what comes naturally

April 6, 2006

It’s nice to see a bit of environmental history get reviewed prominently (as opposed to being confined to subscription/academic only publications): Neal Ascherson on The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany by David Blackbourn in the London Review of Books.

Particularly striking is this description of Frederick II of Prussia’s campaign to colonize the Oderbruch. It is a reminder that even into the 18th century European states were not engaged in border/territorial disputes only with other states: they were still in some cases trying to expand, integrate, and settle their own domains.

The imagery was warlike from the start. James Dunbar, from Scotland, wrote in 1780: ‘Let us learn to wage war with the elements, not with our own kind.’ Frederick II, looking out over drained marshes, announced: ‘Here I have conquered a province with peaceful means.’ It was in 1743 that he launched his grand offensive into the Oderbruch, but although he did not resort to the use of cannon, his ‘peaceful means’ involved widespread coercion, the militarisation of the labour force and the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous people living in the marshes.

In Frederick’s time, marshlands were regarded as sinister, useless places, breeding malarial vapours and sheltering not only dangerous wild beasts but primitive human beings beyond the reach of law. Today, we would treasure the lost Oderbruch as one of the marvels of Europe. On its way to the Baltic, the river frayed into countless shallow channels and lagoons, into swamps, shoals and muddy islands. Twice a year, it flooded up to ten or twelve feet deep, nourishing a dense cover of waterlogged bushes. Here lived ‘an almost unimaginable range of insect, fish, bird and animal life’, including wolves and lynxes. Blackbourn has the sense to rely heavily on the travel writings of Theodor Fontane, the most lovable and observant of German writers, who explored the drained Oderbruch in the 1850s and collected memories of pre-reclamation times. Fontane was told of the enormous shoals of countless species of fish, of pike hordes so dense that they could be scooped up in buckets, of crayfish which escaped the hot summer shallows to swarm in trees from which they could be shaken down like plums. And he wrote also about the old inhabitants. They were not Germans but Wends, Slavs who had survived in the marshes since the Germans colonised the fertile land almost a thousand years before. The Wends lived on mounds hidden in the swamp, their huts encircled by ramparts of cow-dung which kept out the floods and served as pumpkin beds.

Frederick put an end to all that. The marshes were drained, a new straight bed was dug for the Oder, its labyrinth of side-channels was blocked off, and miles of dykes were reared to keep the river in its place and protect the farms now being laid out with geometric precision across the Oderbruch. Thousands of German farmer-colonists were brought in and planted in little red-roofed farmhouses. The shy Wends melted away as the waters dried up. Fontane thought he could recognise Slavic headscarves in a few villages on the fringes of the Bruch. But the old life had gone.

The current condition of the Oderbruch, Ascherson notes, illustrates another of Blackbourn’s points: that places that are presented as pristine and natural are, in fact, often subject to numerous outside and human-caused pressures.*

Blackbourn ends his book where he began: in the Oderbruch. Since German reunification in 1990, a certain amount of ‘greening’ has gone on, and the Oderbruch is now often referred to as a place ‘where nature is still intact . . . a natural paradise’. But it is not. The quiet river is the old drainage-cut dug by Frederick II’s men, and the yellow carpets of helleboraster are a recent invasive species. Even the disastrous Oder flood of 1997, which inundated the cities of western Poland and almost overwhelmed the Oderbruch, had immediate causes which were human rather than natural: fresh deforestation and wetland destruction in the Czech and Polish catchment areas.

In his final chapter, Blackbourn reflects on the illusions attending human efforts to shape the environment. The Oderbruch, as it exists, is

hard to justify rationally, a small, thinly populated area that lies well below the normal water level of a river that is a permanent threat to its existence. After more than 250 years, however, this new land has acquired the patina of age . . . I would not wish it returned to the ‘wilderness of water and marsh’ that existed before the reclamation, even if such a thing were possible.

And it is not possible. A few pages earlier, he writes: ‘What is at stake here is not “untouched” or “intact” nature, but the question of “renaturing” the Oderbruch – what this might mean and how far it might go.’ The way towards wisdom, he implies, is to recognise that we cannot ‘restore’ nature, or stop it changing. Instead, we can for a limited time alter a landscape to suit our needs or our pleasure. After that, the landscape will take back the job of its own unpredictable alteration. The ‘conquest of nature’ can never amount to more than an armistice.

*This is a point that William Cronon made quite forcefully in the American context in his essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” in the mid-1990s.



  1. Okay, I know this is probably too silly for such a fine post on such a fine new blog, but I can’t resist: Frist!

  2. I see the recent comment feature is working quite nicely.

  3. And Cronon is following his master Leopold in this. In the recent biography of Leopold, author escapes me just at the moment, Leopold’s tour of German forestry in the mid-thirties is one of the turning points of his life. He had been raised to revere German thought and practice at the Yale Forestry School and after. His disillusionment, on seeing the lack of biodiversity, as we would now call it, and the crudeness of centuries of practice, midwifed the thinker we all know into existence. And he responded morally to Germany in the thirties as well, and help Jewish friends in forestry get out, and their families.

    Doesn’t one of Simon Schama’s books explore inter alia the affinity of traditional European conservation and forest reverence, the roots of Environmentalism, and fascism?

  4. My reading in environmental history is somewhat painfully (to me) thin right now: I was really getting into a few years ago but drifted away. I’ve been meaning to look into Leopold, but haven’t. At the same time, I’ve gotten the sense from reading other essays on the state of the field in env history that there’s also a tension between following Emerson or following Thoreau, with the former being a sort of stand in for knowing nature through human interaction and the latter for knowing nature as something separate from human culture. By the end of the summer I hope to have at least read more Emerson essays – still haven’t read his stuff on nature – and possibly Walden, if I can stand it.

    Is the Schama book you’re thinking of called something like Landscape and History? I’ve seen it around – I have a few environmental historian friends and I remember at least one of them reading it for orals – but don’t know much about it.

  5. Be sure to read the amazing ecological study Thoreau did in Concord in his spare time late in life: “Generation of Seeds” You can download it. A family connection of mine, David Berger, has written a book about it, placing it in ecological context.

    The beautiful piece Cronon wrote about human life on the Apostle Islands, which appeared in Orion and should still be available online, seems to come out on the Emerson side in the formulation you’ve sketched above. On the other hand, Leopold, who had been raised and trained in “best use,” became convinced that wilderness was vital to proper understanding–closer to Muir’s understanding.

    For me, Emerson has become more-and-more a religious and moral thinker, and a challenging one too. His depths are rarely plumbed and little-guessed-at now. I said as much yesterday on Unfogged’s “Calvinist” thread.

  6. The Apostle Island piece is here. I came across it last December when it was linked from a Slate photoessay I briefly mentioned. I actually had a post about it drafted and ready to publish, but lost it when my browser crashed. I was so frustrated by that and other blog- and browser-related technical problems that I didn’t try to reconstruct it. I may get back to it sometime, in somewhat revised form. I need to get in the habit of composing posts using a safer program.

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