. One of the issues to remember from this process is that it repeats itself after the American Revolution and as America discovers itself.  There is almost a frontier theory of scientific correspondence and authority. Once a center is solidified (London, or in the US Philadelphia for science and Washington D.C. for politics) the periphery becomes less important as voices of authority in most matters not least natural history collecting, naming, trading. There is much to glean from the analysis if you can get through Parrish’s her smug (90s) theoretical vocabulary regarding  race and gender.  In my case, it is best used as a resource to utilize the same various source material that Valencius uses tracking down accounts of forgotten earthquakes.

It also another facet reading of  Moby Dick as the only people who could understand what it meant to be a whale was the whalers and more broadly why the cetacean chapter or the book is in the middle of the crew waxing on Shakespeare. If she had stopped there it would have been an excellent analysis, but, as with many of the great points she continues to show what “Melville failed to realize,” etc. Although not part of the reading in this case, this book will work exceptionally well paired with Kariann Yokota’s Unbecoming British. 

Unbecoming British

The Passage to Cosmos is the second Humboldt book in the section, and it is useful to see them together. Walls works in the same manner as Sachs in resituating Humboldt’s expeditions. In Sachs case it was to make it less imperialistic, and to Walls it meant fighting the dismissal that Humboldt’s work was overly romantic. More importantly, Walls delves into the loss of Humboldt in American History shortly after his death and huge continent-wide celebrations for his centennial.

Passage to Cosmos

As much as Humboldt tried to find the common thread throughout nature, the differences in his disciples (chosen and unchosen) unravelled it as quickly as he could make ends meet. Materialist, atheist, scientist, “ecologist”, man of letters, romantic, Prussian, Humboldt was all these things and just as individuals can attach themselves to parts of nature and ignore others, the same can be seen in those early adopters of Humboldt’s ideas. In the end it was the professionalization of science, arguments of social darwinism, and (above all) wars with Germany that ground Humboldt’s name out of the annals of (north) American history.

If Passage does nothing else, it should serve as a call to action among historians of science, especially cultural historians of science, to work more unravel the mysteries Walls presents. That Humboldt is still a national hero in many Latin American countries is not just a quaint aside, it is vastly important to the development of natural history and relationships with nature south of the United States border. That most of the english editions of Humboldt works and biographies are severely dated would be an easy place to start. It might also help if the Academy would ever get over its own importance as a memory institution and let Spanish count as a “academic” language. ( I had to petition to get Spanish to count, it was approved, but that I had to petition at all speaks volumes).

It might also be useful to note that Walls is not a historian of science, she is a specialist in English Literature (currently at Notre Dame).  I mention this because the bulk of Passage is devoted to the American Transcendentalist authors and poets that were the earliest adopters of Humboldtian idea(ls). These authors, and the movement will come in another post as I work through the American Studies portion of my readings. Incidentally most of these readings were from original dissertations in American Civilizations or similar disciplines.

Nature's Ghost

Nature’s Ghosts follows the idea of extinction from “the age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology.” It is right there in the subtitle. Content wise it doesn’t add much to the plethora of there books that deal with American Natural History at any or all points in time mentioned. What Barrow’s work does, however, is important. It traces the history of an idea from the very idea that it went against nature to the modern attempts to document it as it wipes out specie after specie.

By following the idea through time Barrow allows us to move through the development of natural history through its splintering into countless professions, the battle for the acceptance of evolution and what it meant for species extinction in regards to natural occurrences, all the way to modern efforts to keep things from going extinct. This is as much a history of conservation as it is any history of ideas. He compares the historical accounts of saving the alligator and the bison to losing the Passenger Pigeon and the Heath Hen. These stories set up the final instances of the California Condor and the whooping crane that even non history inclined individuals will be familiar with.

The strength of the book for my purposes lie in its scope and its relevance to the existing modern period. Something that most people get bent out of shape about when histories start trying to explain how things work today. They hurl Whiggish history around like it is an insult that you want to understand how we got where e are today. This is why the most useful books, and ones that reach the most people are printed by Viking or St. Martin’s Press, and not University presses. Barrow’s work is another in this series that serves as a guide of how to write good, useful, and readable history by including sources that are “outside the box” for most modern American historians.

The Book of Nature

The Book of Nature shrinks Barrows scope to a mere 50 years. It also takes Valencius’ approach and sources out to the popular books of natural history. By looking at what the average (literate) Americans had in hand, Welch follows the development of the educated hobbyist for generations on either side of the Civil War. This crosses much of the same territory as some of the earlier works and deals with some of the familiar authors as well (Thoreau, for example).  The biggest boon to these early nature studies was the explosion of printing, text and more importantly images during the 19th century.

Welch’s study also follows along the development of the American Transcendentalist movement regarding self reflection, with biographies and autobiographies helping author’s work out their, and by extension humankind’s place in nature.  Welch’s study ends just as the professionalization of scientific disciplines start taking authority out of the hand of learned citizenry as well as the earliest rumbles of the American Renaissance. It is an excellent book to show the obverse side to Barrow’s Nature’s Ghost providing a more in depth look at a few sources and historical actors instead of the survey spanning two centuries.

The Destruction of the Bison

The final book in this section, and this portion of comps study has to be one of the strangest books I have ever read. On the surface it seems straightforward enough to be an environmental history about the destruction of the bison. I mean, it is titled The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History. I literally have no idea what the purpose of this book is. I think, in the end Isenberg wanted to point out how complex the near extinction of the American Bison was.

Explaining that something is complex and making it complicated are two entirely different things. This book is heavy on the latter.  Isenberg states that several chapters of this short book appeared in print as various articles prior to publishing in 2001. This (I hope) is why the book is so schizophrenic. On the other hand it isn’t just choppy between chapters.

Within the chapters Isenberg goes from setting up the history of Native Americans turn to nomadism after the introduction of the horse, back to the vocabulary for the plains Indians more broadly to bits and pieces of Chaos theory.  To sum it all up: Isenberg implicates climate, Indians, and the Plains themselves as accomplices to the Buffalo hunters in the demise of the numbers.

I love this comic. The fact that it was released on my birthday makes it even better. ©Neil Kohney
I am using this again because I use both buffalo and bison when talking about this book, and because I love it.  ©Neil Kohney

Several key, and reiterated, points include that fact that Native Americans were not harmonious with nature in some Edenic way, they were not stewards of wildlife, and they were sometimes wasteful in the utilization of the bison carcass. He also shows the market pressures for the Indians to become hunters and providers of hides for the robe market as well. All this historical intraculturalism could serve to provide a more holistic picture of the plight of the buffalo, but then he evokes modern ecological studies (which, for the record I think is actual Whiggish history in the sense that people sneer at it).

To help prove that nature is in no way stable, Isenberg follows a handful of biologist that follow chaos theory. Think Ian Malcolm in Buffalo Park. The absolute worst for me is the use of a modern population study to back up claims that Bison populations experience drastic fluctuations in number. The study in question involved the reindeer on St. Matthews Island.

This is one of the (literal) textbook studies of population as the 29 original reindeer swell to 6000 in almost 20 years only to crash back to 60. The problems with this analogy are: 1) An island is a closed ecosystem in no way similar to the vast expanse of the Great Plains and B) Reindeer were introduced to the island whereas bison evolved over 30+ million years on the great plains. To this end I wonder if Isenberg has ever taken an ecology course or seen a buffalo or the Great Plains.

I will end the discussion on Isenberg’s book with a wonder at just how much he wanted chaos theory to work here. There is already a smoking gun in the plight of the bison and it belongs to the American hunter. Isenberg tries to put other instigators up on the grassy knoll but spends so much time setting up the position he does not establish and accountability for each in relation to each other before  applying them all to the larger problem at hand.

He introduces an idea and then either neutralizes it or proffers a counter almost immediately. If this was supposed to help in the explanation of a complex system it failed. My favorite line in the book falls near the end when he is (again) approaching chaos theory and describes the standard butterfly in Africa causing havoc elsewhere: “no butterfly ever shouldered a .50 caliber rifle on the hide hunters’ range” (196).  He also starts tangents about bison preserves serving to domesticate the bison in regards to the drive of civilization.  This book would far better serve as a collection of essays centered around a relative theme, as a single, drive, work though, it serves as an example of what not to do.  By trying to be history and ecology research it fails to do justice to either.

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