Monday, March 13, 2017

Climate change, historically viewed

Tourists view the growth of glaciers at Lower Grindelwald
Ages ago, in a post entitled “Forget the Age of Aquarius,” I discussed an essay by fellow German scholar Jason Groves on Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, which had just appeared in the Goethe Yearbook. At the time (this was in 2015) I quoted Jason on Goethe’s interest in erratics, namely, that this interest evinced "an openness to the planet’s inherent instability and thus to human vulnerability.” I opined then that the sense of human vulnerability might have been a case of deep human memory of the “earth’s eventfulness” (a term used by Nigel Clark). In the meantime, having read Wolfgang Behringer's Kulturgeschichte des Klimas, I can see that the memory of such events did not have to be millennially deep.

Here is a quotation from the English edition of Behringer's book concerning the advance of glaciers in the not-too-distant past, namely, during the Little Ice Age (see previous post):

"In 1601 the peasants of Chamonix turned in panic to the government of Savoy, because the glacier known as the Mer de glace was growing larger and larger, had already engulfed two villages and was about to destroy a third. Martin Zeiler (1589–1661) wrote in Matthäus Merian’s Topografia Helvetiae of the Grindelwald glacier near Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland: ‘Not far from town there used to be a chapel to Saint Petronel, to which people made pilgrimage in times of old. Since then the mountain’s tendency to grow has covered the place. So the local people watch and notice that the mountain is growing hugely and driving the ground or earth before it, so that where there used to be a fine meadow of pasture it is disappearing and turning into raw, desolate mountainside. Indeed, in several places houses and huts along with the peasants living in them have had to move way because of its growth. Also growing out of it are big rough ice floes, as well as rocks and whole pieces of cliff, which thrust aside and upward the houses, trees and other things present there.’ … [T]he author ends by noting that the mountain’s growth is conjuring away ‘the peasant’s pasture, commons and houses. It is therefore a truly miraculous mountain.'"

The image at the top of this post, from Merian's Topografia Helvetiae (Frankfurt, 1654) appears as Figure 18 in the German edition of Behringer's book. The caption reads as follows: "Das Wachstum des Unteren Grindelwaldgletschers bedroht traditionelle Siedlungen und wird zur Sehenswürdigkeit für Touristen."

Thomas Fearnley's Romantic-period painting (1838) of Lower Grindelwald Glacier
By the time Goethe wrote The Years of Wandering (how apt is that participle in retrospect) the worst effects of the earth's cooling were in retreat. Had Goethe, however, read such chronicles, seen such pictures in Merian's volumes? What we know of his reading habits as a young man while living in Frankfurt indicates that he was well versed in earlier chronicles and histories. Moreover, because of his duties in Weimar in connection with the Ilmenau mine, he became very well read in writings on geology.

Picture source: SuperTopo

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