This post is about biocentric history and its important past American historians. I also spent some time writing about the philosophy of transcendentalism. I found this topic fascinating and fun to study. I hope you enjoy!
Biocentric history is most easily defined as history compiled from the point of view of nature. However, collecting or 'doing' this form of history is quite difficult. It requires the historian to try to rid themselves of some basic unconscious biases that most human beings have. The historian must step back and recognize that humans are not the center of all things and that the world was not created solely for our benefit and use. The understanding that we as a species are not separate from other species and that all species are equal in importance and depend on each other for survival is also key. This is not an easy thing to ask of anyone I suspect. Certainly as a human I tend to anthropomorphize animals and plants and while a part of my brain considers other species to be equal to humanity, I can't really believe that if I am willing to eat meat (I think... I might need to think more on this.) Henry David Thoreau was considered a pretty good biocentric historian and in his writings and work he recorded activities of any animal he saw (be it bird, fish, insect, etc...). He tracked the life cycles of several species throughout the year and he tried to figure out how the activities of different animals and plants were connected to each other.... and to us.
In 1988, historian Robert K. McGregor wrote about Henry David Thoreau and his work and studies on nature... in particular, the red fox. He makes the point that while many people would not see the writings and nature studies completed by Thoreau as history in the traditional sense, they are an important part of a historical record in a few ways. One way is that the descriptions of all the animals that were seen as so precise that they give a clear record of all forms of life – plant and animal- that Thoreau encountered in that area. (A rare primary source indeed.) It gives a record of interactions between the different species and these interactions are describes over long periods of time in minute detail. Mr. McGregor makes it clear through his studies of Thoreau that the later certainly qualifies as a biocentric historian due to the writer's ability to try and discover the truth of nature and not simply create it around himself. Even when using his skills as a scientific man or as a believing transcendentalist, Thoreau worked to keep the work pure and didn't try to make any particular discovery in the sense that he recorded and tried to learn, but tried to not have any preconceived notion about what 'truth' he might find.
The word transcendentalism describes a philosophical movement or way of viewing the world that developed around the 1840's in response to the strong Puritan thinking of the day. Someone who was a transcendentalist usually had characteristics of many different fields of thought including philosophers, psychologists, intelligentsia, naturalists, etc.... There are quite a few well known individuals who were known as transcendentalists, but two of the most important were Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Both of these men were writers and intellectuals. Henry David Thoreau took his thoughts and desires and acted upon them...living and writing in nature. He wrote about the strength that nature gives us as individuals and felt that human beings needed to find a balance between nature and civilization to survive and thrive. Thoreau believes that the wilderness was the raw materials of life and the farther we as human beings get from it, the less intelligent and understanding we are. He also believed that to truly understand nature you had to study it in its natural environment... you can't just remove a piece to study and think that you will understand the whole. Ralph Waldo Emerson believed in many of the same ideas but came to them in different ways. He also wrote about humans and their ideal relationship with nature which was not that nature was simply a commodity or something to exploit. He also felt that humans should enjoy the technology that they developed but not to allow the technology to take over their lives or to remove them from enjoying and understanding nature. (Boy, I think in many ways I have failed in that regard and I don't think that I am alone!) Lastly, Emerson believed in the concept of the 'oversoul'- the idea that we as individuals can be one with others and to not see the world in different parts... but as one component that we are part of. And the only way to find our 'oversoul' is to look at and understand nature. These men are great examples of people who believed and tried to teach and live the concept of transcendentalism.
Many American artists of this time belonged to a movement called the Hudson River School. While this sounds like a physical place, it was truly an almost intangible movement that was started and embodied by several American landscape painters during the nineteenth century. These artists completed many portraits of the area and surrounding land of the Hudson River valley.... and later on other areas of the midwest. Many of the paintings from these artists (which included the acknowledged founder Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Thomas Doughty as well as later artists Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, and Thomas Moran) were themed on the idea that human beings and nature could and should coexist peacefully. This movement tends to be viewed in three stages. The first stage is known as 'the Wild' and the landscapes and paintings tended to attempt to represent nature and wilderness untamed... The second stage is known as 'the pastoral' where farms and people are shown side to side with nature and wilderness. The third stage is known as 'the urban' and these paintings tended to focus on the views of nature trampled and tamed under the weight of factories and cities and railroads.
The idea and motivation behind this movement was the artist's attempts to capture their thoughts of nature and its crash course with people and civilization. By studying these artists and their works... as well as watching the changes of the works over time, we can study not only what these people thought at the time about the clash of environment and civilization, but we can also see what they thought the future looked like from their viewpoint. The views are not entirely accurate in the sense that the artists tended to take a very romanticized view of nature. It was thought that to understand spiritual truths we must understand them through our intuition and emotions that are evoked by our experiences and understanding of nature. These views tended to cause the artists to pour out their yearnings for the spirituality that they were unable to get from the current Protestant revivalism or the large industrial cities. In a way, these men were creating their spirituality and their religion from their thoughts/fantasies and which were spread and drawn onto the canvases through their brushes. (It is no mistake that these artists were nicknamed “priests of the natural church” by art historian Barbara Novak.) And as very converted and zealous believes, the artists did tend to leave out of their painting real images that they didn't want to display. So nature was tranquil and peaceful and beautiful and the paintings never tending to show the reality of what had happened to much of the land that was being painted... the burned over fields, pollution in the lands and the streams, and other signs of the destruction of wildlife and human activity were rarely added to the portraits.
This movement is important as it helps us to understand the world that these paintings were produced in. We are able to see what they had hoped for and as time went on what they saw the future of nature and wildlife becoming... or maybe disappearing is more appropriate. We can also see how our current views of nature and civilization have merged and been formed through not only the beliefs and images of these men, but the beliefs of the society that surrounded them.
Another great painter of this time was George Catlin. He was a painter who was fascinated with Native Americans and their culture. It is not entirely known how his fascination developed to a point that he dedicated his life to their study, but it is known that his mother told him stories of her life as an Indian captive when she was younger and he also enjoyed the experience and inspiration of a visiting Indian delegation to Philadelphia where he was working as a young man. He was quite alarmed at how quickly civilization and other people were rapidly disappearing the differing groups and so he resolved to spend his life painting them in their 'natural habitat' before both the Indians and their natural habitat were gone. He was also a strong advocate of the idea of a national park in the hopes of saving both the vanishing Indian and the wilderness that was rapidly disappearing as well. His idea of a national park would be a place that both Indians and animals could live “in all the wild[ness] and freshness of their nature's beauty.” His work was seen as important because his works helps draw the parallel between the disappearance of pristine wilderness and the Native American. He also tried through his artwork to show others a picture into the daily lives of many Native Americans.... their tasks, work, clothes, relationships, etc.... It was his hope that a national park could potentially save both the Indians and the wilderness. It is with sadness that we know that his idea did not work and in fact, when national parks were developed, Indians who lived in its boundaries were then forcibly removed to make the areas safe and beautiful for white Americans.
So what are your thoughts? How is nature part of your worship or spirituality? Are the images of nature in your head rather fanciful and romantic? Do you think of nature and the wilderness as tamed and found in parks or other countries... Is it mysterious or a true part of you.....