How Ecology Got Messed Up

This blog is about walking. Sometimes it’s about walking through myself, which is an environment and peering at stuff.

A snake den, I suspect.

I’m pretty sure (if I correctly remember the lessons of my training in the industrial school of my childhood and the Canadian-British university of my youth) is usually read as “me” walking across “the earth.” Perhaps that’s how you are reading this. It is a convenient fiction, which allows for community, across boundaries of awareness.

Deer Use the Hills as Shoulders of Protection, the Way they Used Their Mothers When They Were Small. Cool!

Sometimes, though, I walk through books.

Here, too, I want to see what I can see, more than what I’m told I should be seeing. Sometimes, the result raises eyebrows, but it can’t be helped. I can only describe what I experience, and without any kind of a job teaching others, I can try to share my joy. When I look at the image below, I experience a continuum of observation, that goes back to my early childhood, and which formed my ways of approaching the world and using it to think with.

Now, I take this deep sense of reading back to the book culture that attempted to replace it with a series of images, abstractions, metaphors and all the other stock-in-trade that colonists brought to this country. I should mention that I am not a colonist. A failed attempt was made to make me into one, but let’s not speak any more of that. I am struck today how over a century and a half ago a man, Alexander von Humboldt tried to express many of the things I have learned in this 7-year-long journey that is Okanagan Okanogan, was mistranslated, and lost to speakers of English. But then, I am reading him as a man trained by the cognitive environment above, to whom his books are an extension of the thickening energy you see in the image above, and which is called, rightfully, a thicket. Others read von Humboldt within the traditions of Western philosophy and science. Both readings are possible within his words. Both are our inheritance.

The beauty of nature or a cluster of escaped forage and orchard grasses making a new ecosystem under a symbol of romance? Both are true.

Let me show you today just how others, who have eschewed this multiplicity, have denied us for 150 years the ecological understandings of Humboldt. Here’s Humboldt, first in German, then dismantled. Lots of fun:

Die Kenntniss von dem Naturcharakter verschiedener Weltgegenden ist mit der Geschichte des Menschengeschlechtes, und mit der seiner Kultur, aufs innigste verknüpft,

Here’s a rough translation, with notes:

Familiarity (‘knowing,’ in the sense of ‘having experience of’) with the natural character (or ‘character of nature’; the character is primary here, not the nature. Perhaps one could say ‘nature’s character’) of varying regions of the Earth is intimately bound (or “knotted to its deepest level”, in the sense of “tying the knot” or “married”) with the history of humankind (as a species) and with it (that history) its culture.

[In other words, Humboldt is using the language of human relationships to speak of the earth, and then using this marriage to speak of the influence of the Earth on human culture. His thesis in this sentence is that human culture rises from familiarity with particular landscapes (and differences of culture from familiarity with different landscapes.) Note his precision. He does not use the other verb ‘to know’, or ‘wissen’. (In English, the words ‘wise’ and ‘wisdom’ contain this root.)In German that form of knowledge is the kind exemplified by science, which in German is known as “Wissenschaft” or “the creation of knowledge.” By having a distinction between two separate forms of ‘knowing’ readily at hand, von Humboldt is able to build an image of a kind of knowledge both lesser than and greater than science, yet intimately bound with it.]

Here is translator E.C. (Emily) Otté and the publisher H.G. Bohn’s translation published in London in 1884:

…the knowledge of the character of nature in different regions is also most intimately associated with the history of the human race and its mental culture.

[Beautifully succinct! Note, however, that ‘familiarity’ or ‘kennen’ (English retains ‘in his ken’, ‘my kin’, and ‘can’) is no longer present as a concept; Nature has been stripped of spiritual and physiological character and has become a physical environment. Pains have been taken to separate culture (in terms of agri-culture, let’s say, or the culturing of a people or land) from “mental culture”; presumably eschewing the former completely. It sure looks so, at any rate. As for that ‘culturing’ of a people or a land, well, that’s aristocratic; one might not find it lauded in scientific writing in England in 1884. Take that as a little warning of twists in translation to come.]

Von Humboldt continues…

Denn wenn auch der Anfang dieser Kultur nicht durch physische Einflüsse allein bestimmt wird; so hängt doch die Richtung derselben, so hängen Volkscharacter, düstere oder heitere Stimmung der Menschheit, grossentheils von klimatischen Verhältnissen ab. 

And the translation stumbles along beside him …

For even if the beginning of this culture is not solely set by physical influences (the German is closer to the root of the concept than the English, and holds for all to see the notion of rivers flowing in; the word itself is a river delta, or at least a river flowing-into), for the most part their direction (presumably ‘of development’) — the characters of peoples, the dark or bright mood (the terms express levels of energy corresponding to moods; readers from the North would likely quickly recognize the moods of the dark and light seasons in the north; modern readers would see the effects of Seasonal Affect Disorder or levels of Vitamin D) of humanity — are certainly (or surely) set by climactic relationships. (The inference is that they are so in the manner of a river’s in-flowing.)

[In other words, Humboldt presents the concept that a culture coming (presumably, as he mentions such arrival a little later) to a region brings something which is altered by material (ie. stuff, influences energies, whatever) flowing in from the climactic relationships (presumably as mirrored by the arrangement of plants and animals across the geological space of the region, as he mentions something close to this just below) of a place. What’s more, he expresses these influences as general tendencies towards directions of energy: towards darkness or towards light.]

Oh, right, mood. Here’s one:

Here’s another:

And another:

Goethe worked all this out by 1820. Von Humboldt would have known it well. So, that’s fun.

Here are Otté and Bohn from London, though:

For although the dawn of this culture cannot (that’s a pretty strong interpretation) have been determined solely by physical influence, climatic relations have at any rate to a great extent influenced its direction (the direction of the culture’s development, presumably), as well as the character of nations (a fine 19th century translation for “Volkscharacter,” or “the character of a people”; perhaps because in this age many “peoples” were arguing for national independence and an empire wanted to maintain a distinction; I really don’t know) and the degree of gloom or cheerfulness (no sense here of the natural world and its rhythms, as in Humboldt) in the dispositions (mood has been transformed through a fine anglicization into personal attributes) of men.

[In other words, in no way can physical influence have created the original spark of culture (one might reasonably presume that would be the spark of God that did that), although climactic influences have influenced the direction in which the spark developed. Note that deep moods are now subtly separate from “dispositions”, or inherent qualities of mind. (I don’t think it’s too much to guess that there’s a moral dimension to this, of whether one puts one’s shoulder to the wheel or not.)]

Von Humboldt is being drawn away from himself. Of course, he’s still talking:

Wie mächtig hat der griechische Himmel auf Seine Bewohner gewirkt!

Here’s a stab at that”

How powerfully (rich in influence, with extreme power, huge to human impression, like the unavoidable pressing power of a mineshaft, that kind of thing, a thickening) did the Greek sky develop its inhabitants!

[In other words, the Greek sky is described in strong physical terms. That would make sense to a people (the Germans) modelling their cultural roots on classical (stone, Greek and Roman) sculpture, and actively formulating their sense of human bodies through the art of working in stone, to go back continually to this first principle and no other. Note that Herder’s c. 1768 essay on sculpture, Plastik, begins with a remark that every blind person imagines the purpose of a face to register impressions of the air, in the way of a cane to the touch of a hand. This is a bodily impression, not an impression of ‘sight.’]

Watering that down in London, we get:

How powerfully did the skies of Greece act on its inhabitants!

[Note that these skies ‘acted on’ “the inhabitants of”. That’s different than being physically developed, even born, as the words allow in Humboldt. The Earth has lost its primary formative power. It has been given to the humans, who are influenced.]

Weak stuff. Poor Humboldt. Luckily, we still have powerful skies…

… and we still have his text:

Wie sind nicht in dem schönen und glücklichen Erdstriche zwischen dem Oxus, dem Tigris, und dem ägeischen Meere, die sich ansiedelnden Völker zuerst zu sittlicher Anmuth und zarteren Gefühlen erwacht? 

Here, let me try to reset that:

Was it not in the beautiful and happy stretch of Earth (the sense is, literally, to stretch; it is an active Earth-power not a static or metaphoric one) between the Oxus, the Tigris and the Aegean, which woke the people settling there to cultural harmony (of movement) and sensitivity (Note that harmony is a feminine term, an umbrella word for such concepts as “power of attraction,” “attractivity”, “radiance” [in the sense of radiant beauty], “tenderness”, “prettiness”, “charm”, and so on.

[Note that in German (as in English) sensitivity is dual, both in a physical sense of touch and in psychic feeling, especially in its responsiveness to the environment. In other words, Humboldt is using language as a deep pattern here. He is also making a division between ‘soft’ feelings and ‘hard’ ones (he’ll talk about these later.)]

Here are our translators from London, taking the precision and action out of that:

Was it not among the nations (again, not people, but people-as-nations) who settled in the beautiful and happy region (no notion of land stretching out as an active force as in the Gernan) between the Euphrates, the Halys, and the Aegean Sea, that social polish (a long way from sensitivity!) and gentler feelings were first awakened? (The awakening is now passive.)

[Note that at no point is agency given here to the land. That is reserved for some other power. God perhaps, although that is certainly not mentioned.]

Right, “no agency to land” probably means that there is no agency to plants, not even to this balsam root that keeps the bunchgrass at bay, and the bunchgrass that mines the water it collects.

Too bad. Von Humboldt was onto something great. He is speaking of revolutionary material here:

Und haben nicht, als Europa in neue Barbarei versank, und religiöse Begeisterung plözlich den heiligen Orient öfnete, unsere Vorältern aus jenen milden Thälern von neuem mildere Sitten heimgebracht! 

I think he means this:

And as Europe sank into new barbarism, and religious enthusiasm (more than that, inspiration, excitement) suddenly opened the Orient (a eurocentric way of describing the Crusades, if that’s what he’s referring to), didn’t our ancestors (‘forefathers?’) bring home new, gentler (in the sense of in-balance; not prone to extremes; good) customs from those gentle (in the sense of their land forms) valleys?

[In other words, religious inspiration opened the Orient, and from its gentle (feminine in German) valleys (and the customs the valleys had created) returning Europeans brought, well, gentling or goodness or the energy of coming into balance, rather than the energy of unbalancing which sent them there, swords a-flashing. I think it would be fair here to reflect back on the light and darkness Humboldt mentioned earlier.)

Meanwhile, back in London:

and was it not from the genial (socially pleasant) climes that our forefathers, when religious enthusiasm had suddenly opened to them the Holy Lands of the East, brought back to Europe, then relapsing into barbarism, the seeds (Not in the original; the translators are wishing to stress the developmental nature of this short history, both in terms of the seeds for the future and the seeds of a past civilization; a nice picture of a kind of classicism) of a gentler civilization?

[Note the addition of “was it not”, in the sense of, “as the reader already knows”. Note the religion changed into a force of gathering in of goodness and the separation of barbarism from the religious adventurers themselves. In short, here the land acts only on spiritual dispositions: moods. That’s certainly part of Humboldt’s understanding, but he goes far beyond that, into language, consciousness and perception. Here, mood will have to do for all of that.]

Back to Berlin we go:

Die Dichterwerke der Griechen und die rauheren, Gesänge der nordischen Urvölker verdankten grösstentheils ihren eigenthümlichen Charakter der Gestalt der Pflanzen und Thiere, den Gebirgsthälern, die den Dichter umgaben, und der Luft, die ihn umwehte.

And a crib for you to stumble through with me:

The poetical works (more precisely, both poetry and the general thickening of influence that lies behind both poetry and those pressing skies of Greece {for example}) of the Greeks and the rawer meters (raw in the sense of ‘roughly sketched’, but with an old, poetic meaning of “speaking of raw emotions”, which is still active in English) of the first nordic peoples (note the distinction made between them and those of Humboldt’s time) can for the most part trace their typical (the word also carries the sense of strange, unique, peculiar and so forth; we’ll see that in the translation below) character back to the appearance (including natural layout and relationships, ie ecology!) of plants, animals and mountain valleys which surrounded the poet and the air, which flowed (more like wafted, full of spirit) around him. (In other words, environment).

[In other words, Humboldt has built up a case for an environment including human social material rising from an ecology rising from thickening forces within the landscape.]

Off to London, everyone:

The poetical works of the Greeks and the ruder (ie uncultivated; same sense as in Humboldt but stronger) songs (simplified meaning; the original held the concept of the-work-as-a-whole, including its rhythmic structures; in other words Humboldt was reading the world as a poem) of the primitive northern races owe much of their peculiar (am I wrong to hear a bit of snobbishness here? I mean, given that Humboldt’s word left multiple readings open and this does not) character to the forms of plants and animals, to the mountain-valleys in which their poets dwelt, and to the air (just air) which surrounded them (no wafting with inspiration here.)

[In other words, the Gesamtwerk, the music-as-a-whole, the entire idea of ecology as a deeply-entwined relationship on many creative levels, is not present here but has been replaced by a people whose emotional moods, their willingness to work, has been conditioned by the aesthetic pleasures of the land around them. Knowledge has left experience and gone towards ‘understanding.’]

Humboldt knew it began with experience. The red colour below is not a “fall colour”, in the sense of leaves dying off with the cold.

It is also exactly what it looks like, in a scale of moods: warmth. And not just that but “a creator of warmth.” Von Humboldt knew stuff like this. With all English translations dispelling this knowledge for a century and a half, this wisdom has been denied us by a non-experiential form of knowing, backed up by textual authority, abstraction, understanding (and its human social context) and the separation of aesthetics from the-making-of-knowledge. The great sadness is now that ecological and environmental poetry are attempting to move into this territory in Canada, they must do so with the burden of abstraction, understanding, separation, a large inanimate nature, and issues of class and authority clouding the picture. For this reason, I go out into the hills and valleys and see what there is to see. Only what I experience can I say I know. Its thickening transfers to me, and with luck to you.

Siya? getting ready for spring while getting ready for winter.

Von Humboldt was used to support the colonial project of taking the land and water from their peoples. Like most people of his time, despite his great enlightenment he thought that this was inevitable. We know now that it wasn’t. That gives us new eyes and makes us new and very different, even ‘peculiar’ readers of his texts.

1 reply »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.