Nature and Nation: Britain and America in the 19th Century: David Lowenthal Explores Natural History Enthusiasms among Victorian Britons and Americans, and Finds an Explanation for Their Differing Approaches to Conservation

Article excerpt

In 1859, the year of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, the American artist Frederic Edwin Church's huge, magnificent painting 'The Heart of the Andes' was unveiled in New York City to intense excitement. It celebrated the conjunction of nature and art preached by Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the epoch's most admired naturalist. As Rebecca Bedell has shown, the overall composition and almost every pictorial detail of the work had 'its counterpart in Humboldt's words'. Church had steeped himself in Humboldt's travel writings, visited his favourite South American scenes, stayed in Humboldt's abode in Ecuador. After the opening, Church sere his painting to Humholdt, to re-experience the scenery that had delighted him sixty years previously. He was too late; the great explorer had just died. Inspired by Humboldt, naturalists of the day adopted his integrative perspective, encouraging understanding of nature through poetry, gardening, and landscape painting.

Natural history became a hugely popular cult in early nineteenth-century Britain and North America. Yet its seeds had germinated mainly outside the English-speaking world. Carl Linnaeus in Sweden had taught scholars to classify, name and rationally order the whole of animate creation. German chemists and anatomists had revealed the molecular make-up and growth mechanisms of living things. Polymaths like Buffon, Cuvier and Humboldt had depicted terrestrial nature in all its diversity. Nicolas Poussin's and Salvator Rosa's pastoral landscapes had intensified aesthetic delight in rural scenes. The prose and poetry of Goethe and Rousseau had infused Enlightenment nature philosophy with Romanticist sentiment. And it was largely Continental mariners and explorers, traders and settlers who had opened to scrutiny previously uncharted lands all over the globe. British and American knowledge and appreciation of nature closer to home also lagged behind that on the Continent. Rural Britain long remained inhospitable to the studious or curious wayfarer, apt to be set upon by highwaymen, unlikely to find lodgings of even minimal comfort, and otherwise deterred from wandering through the countryside, and most Americans were too busy subduing the wilderness and coping with its perils to enjoy its felicities.

Nevertheless, it was chiefly in nineteenth-century Britain and America that natural history was widely and passionately pursued. And despite divergent landscapes, societies and settlement histories, British and American interests were remarkably similar. American devotees of Charles Lyell, Hugh Miller, Gilbert White, and John Ruskin imbibed the same enthusiasms as British nature-lovers, even if they confronted different plants and animals, rocks and fossils. Lyell's American visits in the 1840s played a vital role in bringing together the two nations' natural history concerns. And the depictions of primordial landscapes in Miller's The Old Red Sandstone (1841) enthralled American no less than British readers. One wet morning in the Catskill Mountains in 1857, the American landscape painter Asher Durand was 'so excited by Miller's revelations', his daughter recorded, 'that he could hardly wait for the rain to let up so that he could rush down to a nearby creek, break open some of the sandstone on its banks, and see what it might reveal of the earth's history'. Praise of natural history pursuits as educative, healthful, edifying and, above all, sanctioned by Scripture animated outdoor inquiry on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Britain all facets of nature--plants, animals, rocks, fossils--generated a degree of public involvement between 1820 and 1860 unequalled before or since. Amateur interest was not unprecedented--eighteenth-century landowners and aristocrats had collected curiosities of nature; Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne (1789) celebrated intimacy with everyday rural scenes. But only after the Napoleonic Wars did nature in Britain attract not only aristocrats and cognoscenti but rural clerics, genteel ladies, tradesmen, farmers and factory workers. …


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