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Cataloging Eden


Alexander Wilson, 1766-1813 The First American West: The Ohio River Valley, 1750-1820 Courtesy Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

This revelation was reinforced by contemporary religion and philosophical teachings. Although there often was tension between strict Biblical interpretations and the scientific discoveries of the era, this new view of nature coincided with the religious belief that there was order, purpose and meaning in nature. The design of nature supported their view that the various species were linked not only to other species and their habitats, but also to their creator.

“They viewed nature as a manifestation of a benevolent God who created a world that fits together so well,” Judd says. “They believed nature was a reflection of a divine being and that understanding nature would help to understand theology and God.”

This view of nature influenced the Romantic Movement in America, the New England poets and the Hudson River School of painters, whose works reflected the concept of the divine presence in nature. The movement, Judd says, also provided an outlet for women naturalists who, barred from the professional work of science, found ways to portray their observations of the natural world by creating beautiful works of art that celebrated that world.

Nuttall and his contemporaries helped create in Americans a sense of the wonder that this new world offered — not only a balance in nature, but also a reflection of God’s hand in nature, where all things are interconnected. Judd acknowledges that, in light of the subsequent Darwinian view, this spiritual and emotional response to nature became obsolete, even though their science was sound.

And though modern ecologists may reject the idea of balance in nature, Judd maintains the concept remains deeply embedded in the American psyche.

“They gave us the first real impression of nature in America that was full of questions about religion, God and nature; about divine balance and natural systems. They saw nature as a reflection of God’s logic in putting the world together. This idea of divine balance is still a part of our environmental sensibilities,” Judd says.

“When we protest development on the northern slope in Alaska, we’re still seeking that balance. This is still a very real concept for us today.”

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