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Reviewed by:
  • Daybooks of Discovery: Nature Diaries in Britain, 1770–1870
  • Laura Dassow Walls (bio)
Mary Ellen Bellanca. Daybooks of Discovery: Nature Diaries in Britain, 1770–1870. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2007. 286 pp. ISBN 978-0-8139-2613-1, $22.50.

In his essay “The Poet,” Ralph Waldo Emerson ventured that “Art is the path of the creator to his work.” In Daybooks of Discovery, Mary Ellen Bellanca traces that path via the nature journal, which provides, as she writes, “an avenue of discovery, its composition an epistemic process of coming-to-know” (219). By valuing the nature journal in itself, Bellanca seeks to add a new [End Page 374] genre to the standard taxonomies of nature writing, within the broader range of texts placed at the intersection of literature and science. The nineteenth-century journal, a “potpourri of aesthetic, autobiographical, and factual discourse” (20), succeeds by threading, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s word, the “thisness” of things through the shaping of the aesthetic imagination (6), within the historical and global context of the British empire’s expansive production of new knowledge. While English writers are the focus of Bellanca’s attention, the reach of her genre is, as she recognizes, transatlantic, with a particularly instructive example in the journal of Henry David Thoreau. As Thoreau, who so famously travelled much in Concord, demonstrates, the genre of the nature journal was an outgrowth of scientific exploration and travel writing, which in turning its tropes inward, looked to the benefits of travelling at home. One is tempted to wonder if the transatlantic, imperial context thus becomes definitive. Is it only within the defamiliarization of a global context that the mundane natural facts of the local acquire meaning? Certainly Bellanca is sympathetic to those who argue that the revolutionary movement known as “English Romanticism” was made possible by the growing interest in local natural history knowledge (5), by which the challenges it posed to conventional religious belief could be modulated into the secular inquiries of the attentive scientific naturalist, operating in a parallel realm that might reinforce, or at least not contradict, religious belief. The diarist’s turn to the small-scale, local, and daily thus took shape in the face of immense spatial and temporal expansion, allowing a measure of cognitive control, the emotional satisfaction of self-fashioning, and the aesthetic shaping of randomly experienced processes.

Bellanca arrives at her subject through a graceful survey of its historical antecedents: private diaries, including those used for spiritual reflection; account books; and above all, almanacs, which by seeking coincidences between weather and the life cycles of plants and the movements of birds established a sense of pattern and order in the universe, or “understanding and control over events” (25), that would enhance not only survival but also the enjoyment of life. Field guides, which started appearing in the 1770s, made identification easier and helped stabilize the keeping of catalogues of things seen, like the “life-lists” of modern-day birders, and deepen the wonder and moment of recording something seen for the first time. By thus drawing on published sources of knowledge about nature, diarists created “cultural artifacts, textual remnants of their authors’ dialogues with communities of knowledge” (28). Much of the energy of the nature diary derives from the resulting tension between inner and outer, chaos and control, randomness and pattern. The search for meaning in the ongoingness of events leads here, too, to the question whether meaning is found, or imposed, by the constructing [End Page 375] consciousness. To what extent are such “cultural artifacts” mimetic, or confections of artifice? On this question Bellanca aligns herself with Lawrence Buell’s concept of “dual accountability” to both cultural mediation and an actual world: “these texts are multiply accountable,” she writes, “an intricate tangle of observers’ perceptions, cultural beliefs, and reference to material reality” (41). She thus resists the case, made by Patrick Murphy among others, for the fictive nature of even apparently nonfiction texts, defending “the need to maintain nonfiction as a meaningful designation” for texts in which authors relate what they take to be “true about the world” (42).

However, it is, as Wallace Stevens observed, a short step...