The Invention of Nature and Crimes Against Nature: Two books on the Romantic view of Nature

“Nature” is far from natural; two recent books explore the development of romantic ideas about nature, and the consequences of policies based on these ideas. The Invention of Nature is a biography by Andrea Wulf that traces the career of Alexander von Humboldt, the German scholar who shaped ideas about nature, and influenced the people who created conservation policies. Crimes against Nature, by Karl Jacoby is a social history that explores the consequences of romantic ideas of nature, as they were implemented in the conservation policies of state and national parks.

Humboldt had been nearly forgotten in the English speaking world, but has been the world’s premier celebrity scientist in his day.

Humboldt was close friends with Goethe, and the ideas of German romanticism infused his work. As a romantic who saw feeling as a primary means of understanding, Humboldt didn’t see science as an intellectual activity separate from emotion. ‘Nature must be experienced through feeling,’ Humboldt wrote to Goethe, insisting that those who wanted to describe the world by simply classifying plants, animals and rocks ‘will never get close to it’. His writing for scientific and popular audiences was full of lyrical and ecstatic passages inspired by natural beauty.

In Views of Nature, for example, Humboldt invited the reader to “follow me gladly into the thickets of the forest, into the immeasurable steppes, and out upon the spine of the Andes range … In the mountains is freedom!” Humboldt’s romantic portrayals of nature also included visuals in the tradition of romantic landscapes, intended to convey the feelings of awe and wonder.
Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland. Vues des Cordillieres et Monumens des Peuples Indigenes de L’Amerique. Paris, 1810.

Wulf’s biography traces how Humboldt’s poetic style of communication about nature influenced writers including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Thoreau and many other writers whose enchanted descriptions fill the Nature writing sections of bookstores and Amazon.

Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland. Vues des Cordillieres et Monumens des Peuples Indigenes de L'Amerique. Paris, 1810.
Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland. Vues des Cordillieres et Monumens des Peuples Indigenes de L’Amerique. Paris, 1810.

Humboldt’s verbal and visual images of nature were shaped by the Romantic ideas that the natural world conveyed spiritual experiences in characteristic places, following the philosophical and esthetic concept of “the sublime.” In the essay, the Trouble with Wilderness, William Cronon writes that, Although God might, of course, choose to show Himself anywhere, He would most often be found in those vast, powerful landscapes where one could not help feeling insignificant and being reminded of one’s own mortality. Where were these sublime places? The eighteenth century catalog of their locations feels very familiar, for we still see and value landscapes as it taught us to do. God was on the mountaintop, in the chasm, in the waterfall, in the thundercloud, in the rainbow, in the sunset….

Humboldt’s ground-breaking scientific work was based on detailed measurements taken while travelling the world. His innovations and discoveries included the the idea of isothermal zones of vegetation and climate zones that span the globe at similar latitudes, and observation of connections between similar species on continents that were separated by (what was later shown to be) plate tectonics. His measurements and analysis also demonstrated the decrease in intensity of Earth’s magnetic field from the poles to the equator.

elevation climate zones

Humboldt’s work pioneered key concepts of environmental science. After he saw the devastating environmental effects of colonial plantations at Lake Valencia in Venezuela in 1800, Humboldt became the first scientist to talk about the environmental harm wreaked by plantation monoculture and deforestation, which washed away soil and left the land barren. “Humboldt was the first to explain the forest’s ability to enrich the atmosphere with moisture and its cooling effect, as well as its importance for water retention and protection against soil erosion. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Humboldt’s environmental science was the concept that things in nature – plants and animals, atmosphere and oceans – are all connected – and methodical measurement and analysis can reveal these connections.

Humboldt’s assessment of the costs of plantation agriculture included the human depredation of slavery, as well as the risks of monoculture to human health and survival in addition to the risks to the natural environment. In Cuba, Humboldt observed the social costs of plantation monoculture. Humboldt observed how cash crops produced by plantations had replaced ‘those vegetables which supply nourishment’. “Cuba produced not much other than sugar, which meant that without imports from other colonies, Humboldt said, ‘the island would starve’. This was a recipe for dependency and injustice. Similarly, the inhabitants of the region around Cumaná cultivated so much sugar and indigo that they were forced to buy food from abroad which they could easily have grown themselves. Monoculture and cash crops did not create a happy society, Humboldt said. What was needed was subsistence farming, based on edible crops and variety such as bananas, quinoa, corn and potatoes.”

Wulf traces the influence of Humboldt’s environmental ideas on George Perkins Marsh, an American diplomat who traveled through Middle East while serving as ambassador to Turkey in the 1850s. Marsh and observed barren conditions in places that had formerly been the breadbasket of civilization, and ascribed the desert conditions to deforestation, which had led to erosion and the collapse of agriculture. When he returned to the states, Marsh wrote Man and Nature, an early work of ecology that talked about how manufacturing and industrial agriculture were ruining the environment, with barren soil and torrential floods caused by deforestation and monoculture, and lifeless lakes and rivers polluted by industrial waste.

Marsh viewed the role of humans as uniformly negative. “Man is everywhere a disturbing agent,” declared Marsh. “Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords.
Man and Nature discussed the damage being caused in the present day by deforestation in the Adirondacks, and the work was influential in the creation of a New York State forest preserve in the 1880s and 90s. Man and Nature also influenced people including John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, who played crucial roles in creating the United States’ National Park system and other policies to protect America’s forests.

John Muir was another disciple of Humboldt who found inspiration in nature, evangelized the spiritual value of connection to wilderness, and gathered a movement of lovers of nature to drive the founding of the national parks to protect pristine wild lands. Muir thought wild places as separate from human settlement, and preached the spiritual benefits of finding reprieve from urban life. As Muir wrote, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

The pristine wilderness that Muir admired had long been inhabited by people; it eventually took the introduction of the US army, with enthusiastic support from Muir to expel the people.
Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation , by Karl Jacoby, covers the impact on local residents, Native and European-American, when national parks were established.

Before the Grand Canyon National Park was established, Havasupai Native Americans grew crops in a nearby canyon during the summer, and hunted on the ledge in the winter. The book describes with how the Havasupai became impoverished by forced exile from their hunting area when the laws of the National Park banned hunting; the traditional subsistence hunting was recast as poaching. As the people suffered from hunger, Havasupai men resorted to manual labor in the park to make a living. Far from being a “trackless wilderness”, the lands in the National Parks were criss-crossed with trails created by Native Americans for hunting and seasonal migrations. Jacoby reports how, as day laborers, Havasupai men earned cash by paving the trails for tourists.

One of the main reasons that Native Americans were excluded from national parks was to prevent forest fires. It turns out that the fires that had regularly been set by people was valuable for the plants and animals in the ecosystem as well. Jacoby writes, “Native Americans used fire for multiple purposes: to keep down underbrush, facilitating travel; to rid camping areas of insect pests; and to aid in hunting. … By burning underbrush and dead wood, low-level fires of this sort also helped to recycle nutrients into the soil and create a mosaic of plant communities at varying levels of succession, raising the level of vegetational diversity and opening up a variety of ecological niches for wildlife. The benefits of fire were therefore not only short-term (facilitating travel and the taking of game) but long-term as well (maintaining a higher population of wildlife than would have occurred otherwise)

The chapter in “Crimes against Nature” focusing on the state park in the Adirondacks describes the impact of the park’s regulations on a small population of about 16,000 European Americans who engaged in subsistence hunting, fishing, and cut small amounts of timber for fuel and small buildings.

While Marsh’s generally had a negative view about the impact of humans on the natural world, he believed that the subsistence farmers in the Adirondacks (and other places) were particularly damaging. Jacoby writes “In keeping with his Whig political beliefs, Marsh viewed these members of the lower classes as lacking the foresight and expertise necessary to be wise stewards of the natural world”. With this perspective, the rules of the park system were designed to prohibit subsistence-level hunting and wood-gathering. While there are examples of large populations engaged in subsistence foraging and agriculture causing deforestation and environmental damage, it’s not clear that the 16,000 small-scale farmers in the Adirondacks were actually causing damage, in contrast to large-scale timber harvesting. (A weakness of the book is that it does not bring evidence.)

In fact, the motivations for creating state and national parks weren’t to protect ecosystems the way that we may think of them today. The congressional report in support of the creation of Yellowstone as a National Park described the benefits of the park to be:

  • First. As a region containing some of the chief natural wonders of the world.
  • Second. As the largest of the forest reserves.
  • Third. As the greatest existing game preserve.

The hunters for whom the “game” was being protected were upper class men who hunted for recreation. Hunting was prohibited within the boundaries of Yellowstone and Yosemite, permitted in game season in the Adirondack state park, and the local subsistence hunters who could not feed their families on the allowance and seasons permitted by the rules became guides for upper-class recreational hunting and fishing. People who hunted for subsistence when they needed food- native or european – were considered poachers.

And the views of the great wonders of the world were being protected for tourists who could afford taking vacations to appreciate the sublime beauty of nature, as understood through the Romantic esthetic. In The Trouble with Wilderness, William Cronon explains that One has only to think of the sites that Americans chose for their first national parks—Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Rainier, Zion—to realize that virtually all of them fit one or more of these categories.

Cronon continues… “Less sublime landscapes simply did not appear worthy of such protection; not until the 1940s, for instance, would the first swamp be honored, in Everglades National Park, and to this day there is no national park in the grasslands.” Natural parks were not primarily created to protect biodiversity (or estuaries would have been early parks), nor was they created to protect distinctive ecosystems (or grasslands would have been protected). They were created to protect the views that triggered emotional experiences that were valued by the Romantic perceptions of nature held by Humboldt and his followers.

Travelling to remote and “exotic” places was seen as an integral aspect to experiencing nature. Humboldt, Marsh, and Muir sought experiences of nature in travels to South America, the Middle East, and the American West. The creation of parks brought these experiences “downmarket”, from upper-class travellers (Humboldt, Marsh) who had the financial resources and social connections to explore distant places, or extraordinary individuals (John Muir) who were willing to make social and financial sacrifices to travel, to prosperous middle class people who had resources to take time off and travel for vacation.

While Humboldt himself saw the suffering caused by with plantation slavery and monoculture, valued mixed agriculture, and (rare for his time), respected native cultures, the romantic ideals as they passed down through generation tended to see nature as separate from humanity, and to dismiss the people actually living in places understood as “natural.” Crimes Against Nature makes the case that when nature is seen as “somewhere else” that is free of people – the vision of a connected system leaves out people – this perception misreads most places that are actually inhabited, creates harm to the rural people living subsistence lifestyles, and doesn’t necessarily help the natural environment.

In “the Trouble With Wilderness” William Cronon also concludes that if we believe that wilderness is a remote place for urban people to visit as tourists, this belief prevents us from finding solutions to environmental problems that are inherent in our urban industrial civilization.

“If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not. If this is so—if by definition wilderness leaves no place for human beings, save perhaps as contemplative sojourners enjoying their leisurely reverie in God’s natural cathedral—then also by definition it can offer no solution to the environmental and other problems that confront us. To the extent that we celebrate wilderness as the measure with which we judge civilization, we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles. We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.

Humboldt’s romantic vision helped him pioneer an environmental science in which everything in nature is connected. Jacoby and Cronon show that when rural and urban people are omitted from the vision of nature, the ecosystem including humans, are at greater risk.

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