This week at the Junto we are stepping back to talk about what inspired our research projects. From dissertations to first and second book projects, we will bring together a range of scholars to discuss the method, source, book, or lecture that got them started. Today, we have a guest post from Whitney Barlow Robles. Whitney is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Harvard, and her work spans early American history, history of science, and material culture studies. Her most recent publications include an essay about a 1755 earthquake that shook Boston, published in The New England Quarterly, and a chapter about flattened scientific specimens in the book The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766-1820. Her research has recently been supported by the American Historical Association, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Smithsonian Institution.
I am a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Or rather, a nature writer dressed as a historian. My dissertation reexamines the history of natural history in eighteenth-century America and the British Atlantic world by putting animals and natural specimens at the narrative center. It asks: What might historical documents, written or dried or submerged in alcohol, tell us about the actions of historical creatures? Why did animals remain, at some level, inscrutable? How did they escape the net, crash the experiment, shapeshift, fly away, or even help naturalists preserve specimens? And what might their role in early modern science tell us about the larger social and political projects powered by natural history? Liable to change over time, animals influenced the human world through their behavior, biology, physical traits, and, in the case of beasts like raccoons, perhaps even their own desires. Without understanding how animals circumscribed the project that sought to study them and thus set the terms for what humans could learn about nature, our view remains obscured. We can look through the microscope, but only with a cloudy lens.
The reason, in part, that I can ask such questions stems from reorientations in early American history and the history of science, both of which have brought the natural world into the fold in recent decades. It is also the direct result of a tradition of inquiry that never needed a reminder to remember nonhumans: nature writing. The earliest New World travel narratives tended to note as much about the fauna and flora of newly encountered lands as they did their peoples. This would remain the American way, from the likes of Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond in the nineteenth century, to prophets of nature study such as John Burroughs and John Muir at the turn of the twentieth, to today’s nature and science writers. Each era’s brand of nature writing can be historicized in great detail, but attention to a buzzing, biting, wriggling nonhuman world underwrites it all.
As a form of creative nonfiction (with some speculation mixed in, for good measure), nature writing entertains perspectives that can never be fully known. It relishes radical reconsideration of the possibilities of writing and subjectivity by imagining the aerial view of a hawk, the tentacled grasp of an octopus, or the sonarscape of a bat navigating a moonless night. Take Verlyn Klinkenborg’s rigorously researched Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile (2006). Written from the vantage of a real tortoise that roamed the garden of Gilbert White, an eighteenth-century naturalist, the book consists entirely of short, choppy sentences. Many of them fragments. They read as bursts of measured animal thought, and like cud, should be chewed, mulled, and digested slowly. The book begins: “I was gone for more than a week before they found me,” and ends: “I dig and dig. Settle the dirt on my shell. As deep as I can go into the warm of the earth. Carefully overlaid with autumn’s debris. Anchored. Immured. Landlocked. Becalmed and buoyed in the doldrums of Selborne.” A historical note at the end assures: “Timothy’s language and opinions are her own, except where she borrows—silently—from the quiet poetry of Gilbert White’s journals.” The best nature writing also probes the entanglements of human and nonhuman worlds.
The traditional canon of nature writing is not without problems—for example, it skews overwhelmingly toward a white, male, Western perspective, often to the exclusion of other ways of being in and seeing the natural world. At times, it provides a corrective: Klinkenborg’s work delights in the fact that Timothy, whose shell sits in London’s Natural History Museum today, was in fact female. If incorporating the epistemologies of people of color and Indigenous groups remains the next charge for the history of early modern science, it would also behoove the creators of nature writing syllabi to include Leslie Marmon Silko and bell hooks beside Carl Safina and Edward Abbey on their reading lists.
I have always been an animal lover, and as a child, spent most of my free time catching frogs, caring for my llama, or selling insects in lieu of lemonade (earning the title “The Queen of Disgust” from neighbors). I realized these interests would stick with me once I began my undergraduate work in American Studies and crafted a concentration in nature writing, studying the role of gender in writings about animals in the early twentieth century. After graduating, I penned stories and museum labels about dinosaurs, wolves, and fireflies at the American Museum of Natural History and, later, wrote scientific papers about bacteria, viruses, and other strange, semi-living materials for a laboratory at Caltech. Before starting my PhD program, I gave my first conference talk at a meeting themed: “Is Nature Writing Dead?” It seemed only natural that my graduate study would follow nature’s lead.
My project, then, aims to unite the sensibility and worldview of a nature writer with the questions and skills of a historian. The former provides tools for accessing a history preserved only spottily in written documents, and for widening the franchise of what or who can change over time. A nature writer’s vision of the world, equal parts biology and wonder, could help us access historical animal actors. My eighteenth-century human interlocutors and those who would call themselves nature writers today have faced a similar obstacle: animals shape our world while remaining elusive. That concern remains constant, even if it assumes a different valence in different periods. In a poem called “To the Unseeable Animal,” about a creature not yet witnessed, nature writer Wendell Berry writes:
“That we do not know you
is your perfection
and our hope. The darkness
keeps us near you.”
For all its metaphors of light, the Enlightenment also concerned itself with the darkness. Animals make that much clear.