Alfred Russel Wallace and the paradox of nature

In 1854 British biologist Alfred Russel Wallace traveled to Indonesia to collect specimen and to study nature. He collected the accounts of his journey and published them in the book The Malay Archipel (furthermore, Russel is famous for ‘almost’ coining the evolution theory, instead he pointed out the key issues to his friend Charles Darwin, the rest is history…).

In somewhat delirious rhetoric – Wallace was suffering from several tropic diseases – The Malay Archipel feverishly describes his scientific explorations and adventures on the islands. Wallace was also one of the first environmentalists, pointing out our potential to destroy the earth, and one of my favorite quotes comes from this book:

“… should civilised man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man.”

The story of Wallace has fascinated several artists, such as Henrik Håkansson and Mark Dion. Both deal with the conflict between man and nature that Wallace describes above. Håkanssons’ work is poetic, capturing audio and video footage of birds threatened by extinction, emphasising on both our fascination with nature’s beauty and the way we scrutinise it in science.
In the work of Mark Dion, the naturalist/explorer symbolises man going out to conquer unknown land in his ambition to describe and understand all nature. Dion has produced several installation that deal with this subject in a tragi comical matter.
When dinosaurs ruled the earth by Mark Dion

Both deal with the fact that nature is a cultural concept, conceived by scientists and by artists (responsible for producing natures’ beauty, another form of ‘cultivation’). And both put forth Russel’s paradoxical assertion, that our studying and cultivation of nature, is in fact the cause of its destruction.
Gurneys Pitta, songs for a forest without a name by Henrik Håkansson.


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