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April 24, 2011

The evolving frontier of my study of frontiers

I wrote a paper my junior year of high school entitled "The American Frontier: Its Allure and Effect on the American People." That's a pretty ambitious essay topic for a high school junior. I went back and read that essay: I looked at three of Willa Cather's novels in the context of Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis. My analysis, looking back, is highly oversimplifying, but I was also felt kind of proud, looking back at my sixteen year-old self, for choosing a topic that still interests me today. 

I probably would never have gone back and read my junior essay if I hadn't been reading two books about frontiers, both scientific and physical. Helen M. Rozwadowski, in Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea, discusses the origins of oceanography and marine biology in the nineteenth century. (Rozwadowski also sailed with SEA Semester in college, the same program I sailed with in fall 2010!) Robert E. Kohler, Rozwadowski's Ph.D. advisor, wrote a book in a similar vein entitled All Creatures: Naturalists, Collectors, and Biodiversity, 1850-1950. In this work, Kohler explores the period of natural history survey, a distinct moment in the history of biology and taxonomy. 

Both Rozwadowski and Kohler investigate sciences that themselves sought to investigate frontiers. As Rozwadowski cogently argues, the sea was an unexplored frontier until the early to mid nineteenth century, and one that was viewed as savage. Rozwadowski quotes: " 'The ocean is a wilderness reaching round the globe, wilder than a Bengal jungle, and fuller of monsters, washing the very wharves of our cities and the gardens of our sea-side residences' --Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod, 1864" (Rozwadowski 1). In contrast, the frontier of natural history survey that Kohler examines is not a frontier but multiple frontiers or "inner frontiers," as Kohler terms them. The American frontier, Kohler argues, did not move progressively west and expire at a certain moment as history, as Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Theory postulates (as well as my high school paper). Rather, there was a gradation, a "twilight zone," in which suburban areas and boom-and-bust western settlement patterns produced a patchwork landscape of civilization and frontier land. "Eventually, of course, exurban fringes became suburbs, and suburbs became city neighborhoods, obliterating the natural environments that had attracted people to the fringes in the first place. But for a brief period the logic of capital gave town and city dwellers ready access to what was still deep countryside" (Kohler 30). 

Kohler and Rozwadowski's explorations into the history of oceanography and natural history survey parallel each other in a strikingly similar way. The development of middle-class vacationing, both to the seashore and to the great outdoors, was critical to the development of both sciences. Vacation, up until the mid 1800's, was viewed as an elitist activity that contradicted the ideal of work that pervaded middle class life. Scientific curiosity enabled middle-class families to justify vacations as a type of work or recreation, as a morally just activity. Oceanography and marine biology, Rozwadowski suggests, began as a hobby for seaside vacationing families: "Natural history of the ocean began modestly, at the shoreline. Beachcombing, to search for beautiful and unusual shells, gained popularity in the eighteenth century and remained a central feature of marine natural history." Kohler posits that the "vacation-work complex" encouraged the middle class to camp and collect natural history specimens. It is this broadening public interest that garnered support for natural history museums and allowed museum curators to pursue the organized, systematic natural history surveys Kohler examines. "To transform biological survey from an improvised activity of devotees to the business of scientific occupation," Kohler argues, "institutions had to be persuaded to undertake field work, and science had to be sold to those who experienced nature-going as recreation, not science" (Kohler 91). Thus the scientific history of the oceanic and American frontiers in root lie in the social history of how these frontiers were first explored in a recreational context. 

Interestingly, Rozwadoski and Kohler's frontiers and the sciences that studied them reach different conclusions. As already hinted at, the "inner frontiers" of America were temporary ones, which meant that the era of natural history survey was also temporary. The frontiers on land that natural history surveys studied were easily accessible, and as survey became more comprehensive biological fieldwork became more driven by local intensive study of ecology and evolution than by systematic collecting and biogeography (Kohler 270). Further, less and less of the "inner frontiers" remained such as the American population grew and spread out to most corners of the land. Rozwadowski's deep sea frontier, on the other hand, largely remains a frontier today. Thus Rozwadowski cannot and does not attempt to document the nonexistent "end" of ocean exploration; instead she presents us with its social, economic, and institutional beginnings. Rozwadowski's conclusion, however, does suggest a change in the frontier: "But the process by which the ocean attracted scientific attention required a shift away from understanding and experiencing the ocean as an expansive divide, a watery highway, or an unfathomable barrier between places. It involved a cultural redefinition of the sea as a destination and a location with new meaning for the Western world" (Rozwadowski 214). 

This argument got me thinking about the notion of "frontiers" and their relationship to science. A frontier, as a physical boundary, is a place unexplored and uninhabited by people. For field sciences, a frontier is a physical space, whether the ocean or rocks or biota, that has not yet been studied and understood scientifically. In essence, all science requires a frontier, a space of knowledge unknown, undocumented. Reading both Rozwadowski and Kohler's texts made me think about how the scientific frontier of knowledge has really replaced physical conceptions of the frontier. The extent of this frontier as a mental pursuit will always exist; it will just become more intricate and convoluted, an increasingly dense patchwork of inner frontiers. This brings me back to the idea of nationalism and science that I brought up an earlier post. Turner certainly argues, and I think Kohler would agree, that the concept of a frontier, its changing boundaries and evolution through time, was formative in American culture. I too argued some version of this in my junior essay: "their [explorers and settlers] collective journey molded the character and values that this country is defined by" (again, a really bold thesis for a high school student). If the concept of a frontier molds the character of how a people perceive themselves, are theoretical scientific frontiers a defining component of nationalism today? Of internationalism? Food for thought.

I've also talked in previous posts about how science is communicated. In the video I posted of Allen Alda's talk, I was concerned about the esoteric nature of scientific language today. So I found it fascinating when reading Rozwadowski and Kohler's texts to think about how science was communicated in its proto-professional days. The main outlet for scientific communication in ocean science/natural history's beginning drew from the journalistic narratives of ocean explorers and sailors. Lieutenant Samuel P. Lee in 1852, for example, published a report on deep sea soundings in this format: "For any of these purposes, a terse report accompanied by a bottom profile would have effectively communicated Lee's findings. Instead he devoted over one-third of his 300-page report to a day-to-day narrative of the voyage" (Rozwadowski 24). When I read this, I was surprised that early oceanography did not draw from a visual language as geology did, considering their alike cultural backgrounds. Communication of natural history survey science also had its origins in the popularity of narrative natural history essays. On the other hand, natural history survey was also fueled and funded by the recreational, "vacation-work complex" in a very visual form: dioramas (Kohler 85). Museum dioramas evolved to reflect more accurate knowledge as taxonomists and museum curators pursued natural history collection more systematically, and in doing so also provided an increasingly realistic and scientifically accurate imagery for the broader public. Perhaps scientific communication to the broader public breaks down today because no visual or narrative medium exists (or is utilized) that both expresses science with accuracy and still engages the public.

On a side note, be on the lookout for a post about my Centennial Scholars project formally. I have thoroughly enjoyed the diverse exploration of scientific history I have engaged in this semester. Now it is time for me to buckle down and focus on something specific. I will be submitting a proposal within the next week for my project, and pending its approval, I will post about this new focus that I am EXTREMELY excited about, so check back here. I'll give you a little hint:

Works Cited:

Kohler, Robert E. All Creatures: Naturalists, Collectors, and Biodiversity, 1850-1950. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2006.

Photograph: "The Ramparts, Canadian Rockies. <,-canadian-rockies-21363.php>.

Rozwadowski, Helen M. Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Expedition of the Deep Sea. Cambridge, MA: Beklnap Press, 2005.

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