Thursday, May 09, 2013

Getting Inside the Heads of My 1816 Ancestors

Even if we are predisposed to leave sketches of personal history as some of my ancestors have, it is sometimes difficult to know what someone reading them a century later will see as the pivotal events that will be thought of as influential.

However, I was able to peer into an event that deeply shaped the lives of six lines of my great-great-great grandparents who came of age in the late 1700s and early 1800s just as America first got its footing as a nation.

Linear narratives of history are not nearly as useful as those that are cyclical, but sometimes insight is best found by taking a cross-section, as two books spurred me to do recently.

One, published last November is entitled Nature Wars, and the other published this past February is entitled The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History.

The latter was co-authored by two Drs. Klingaman, a father and son, one a social historian and the other a meteorologist.

In 1816, six lines of my great x 3 and great x 2 grandparents named Bowman, Harper, Neeley, Messersmith and Shelton were in their 30s and 40s or in their early years as young children.

They were living in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia when the effects of a huge volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora the year prior dramatically changed the climate in those states throughout the summer of 1816, only months following the end of the War of 1812.

Followed by the brief return of Napoleon to Paris from exile on Elba, the eruption in Indonesia spewed enough ash and pumice into the stratosphere to generate 100 million tons of sulfuric acid.

It was 100 times more powerful than the Pacific Northwest eruption of Mount Saint Helens in the 1980s when I was the age of my great x 3 ancestors.

Within months, due to the eruption, the U.S. experienced frost throughout an entire year and snow fell as far south as Virginia on the Fourth of July.

Among the population of the young United States, which had more than doubled since the Revolutionary War, the stark fogged-over summer of 1816 accelerated the volume of Americans and immigrants streaming westward.

Within a few decades half of the farmland in some Northeast states had been abandoned and began a gradual return to forest apparent after the Civil War.

Unaware until later of the impact of the volcanic eruption, the “summer of darkness” also kindled a much more broadly held concern for nature, which had been primarily viewed until then as waste, and with it a resurgence of spirituality.

Washington Irving was 33 at the time of the blast and within four years penned The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, with its lyrical depictions of nature.  James Fennimore Cooper, then 27, was inspired several years later to publish the first in the Leatherstocking Tales underlain with the notion that nature was something of value to be preserved.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the eventual leader of the Transcendental Movement, was 13 at the time, while his friend Henry David Thoreau was just born that year.  Joseph Smith who within a few years found revelation in a grove of trees that led to organization the Mormon Church was 11 at the time.

This movement was soon to draw together the six lines of my ancestors who had been Quaker, Amish, Lutheran, Remonstrant and Huguenot before they experienced that summer.  Ultimately it would lead them in a migration up into the Rocky Mountains of my origins.

Thomas Cole, who would found the nature-based Hudson River School of painters, was 15 when the eruptions cloud darkened much of the world.  Within a decade he would brush A View of Two Lakes and Mountain House.

At the time George Perkins Marsh was also 15.  He would go on to write Man and Nature: or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action which would launch conservation as a movement in the decades following the Civil War.

While the “summer of darkness” was transformative for Americans,  despoliation by some would intensify for nearly another century before a new consciousness of the relationship of man and nature would prevail.

Despite the efforts - and some say hubris - of some in high office to take us backwards, overall today we are much less arrogant about nature as we face another era marked not by weather events but catastrophic climate change.

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