Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Visions of the Land

Title: Visions of the Land: Science, Literature, and the American Environment from the Era of Exploration to the Age of Ecology (Charlottesville: Virginia UP, 2002)

John C. Fremont's map of what would soon be Oregon and California, 1848

Michael A. Bryson, professor of humanities, Roosevelt University in Chicago. Educated as an undergrad in biological sciences; received PhD in English (SUNY/Stony Brook). His CV shows that his next book will be called Mapping the Urban Wilderness: an Ecological and Literary Topography of Chicago (go, urban ecologists! The Jungle alone should furnish quite a chapter...) He does some environmental reporting for a local newspaper. It also seems as though he's actually been to Antarctica and done scientific research.

Science and literature have intersected in significant ways in the writing of American environmentalists, scientists, and explorers. The texts which Bryson will examine,
which range from expedition reports to maps to fiction, are "united by thoughtful examination of science in nature" and "speak to two defining tensions within our views of nature and science" - namely, the conflict between use and conservation, and the concomitant conflict between science's exploitative powers and its generative possibilities (xi).

Richard Byrd's middle name was Evelyn.

The chronological span of the book's terrain, moving from the antebellum era to the 1960s, seeks to trace "the emergence of twentieth century ecology out of nineteenth century natural history" (shades of Sachs), as well as examine the transformation of scientific activity and the expansion of scientific "frontiers" (xii).

Part 1: Narratives of Exploration and the Scientist-Hero

One: "I Saw Visions": John Charles Fremont and the Explorer-Scientist as Nineteenth-Century Hero:
Here Bryson examines the explorer Fremont's maps as instruments of political power, and as indicators of how Fremont conceptualized nature - "as a static, spatial entity best known through a visual perspective" (16). Bryson then describes Fremont's self-portrayal as masculine, heroic figure, possessed of self-control and intellect, in opposition to James Fenimore Cooper's bumbling naturalist Obed Bat (of The Prairie, 1827). Bryson also brings in the spectre of poor half-romantic Clarence King to illustrate Fremont's comparative detachment from the subjects he studied.

Two: "The Evidence of My Ruin": Richard Byrd's Antarctic Sojourn:
Byrd's attempt to create a Thoreauvian idyll on the ice in Antarctica, as cataloged in his 1939 book Alone, is thwarted by the adverse conditions of the landscape, leaving the admiral a slave to the technological innovations which keep him alive. To Bryson, this narrative represents a significant departure from Fremont's stoicism: Byrd is "a vulnerable human subject seeking self-knowledge, spiritual replenishment, and communion with the natural world" (53). (It seems to me that this is a theme developed with far more chronological unity in Sachs' book, but one could also argue that this information about Byrd represents an interesting addition to Sachs' schema.)

Part 2: Imagined Communities and the Scientific Management of Nature

Three: "A Strange and Terrible Woman Land": Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Scientific Utopia:
This chapter is a close textual analysis of CPG's Herland (1915), a feminist utopia intended to defy expectations of female capability to handle engineering/technology, and redefine ideas of environmental management. Bryson acknowledges that Herland has often been seen as racist (because of the lack of non-whites in the utopia), but argues that the project is an inherently feminist and ecocentric one, advocating for a science that "enables the whole community - human, plant, animal, mineral - to function in a self-sustaining, harmonious, and efficient way" (71) and an anti-social Darwinist point of view which views the community as a unitary whole, instead of valuing each person on an individual basis.

Four: "A Unit of Country Well Defined in Nature": John Wesley Powell and the Scientific Management of the American West :
Powell's vision of science is of "the ultimate problem solver," "the means by which humans can control not only their natural environment but also themselves" (84). Bryson points out that although Powell conducted surveys that enabled the exploitation of the West's resources, he also, especially in the piece which Bryson examines (Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, with a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah [1878]), advocated for wise management of American arid regions, saying that humans should adjust their ways to accomodate the carrying capacity of the land.

John Wesley Powell and a conspicuously/racistly unidentified friend.

Part 3: Nature's Identity and the Critique of Science

Five: "The Earth is the Common Home of All": Susan Fenimore Cooper's Investigations of a Settled Landscape:
Susan Fenimore Cooper's Rural Hours (1850), while almost retrogressive in its separate-spheres gender politics, is also a "complex, multilayered narrative that integrates natural history, cultural analysis, and personal stories" (105). Bryson characterizes her work as "proto-ecological," writing that Cooper presents a "forward-thinking, if limited, conservation ethic in which wild areas as well as developed and cultivated lands are valued" (106).

Six: "The Relentless Drive of Life": Rachel Carson's and Loren Eiseley's Reformulation of Science and Nature:
The last chapter examines Carson's and Eiseley's
popularizing of natural science and ecology, pointing to their works as examples of a humanistic philosophy of the environment, one which hearkens back to the nineteenth-century popular naturalists such as Susan Fenimore Cooper, while "developing innovative strategies of literary representation" capable of avoiding the pathetic fallacy while opening up arenas for public sympathy with the natural world.

The dapper Loren Eiseley.

Of Carson's work, Bryson focuses on The Sea Around Us (1951) while the Eiseley book The Immense Journey (1957) provides much of the material for the analysis of his writing.

Reviews: In Environmental History, Robert Burkholder wrote that Bryson's book is a "model of graceful interdisciplinarity expressed through thoughtful analyses in lucid prose." He added that Visions is notable for its ability to turn pairings of ostensibly similar works into illustrations of significant differences.

Rachel Carson: the one person whose built-in bookshelves I wouldn't begrudge?

In Isis, Mark Madison lauded Bryson's ambition, and recommended the book to historians of science and technology. Nina Baym, in the New England Quarterly, emphasized gender aspects of Bryson's book, reviewing Bryson's blend of the Carolyn Merchant and the Annette Kolodny, and praised Bryson for giving this theme the nuance it deserves (see: Jessie Fremont's involvement with her husband's literary production).

New words:
"parthenogenesis" ("reproduction from a gamete without fertilization, occurring most commonly in invertebrates and lower plants, formerly also: asexual reproduction, as by fission or budding" - this is what that shark did recently in Detroit!); "pathetic fallacy" (" the attribution of human emotion or responses to animals or inanimate things, esp. in art and literature" - first used by John Ruskin in 1856).

Books to follow up on: Primary:
Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle (1971); Loren Eiseley, Darwin's Century (1958); Charlotte P. Gilman's magazine The Forerunner; Olive Thorne Miller's nature books for children, Little Folks in Feathers and Fur (1875) and A Bird Lover in the West (1894); HG Wells, Men Like Gods (1922).

Secondary: Gillian Beer, Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narratives in Darwin, George Eliot, and 19th Century Fiction (1983); Mario Biagnoli, ed., The Science Studies Reader (1999); George H. Daniels, Science in the Age of Jackson (1968); William Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West (1966); Murdo William McRae, ed., The Literature of Science: Perspectives on Popular Scientific Writing (1993); Stephen J. Pyne, The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica (1986).

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