Sunday, June 5, 2011

El Dorado and the Botanical Garden, Part I

Water Lilies, Wilderness, and the Pursuit of Eden in America

In the spring of 1849, England was abuzz with excitement. After a decade of attempts, a seed had survived the journey across the Atlantic, and was successfully germinated, growing into its own in a startlingly rapid seventy-nine days. This flower, already legendary before its arrival, would become an icon of the wonders and potential of European discovery in the New World, a portrait of the beauty of Nature and the splendor of God’s works, and an exemplar of man's ability to mold and wield them to his will. This flower, classified as Victoria regia, in honor of the Queen, stands as an emblem of a grand and important tradition in the Western world.

The British, for a long time, searched in the New World for an El Dorado1, for a specific place, Eden-like, that could be found and colonized. Eventually, they abandoned the search for a physical, preexisting Garden — for there was, in fact, no such place. This transition, though, was by no means instant. It was, rather, a process of realization, stretching even into the 18th and 19th centuries, wherein the idea slowly came to people that there would be no discovery of Eden, no El Dorado. It would become the task of man to instantiate this Paradise, to create it on the earthly plane as it had existed before the expulsion, and perhaps, even, to improve upon it. Until that realization had fully dawned, though, Europeans — the British, especially — continued their quest, adding into it early impulses towards creation and simulation as opposed to discovery.

D. Graham Burnett’s Masters of All They Surveyed excellently details the British explorations of the New World within the context of this search. Burnett’s continual subject in his book is Sir Robert H. Schomburgk (Wikipedia), who embarked on expeditions to South America over the course of 1835-1839, with the goal of continuing the work of Alexander von Humboldt (Wikipedia) in cartography and exploration. These expeditions were continually dogged by financial woes and a lack of demonstrable results, and Schomburgk became rather desperate, searching for something to justify his expenditures to the Royal Geographic Society (RGS). The Twelve Views, a map of his 1837 expedition up the Berbice River, narrated to the RGS and Britain the moment when Schomburgk’s boats “arrived at a point where the river expanded and formed a smooth basin.” Burnett narrates Schomburgk’s narration of the event: “Spying a white speck on the eastern bank, Schomburgk—adding drama to an ineluctably static scene—urges the crew on and seizes the immobile flower, this ‘vegetable wonder’ of the New World.”2

Successful repetition of the first germination led to the construction of ‘Victoria regia houses’ across Britain, which tens of thousands of Britons visited within a year of their opening. In these houses, awed and curious Victorians would stand around artificial ponds filled with the lilies, and some would even venture out to stand atop the leaf. The plant's specific characteristics – it was exotic, aquatic, and unbelievably large – combined to make it a perfect icon for the Nature-obsessed British. As D. Graham Burnett notes:

It is not easy to characterize the full extent of Victorian infatuation with Schomburgk’s ‘vegetable wonder.’ The flower and the tale of its romantic provenance blossomed in Britain amid a garden-obsessed people whose fascination with flowering plants was outstripped only, and that briefly, by their fascination with aquatic life and aquariums. 3

From this fascination sprung a flower that required both a greenhouse and an aquarium, that appealed to both ideas and thus intersected them perfectly.

Constructing a house around the Victoria regia simultaneously ensnared it and placed it within the space of civilization; the successful germination of the flower was for the English a proof of the possibility of control over the wild, of the promise of science and progress. Once successfully brought from the wilderness, the flower is placed into a botanical garden, where it ceases to be wild; no longer embodying all that wilderness implies, it is now available for study, through which it comes within reach of being malleable and controllable.

Figure 1: A Victoria regia house.4

In an 1850 woodcut from "The Horticulturist", above, a woman stands easily (if stiffly) on one of the pads. What this illustration doesn't show is the mechanical infrastructure necessary to allow her to stand on that pad, whose leaf is so delicate that “a straw held 6 inches above and dropped perpendicularly upon it would readily pass through it.” 5 In order for the lilies to support anything near the weight of a person, elaborate webs of planks were erected underneath the pads, to distribute the weight across the entire area of the leaf – much like the effect of lying on one's stomach on weakened ice dissuades it from cracking under one's feet. This modification of the flower's natural abilities, and the transcendence of its natural limits, is fundamentally technological. It is a powerful demonstration of the control enacted over the flower in the act of capture and study, a symbol of man's ability not only to make use of the flower, but to bend it to his will even in matters of his whimsy.

Even the Victoria regia houses bore the mark of man's botanical, technological engagement with Nature. The architect of the most famous of these, the Crystal Palace, readily offered up his inspiration for the seventeen-acre glass and iron building, saying, “'Nature was the engineer... Nature has provided the leaf with longitudinal and transverse girders and supports that I, borrowing from it, have adopted in this building.'” 6 Man's role in the creation of this building is the same as his role in improving the lily such that it can be perched upon – to observe the work of Nature, to understand it, and to adapt it to his needs and desires as he sees fit.

For our purposes, it is the British obsession with the garden that we can most understand as part of the larger story here being told. Burnett’s ‘garden-obsessed’ people are not simply a Victorian trope; they exist within a larger historical narrative of Europe and America – the so-called Western peoples. The tale of the Victoria regia is a pitch-perfect illustration of the early European attempts at simulated nature, an impulse that attempts to capture and control the manifest physicality of the wilderness and convert it to an ordered, controllable, reproducible garden.

The idea of simulating Eden was germinated in Enlightenment ideals of Truth and science, and expanded by the rise of liberalism and the notion of progress, but it did not become definable as the direction and trend of thought on the matter until the discovery of the New World. Before delving into this historical narrative, though, it is important to be acquainted with the work of Mircea Eliade, who can provide us with a key framework for understanding the relationships between wilderness and civilization in Western, and specifically American, existence as we proceed.

Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane articulates the central distinction that must be made between the two basic types of space that we experience. Its basic relation to wilderness and civilization is immediately relevant even from the title — civilization is sacred, wilderness is profane — but it is not as simple as that. Our desire to conquer the profane, instead of simply tolerating it and separating ourselves from it, has its roots in a different tradition and a different impulse. Eliade is useful to us in that his argument allows us to understand the extent to which this dichotomous model is ingrained in our understanding of our physical world, and to provide a terminology by which we can articulate the missionary relationship that we have cultivated with the wilderness.

A chapter in The Sacred and the Profane is dedicated to ‘Sacred Time and Myths’; in it, Eliade enumerates the concept of sacred time and profane time, in companion with the already-established sacred/profane spaces. Sacred time is a fundamentally religious concept, enacted in festivals and ceremonies. These festivals represent “the reactualization of a sacred event that took place in a mythical past, ‘in the beginning.’” 7 This reactualization is perfect and eternal, and brings the participant into a realm of shared and sacred space and time that is considered foundational to their existence. 8

Indeed, what occurs in America is in many ways not truly revolutionary or novel, but rather an evolution in an ancient narrative, based in religion. What happens in the transition from re-discovery to re-creation, from El Dorado to the botanical garden, is essentially that we cease to see Eden as a physical space, materially manifest in the world and simply in need of finding. Instead, it exists in the collective memory, a time and place that is not physically accessible to us, but is still sanctified. In Eliade's terms, we ‘celebrate’ Eden though festival — we relive it, bring ourselves back to the moments before and the moment of the Fall as best we can, for it exists in time immemorial, in illo tempore (see The Sacred and the Profane for more on these concepts -- highly recommended reading). Through doing so, we allow it to retain the importance that it had at that moment to which we call back, but still, it remains that the Garden no longer exists in the material world; the work of Western man, aware of this fact, can then be to manifest it.

In looking at the Edenic narrative, the United States provides us with a crucial and interesting case study, allowing us to look at the processes surrounding this transition in the area about which they were centered. I will accomplish this by looking at the patterns of development enacted in the United States; American conceptions of wilderness; and a particularly American domesticity, interwoven with the wilderness/civilization dichotomy, which can reveal a crucial facet of the place of the home within the new-found societal labor of simulation.

The basic spatiality of the relationship between the sacred and the profane is effectively illustrated by Figure 2, below, and I consider it a good supplement and visualization of how Eliade's concepts interact with the physical reality of the American experience. It is by no means a complete illustration – the page in Topophilia from which this image is taken contains seven others. I have merely chosen and extracted one of the more applicable of the bunch for my purposes here.

Figure 2: Tuan's Diagram of the Edenic Ideal9

Nearing the close of the frontier, an impulse began to emerge in America to preserve wilderness in the form of national parks and ‘wilderness preserves.’ Roderick Nash, the author of the seminal Wilderness and the American Mind, speaks of this transition, saying that though there was a push towards preservation based on ‘ethics and aesthetics,’ the pioneer generation “rarely judged wilderness with criteria other than the utilitarian or spoke of their relation to it in other than a military metaphor. It was their children and grandchildren, removed from a wilderness condition, who began to sense its ethical and aesthetic values.” 10 These generations, in Nash's mind, engaged with the wilderness as a place that was existentially threatened. In response, they endeavored and largely succeeded to stop human encroachment onto those areas that they deemed savable and worth the effort. It may seem that this section of Nash’s narrative switches the labels that civilization and wilderness formerly possessed as sacred and profane spaces, respectively – for one would not attempt to preserve the profane over the proliferation and preservation of the sacred. In-depth examination, though, makes clear that there is something particular going on.

Their 'preserved' wilderness was not truly wild, not the same as the wilderness encountered in the age of exploration and the era of the frontier. It seems obvious that Yellowstone National Park is not a forest primeval, and that the relationship that people have with it goes little farther than recreation and aesthetics. What occurred at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th was a sort of regression against the impulse to control wilderness through destruction, but it remained indebted to attempts to order nature, to box the wild outside of civilization, and to control it such that it can be used for the things for which humans want it. In the national park phenomenon, wilderness is explicitly separated from civilization, and remains abject. It is still profane space, still diametrically opposed to the sacred. This is not to say that there were not people for whom wilderness was or became sacred – perhaps the most notable example is the “wilderness cult,” emblematized and in many ways led by John Muir (Wikipedia), which placed the wilderness to be of supreme importance. Though the moniker of ‘cult’ implies a sort of fanaticism that is probably unfair, it is at least enlightening, for it shows the extent to which they were themselves cast outside of the social order for their worship of wilderness. 11

In a phrase, perhaps, ‘nature’ replaced ‘wilderness.’ This represented an evolution within the narrative, seeing wilderness as potentially useful beyond immediate material application. The preservation of nature within a national park or a wildlife reserve was based on an impulse to protect something that could have utility in the future. It was, even, a pioneering act of humility within an emerging interpretation describable as Whig history, wherein efforts should be made not to destroy a thing because there is potential for more to gleaned out of it than is currently available — and, in fact, this potential might be the key to Eden, the final piece of a yet-incomplete puzzle.

Man's attempts to preserve Nature, interwoven as they are with the desire to recover Paradise, are tantamount in many ways to attempts to recover the cosmological, religious, mythical experience of the world outlined by Mircea Eliade. The methods that man uses, though — his attempts to do it through botanical simulation, through creating a worldwide garden — rely on and are inseparable from a sense of a mankind that exists alongside with, is interwoven with and inseparable from, technology.

This technological mankind, and his relationships with the tools that he creates and utilizes, will be my subject next week.

However! Now that I've gotten to this, there is a whole collection of things that I can share. Check back later this week (Wednesday at the latest!) for some examples of what I've talked about here -- and they won't be essays! A YouTube video, perhaps (with some commentary, if you care to read it). But, for now, that is all.

Hope to hear your comments.




1. A phrase taken from the Spanish, whose search for the ‘City of Gold’ dominated the motivations for their explorations in the 15th–17th centuries. It is Burnett’s deployment of the term to which I am here referring, which juxtaposes the Spanish quest with the British search for a particularly Victorian version of the City of Gold, which had distinctly Edenic qualities. Return to reading

8. It is worth note that Eliade was inescapably a scholar of religions. For him, the worldviews of the religious and non-religious were in many ways diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive. It seems to follow from his analysis that the American — and, by extension, the Western — person must be considered to be fundamentally religious, because he participates , through ceremonies and festivals, views of time and space that Eliade says are fundamentally and necessarily religious; the ways in which the religious man enters into sacred time through the celebration of the festival, the structure of that time as sanctified by the gods, and the separation from human existence implied in the “wholly different structure and origin” of sacred time can be collectively understood as a “transhuman quality of liturgical time that is inaccessible to a nonreligious man.” Instead, though nonreligious man can no longer (or, perhaps, chooses not to) access this world, he remains informed by — in Eliade’s words, ‘nourished by’ — a past religious existence. Religion is foundational to our existence on the earth, Eliade says, and is thus inescapable. Return to reading

11. For more on this, the figure of John Muir is incredibly helpful. Also, Jenn Goodwillie’s 2009 senior thesis at Simon’s Rock, entitled Should’ve Been a Cowboy: The Construction of Gender and Race in the Great American Wilderness has greatly helpful work on the history of wilderness in America, and the preservation tradition in general. Hopefully, the archive of Senior Theses will be digitally available soon, but for now, they are all available in print in the Alumni Library at Simon’s Rock. Return to reading

Source Notes

2. D. Graham Burnett. Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and a British El Dorado. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000. 148.

3. Ibid. 151-152.

4. From Volume 5 of The Horticulturist, 1850. Reproduced in Burnett, Masters of All They Surveyed, 153.

5. George Ripley and Charles Anderson Dana. "Leaf". The New American cyclopaedia: a popular dictionary of general knowledge. New York: Appleton. 1861. 992.

6. Burnett 152.

7. Mircea Eliade. The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion. Trans. Willard R. Trask. San Diego: Harcourt, 1987. 68.

9. Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environment Perception, Attitudes, and Values (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), 104.

10. Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 43.