Monday, February 21, 2005

American Living Space

I have been looking at works by Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904) in order to understand how German social scientists in the 19th century connected landscape and politics. The environment, as it was affected by human activities, was taken as evidence of the moral character of the people who interacted with it. Conversely, the environment also affected the moral development of the same people, imagining an intimate link between the two.

Ratzel is credited as the founder of human geography with the publication of Anthropogeographie in the 1880s. Unfortunately, he also offered the often misused term Lebensraum, a category for understanding the geographic influences on politics.

In 1873-1874 Ratzel took a trip across America, visiting the major cities in the East and South before making his way across the continent to see Denver, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. He wrote his observations and sent them back to the German newspapers that sponsored his trip. Later, he compiled his letters in Sketches of Urban and Cultural Life in North America, which is a compelling look at the social condition in the US at the time of the Second Industrial Revolution. The translator/editor of the book compares it favorably with de Tocqueville, almost describing it as the social equivalent of the political Democracy in America.

Cities were the markers of American development. Ratzel analyzed them for their configuration, for their ability to support economic growth and to solve social problems. He was impressed: there is a general feeling of optimism, that American communities had the space and insight to resolve problems caused by urbanization, having opportunities that German cities did not. He met with German immigrants, whom he describes as agents in commerce. He also attended a lot to the aftereffects of "the unique economic system" of the South — slavery. In general he is favorable to the port cities in the South because of their openness to the Caribbean. However, the economic progress of southern cities was retarded because former slaves had not been integrated. Consequently, they were the cause of anarchy. This problem affected cities physically: where there should be industries at the edge of the city (as in northern and European cities) there were ethnic shanty towns, and where there should be industriousness, there was
dirt, idleness and demoralization as well as a picturesque disorder and lack of civilizatory amenities.
His most negative comments deal with the political life of Columbia, South Carolina, and its black politicians:
... I had to admit the slaves at least knew how to ape their masters pretty well. ... Who can blame the black, since they have not had any time to learn better, when for the time being they resort to imitating the phrases and gestures of their former masters ... The droll misgovernment of the blacks is certainly only a short intermezzo, a couple of carnival weeks before and after the bleak times of complete debasement and privation.

Ratzel's trip across the continent was fascinating for different reasons. As optimistic as he was about the east coast, the American West reveals misuse of a inhospitable land. At first he is enchanted by the landscape interpreting it in terms of medieval Europe, seeing mystical and romantic ruins in the cliffs.
The unusual rock formations cause the mind to conjure up marvelous im-ages. You cannot help but notice them. Nearby they go unnoticed as well-known kinds of rock, but at a distance they catch and hold your attention by the innumerable striking formations—on the mountains they look like long rows of unfinished walls, like castles, and like ruins of churches and chapels, and in far-off valleys like pyramids, sepulchers, or when piled up, like cemeteries full of columns; on ledges they are like huts, dark mine entrances, terraces, or bastions. Except for the train, slowly treading its way up the mountain, everything is so devoid of human life, enveloped in the extremely gray-green cloak of dry grass, only occasionally interrupted by the pines whose dark twisted forms even seem enchanted. They would certainly seem to be trees but one would look around in vain for the shapes of trees. These are the gnomes of the tree kingdom.
He finds a landscape that is absent of human activity — whereas others might have seen grandeur and spirituality in the Rocky Mountains, he sees deserts and desolation. He sees an undifferentiated, underdeveloped environment that offers nothing to look at, just the dreary color of rocks. Comparing them to the Alps, the Rocky Mountains are unaesthetic.
Because of their general aridness, the Rocky Mountains form a much less beautiful landscape than the Alps; at most, the wild, grotesque rock formations and the ravines or canyons that are for long stretches filled with these formations can be compared with the magnificent scenes in our high mountains. Nevertheless, one cannot fail to see that that section crossed by the Pacific line shows the mountains in their poorest, most monotonous, yes almost frightening aspect. ...

... the Alpine scene, which in no way is the most magnificent or most beautiful, is the work of an infinitely rich and artistically creative imagination, whereas the ones here, even at the most breathtaking places, seem like rough sketches, like frames that are waiting to be filled in with shapes and colors. The immense abundance of lakes and rivers, the innumerable springs and little streams of the Alps are so much in evidence there, while here usually only a somewhat lighter, greener tone in the gray vegetation cover indicates a tiny amount of concealed moisture.

Because of the predominantly dull lines in the mountain contours and the rock fields, which here and there seem to have been heaped up with indiscriminate ferocity, the emptiness and barrenness assume a crude, repellent aspect, but it needs only a more opulent coloring of vegetation to make it appear perhaps even attractive. Nudity here, just as with the human body, is a most demanding state of being; it is always repugnant except when the most attractive lines circumscribe it.

Outside of the cities, in the wilds of America, Ratzel sees a misuse of land and space, which is perhaps punctuated by the desolation of the environment. Perhaps the landscape was unconquerable, but the attempt to do so led to errors in settlement, errors that reflected the inability of Americans to understand the relationship between man and environment. He describes Denver as being poorly positioned with respect to water and forest resources; its location reflected only the need to have a junction between the cities to the west and the south.

Most disturbing to Ratzel is the fact that parts of America already looked old — parts of the landscape were already littered by ghost towns, the remnants of singular economic activities that became unprofitable because they were poorly positioned with respect to the railroad. If Americans perfected the city, they were lost with respect to the environment, wasting it rather than living with it.

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