Élisée Reclus: The ecology of beauty

There where land becomes ugly, where all poetry disappears from the landscape, imaginations are extinguished, spirits are impoverished, routine and servility overtake the soul and set it on the path to torpor and death.

Élisée Reclus, Concerning the Awareness of Nature in Modern Society

“Ecology” is commonly defined as a branch of science dealing with the relationship of living things to their environment; a late 19th century word coined by the german zoologist Ernst Haeckel. As a political term, it gains currency in the 1960s to refer to reflections on the impact of human activity on the environment and the respective social movements that in different ways have sought to address the negative consequences of that activity.

In its more anthropocentric expressions, ecology would seem to be essentially concerned with human survival, that is, with assuring the environmental conditions that will provide for the continuity of the human species, which for this reason, extends concern to other forms of life which are necessary to human well-being.

The emphasis on human survival has always lent itself however to all manner of technical and authoritarian solutions to the multiple “environmental crises” that beset us, for the question is increasingly and exclusively one of survival (with pandemics offering a helping hand), with little thought given to how this may best be attained.

The latter is a luxury, some may contend, for which we have no time. And no one really knows how to examine what is best anyway, except to state sincerely or duplicitously what is best for them.

To recall the work of Élisée Reclus in this context is not to play the role of historian of ideas. It is rather to reclaim a concept of “ecology” (a term which Reclus does not employ directly), or of “social geography”, which is disruptive of the “scientific-political” management of life.

The epigraph of Reclus’ L’Homme et la Terre reads: “Geography is nothing other than history in space, and history is geography over time”. The thin, physical envelope in which the human species has lived is not a static reality; since their appearance, humans have been “geological agents” shaping and reshaping, with wisdom or without, the earth’s surface, seas and skies, rendering them thereby “historical”. History’s stage, in parallel, includes and transforms the physical world. Human evolution, for Reclus, is the dialectical interplay of human and environmental change, with “progress” measured by the growth of human awareness of the balance necessary for a common, human life in harmony with the world we inhabit. (The oikos of the word “ecology” also signifies “dwelling place”, “habitation”). “The essence of human progress consists of the discovery of the totality of interests and wills common to all peoples; it is identical to solidarity.”

As people developed intelligence and freedom they learnt to react on this exterior nature to whose influence they had formerly submitted to passively: they became by force of circumstances real geological agents and, in a variety of manners, they transformed the surface of the continents, changed the course of flowing waters and modified the climate.  It is time that, because of their magnitude, one can compare some of the activities carried out by the lowest animals – such as the island formed by madropores and corals – to the works of man: but these gigantic constructions have not added a new feature to the general physiognomy of the globe and proceed, so to speak, in a uniform and fatal manner as if they were products of the unconscious forces of Nature. Man’s actions, on the contrary, have greatly changed the appearance of the surface of the earth. While on the one hand they destroy, on the other they improve, depending on the social order and progress of each people, sometimes they bring about the degradation of nature, sometimes its beautification. Camping as a passerby, the barbarian has plundered the earth and has violently exploited it without compensation, for the richness he has seized from her. He finished by devastating the country which served him as his home thus making it uninhabitable.

Through culture and intelligent treatment, the truly civilised man, being aware that his own interest, the interests of all and that of nature blend, acts quite differently. He repairs the damages incurred by his predecessors, helps the earth and instead of being brutally dead set against it, works in his estates for its beautification as well as its betterment. Not only as a qualified farmer and industrialist does he know how to utilise, more and more, the earth’s forces and its products; but also as an artist he learns to give to the surrounding landscape more charm, grace and majesty. Having become the “consciousness of the earth” the man worthy of such a mission assumes, by virtue of that, a responsible role within the harmony and beauty of his natural environment.

Élisée Reclus, The Impact of Human Activity on Physical Geography

The measure of our progress is revealed in the beauty of our world. And if the Latin origins of the word point to “what is pleasing to the senses”, the Greek word kallos binds beauty to virtue or goodness. In Koine Greek, the word for beauty, horaios, refers to “what is in season, what comes to be at the right time” and is contrasted with asteios, meaning “that which befits city dwelling”. Reclus offers no conceptual analysis of the idea of beauty. When he speaks of beauty and ugliness, he does so from the perspective of his own sensitivities and experience acquired over many years as a traveler-geographer. Yet in what he says, we find all of this overlapping etymology in his judgment: beauty is pleasing to the senses and thereby informs our sensitivity and feeling, moulds our habits, shapes who we are; the beautiful is good as what finds expression in the harmony or balance between human beings and between humanity and its world, a harmony which presupposes a community of equality and freedom; and the beautiful is that which is proper for a time and a place that are the confluence of what is natural and artificial.

Writing of the modern industrial cities of his time, Reclus writes:

Another cause of ugliness in our modern towns springs from the invasion of the great manufacturing industries. Almost every town we have is encumbered with one or more suburbs bristling with stinking chimneys, where immense buildings skirt the blackened streets with walls either bare and blind, or pierced, in sickening symmetry, with innumerable windows. The ground trembles under the groaning machinery and beneath the weight of waggons, drays and luggage trains. How many towns there are, especially in young America, where the air is almost unbreathable, and where everything within sigh —the ground, the walls, the sky— seems to sweat mud and soot! Who can recall without a horror of disgust a mining colony like that sinuous and interminable Scranton, whose seventy thousand inhabitants have not so much as a few acres of foul turf and blackened foliage to clear their lungs? And that enormous Pittsburg with its semi-circular coronet of suburbs fuming and flaming overhead, how is it possible to imagine it under a filthier atmosphere than now, though the inhabitants aver that it has gained both in cleanliness and light since the introduction of natural gas into its furnaces? Other towns, less black than these, are scarcely less hideous, from the fact than the railway companies have taken possessions of streets, squares, and avenues, and send their locomotives snorting and hissing along the road, and scattering the people right and left from their course. Some of the loveliest sites on the earth have been thus desecrated. At Buffalo, for instance, the passenger strives in vain to follow the bank of the wonderful Niagara across a wilderness, of rails and quagmires and slimy canals, of gravel heaps and dunghills, and all the others impurities of the city.

Élisée Reclus, The evolution of cities

Rather than dismissing all of this as the ramblings of a lost romantic, as all hopelessly subjective, let us rather consider that the contemporary onslaught of stimuli targeting our senses makes any discrimination about what is pleasing impossible (titillation is what we desire most), that we have lost any substantive notion of goodness and are blind to any relation that pleasure may have to it, and that living within an eternal present and largely undifferentiated spaces, we are without any notion of the seasons, of dwelling with discernment and thus of propriety. Stripped bare, as we have been, we can only reach out for, grab, aim to possess, violently if necessary, failing which we fall back on what we have increasingly become, nothing.

Reclus may be criticised, as he has been, for an overly optimistic or acritical understanding of human evolution and progress. But the critics may also be challenged for oversimplifying his complex and nuanced conception of the same. Reclus maintained a belief in progress, understood progress as the advance of “civilisation”, but this “progress” depended on the increasing human understanding of the interdependence of human beings on their “natural environment”, it did not exclude unpredictable events of revolution – Reclus participated actively in the Paris Commune of 1871 -, and it did not ignore moments or possibilities of regression and recognising the virtues of seemingly more “backward” societies. If his political judgements are not without ambiguity or contradiction -e.g., Reclus’s position on the french colonisation of Algeria -, there remains within his work the extraordinary possibility of imagining wildly beautiful utopias, beyond mere survival; and there can be no anarchism, or if one wishes, freedom and equality, without a utopian imaginary (this was the very reason for Reclus criticism of isolated “anarchist” experiments in communal living).

To the contention that Reclus’ “ecology” is overly anthropocentric, we recall his defence of vegetarianism, which is in turn grounded in the ideal of a future fraternity-sorority that would not only include human beings, but all life. The earthly envelope of human existence is the object of capitalist apetite as the source of exploitable energy and commodity transformation. As nature is increasingly “humanised”, contact with anything beyond the artificial, the spectacle of life, is increasingly impossible. We thereby lose ourselves. It is only through the encounter with something which “de-centres” us that we may be able pass beyond capitalism.

Documentary: Élisée Reclus, La passion du monde (french with spanish subtitles)


Let economists and rulers invent political constitutions or salaried organizations, whereby the worker may be the friend of their master, the subject the brother of the potentate, we, “frightful Anarchists” as we are, know only one way of establishing peace and goodwill among women and men — the suppression of privilege and the recognition of right. Our ideal, as we have said, is that of the fraternal equity for which all yearn, but almost always as a dream; with us it takes form and becomes a concrete reality. It pleases us not to live if the enjoyments of life are to be for us alone; we protest against our good fortune if we may not share it with others; it is sweeter for us to wander with the wretched and the outcasts than to sit, crowned with roses, at the banquets of the rich. We are weary of these inequalities which make us the enemies of each other; we would put an end to the furies which are ever bringing people into hostile collision, and all of which arise from the bondage of the weak to the strong under the form of slavery, serfage, and service. After so much hatred we long to love each other, and for this reason are we enemies of private property and despisers of the law.

Élisée Reclus, An Anarchist on Anarchy


… two opposing societies exist amongst men. They are intermingled, variously allied here and there by the people who do not know their own minds, and advance only to retreat; but viewed from above, and taking no account of uncertain and indifferent individuals who are swayed hither and thither by fate like waves of the sea, it is certain that the actual world is divided into two camps, those who desire to maintain poverty, i.e. hunger for others, and those who demand comforts for all. The forces in these two camps seem at first sight very unequal. The supporters of existing society have boundless estates, incomes counted by hundreds of thousands, all the powers of the State, with its armies of officials, soldiers, policemen, magistrates, and a whole arsenal of laws and ordinances. And what can the Socialists, the artificers of the new society, oppose to all this organised force? Does it seem that they can do nothing? Without money or troops they would indeed succumb if they did not represent the evolution of ideas and of morality. They are nothing, but they have the progress of human thought on their side. They are borne along on the stream of the times.

When the miserable and disinherited of the earth shall unite in their own interest, trade with trade, nation with nation, race with race; when they shall fully awake to their sufferings and their purpose, doubt not that an occasion will assuredly present itself for the employment of their might in the service of right; and powerful as may be the Master of those days, he will be weak before the starving masses leagued against him. To the great evolution now taking place will succeed the long expected, the great revolution.

It will be salvation, and there is none other. For if capital retains force on its side, we shall all be the slaves of its machinery, mere bands connecting iron cogs with steel and iron shafts. If new spoils, managed by partners only responsible to their cash books, are ceaselessly added to the savings already amassed in bankers’ coffers, then it will be vain to cry for pity, no one will hear your complaints. The tiger may renounce his victim, but bankers’ books pronounce judgments without appeal. From the terrible mechanism whose merciless work is recorded in the figures on its silent pages, men and nations come forth ground to powder. If capital carries the day, it will be time to weep for our golden age; in that hour we may look behind us and see like a dying light, love and joy and hope — all the earth has held of sweet and good. Humanity will have ceased to live.

As for us, whom men call “the modern barbarians,” our desire is justice for all. Villains that we are, we claim for all that shall be born, bread, liberty, and progress.

Élisée Reclus, Evolution and Revolution


The matter of knowing which aspects of human labour serve to beautify or to degrade outer nature may appear futile to the so-called positivist spirits but it is, nonetheless, an issue of prime importance. Human developments are linked in the most intimate manner to the natural environment. An implicit harmony exists between the earth and the people it nourishes, and when imprudent societies strike a blow against what beautifies their environment they have always ended in regretting it. There where land becomes ugly, where all poetry disappears from the landscape, imaginations are extinguished, spirits are impoverished, routine and servility overtake the soul and set it on the path to torpor and death. Among the causes in human history which have already contributed to the disappearance of many successive civilisations, one must mention the brutal violence with which the majority of nations have treated the nourishing earth. They cut down forests, dried up springs, flooded rivers, damaged climates, surrounded the cities with swampy and pestilential zones, then, when nature desecrated by them has become hostile, they grasped her with hatred and not being able to re-immerse themselves like savages into the
life of the forests, they let themselves become more and more stupefied by the despotism of priests and kings. “The great estates have mined Italy” said Winy, but it could be added that these great estates, cultivated by slaves, had disfigured the land almost to the state of leprosy. Historians shocked by the surprising decadence of Spain after Charles the fifth advance various explanations. According to some the main cause of the ruin of the nation
was to be found in the discovery of the American gold; to others, it was the religious terror organised by the “sacred fraternity*’ of the Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews and the Moors and the bloody auto-da-fe of heretics. People have likewise blamed the fall of Spain on the iniquitous tax alcahala and the despotic centralisation a la French; but surely has not the kind of rage with which the Spaniards cut down the trees for fear of the birds, par miedo de los pajaritos, something to do with repulsive and fearsome aspects, soil is impoverished and the population, diminishing within two centuries, has relapsed into barbarism. The little birds have avenged themselves.

Therefore, it is with joy that we now welcome this generous passion which brings so many a man and may we add, the best, to cross virgin forests, beaches and mountain gorges and to visit many regions of the world where nature has kept its primordial beauty. For fear of ethical and intellectual impoverishment, one feels that the vulgarity of many disfigured and mediocre things which narrow minded spirits see as evidence of modem civilisation, needs, at all costs, to be counterbalanced by the great scenes of the earth. The direct study of nature and contemplation of its phenomena has to become for all mature men an essential part of their education. Also it is necessary to develop in each individual the skill and the physical strength to enable him to climb the summits with joy, to look at the abysses without fear and to keep up in all his being that natural equilibrium of forces without which he will never be able to perceive the most beautiful sights other than through a veil of sadness and melancholy. Modern man has to combine in his person all the virtues of those who have preceded him on the earth and never give up the immense privileges, which civilisation has conferred upon him; he should never loose his ancient
force and let himself be surpassed by any savage in vigour, skill and understanding of natural phenomena. In the heydays of the Greek republics the Hellenes aimed at making heroes of children through grace, strength and courage; equally modern society, by fostering vigorous traits in its youth, by leading them back to nature and putting them in touch with it, can ensure itself against all decadence, through the regeneration of the race itself.

Long ago Rumford said: “One always finds more in nature that one looks for.” Whether a scholar examines clouds, stones, plants and insects, or whether he studies the general laws of the globe, he everywhere and always discovers unforeseen wonders; the artist, in pursuit of beautiful landscapes, is visually and mentally in perpetual celebration; the industrialist, looking to utilise the produce of the earth, continues to see around him riches that are not yet utilised. As to the simple person who is satisfied to love nature for its own
sake, there he finds his joy and when he is unhappy, at least, his pains are sweetened by the view of the open country. Surely the proscribed or those declasse who live on the soil of their homeland as exiles feel, even at the most charming sites, a sense of being isolated, unknown and without friends, and the wound of despair always gnaws them.

Nonetheless, they also end by responding to the sweet influence of the milieu which surrounds them, their most vivid bitterness changes, little by little, into a kind of melancholy which allows them to understand, with a sense refined by grief, everything gracious and beautiful offered by the earth; more than many of the happy do they know how to appreciate the rustling of leaves, the singing of birds and the murmur of springs And if nature has such power to console or to strengthen individuals what is her influence, over the course of centuries, on humanity itself. Without any doubt the view of the vast horizons to a great
part contributed to the quality of the mountain people and it is not a vain linguistic formula when one refers to the Alps as the boulevard of freedom.

Élisée Reclus, Concerning the Awareness of Nature in Modern Society


Man loves to live in dreams. The effort which Thought must put forth in order to seize hold of realities seems to him too hard, and he tries to escape the task by taking refuge in opinions ready-made. If “doubt is the pillow of the wise,” we may say that blissful faith is the pillow of the weak in mind. There was a time when the power of a supreme God, who thought for us, who willed and acted over our heads, and directed human destiny in accordance with his own caprice, was amply sufficient for us, and caused us to accept our mortal lot with resignation or even with gratitude. Now this personal God, in whom the meek reposed their confidence, is perishing in his own temples, and men have to find a substitute for him. But there exists no longer any almighty power on which they can count; they only have a few words, to which they seek to give as it were a mystic force — as it were a magic virtue; for example, the word “progress”.

No doubt it is true that in many respects man has progressed; his sensations have (I indeed think) become more refined, his thoughts keener and more profound, and his humanity, embracing a vaster world, has prodigiously grown in breadth. But no progress can establish itself without a partial retrogression. The human creature grows, but in growing changes his place, and in the act of advancing he loses a part of the ground, which once he occupied. The ideal would be that civilised men should have preserved the force of the savage, that he should also have his skill, that he should still possess a perfect balance of limb, native health, tranquillity of the moral nature, simplicity of life, intimacy with the animals and the fields, and the harmony with the earth and all that inhabits it. But what was once the rule is now the exception. Many examples no doubt prove to us that the man of energetic will, exceptionally favoured by his surroundings, can quite rival the savage in all his primitive attainments, while at the same time adding thereto a consciousness saturated by a higher soul. But how are there those who have gained without losing, who are at once the equals of primitive man in his forest or prairie, and the equals of the artist or modern savant in the turmoil of city life?

And if here or there a man, unique in force of will and dignity of action, succeeds in rivalling his ancestors in respect of their native qualities, while also outstripping them by reason of those acquired, one may say with regret that, as a whole, mankind has certainly lost some of its early winnings. Thus, the world of animals, from which we derive our genesis and which was our tutor in the art of existence, which taught us fishing and the chase, and the rudiments of healing and of house construction, the habits of work in common, and the storing of food — this world has become a stranger to us. We today, in regard to the animals, talk of education or domestication simply in the sense of enslavement, but primitive man was thinking of a fraternal association. He saw in these living beings companions, and not servants; and indeed in many cases, as of common calamity (especially in times of storm or flood), the beasts — dogs, birds, serpents — came and took refuge with him.

The Indian woman of the Brazils surrounds herself quite wittingly with a regular menagerie, and her cabin will have in the surrounding clearing tapirs, deer, opossums, and even tame jaguars. There one sees monkeys gambolling in the branches over the hut, peccaries rooting in the soil, toucans, hoccos and parrots perching here or there on the swinging branches, protected by dogs and great trumpeter birds. And this whole republic moves and has its being without any necessity for a cross-grained mistress to deal out insults and blows. The Quichuan shepherd, crossing the plateau of the Andes by the side of the llama and his burden, has never attempted to gain the assistance of the loved animal otherwise than by caresses and encouragement; a single act of violence, and the llama, his personal dignity offended, would lie down in wrath and refuse to rise. He walks at his own pace, never allows his burden to be too great, stands still a long time at sunrise to contemplate the ascending orb, expects to be crowned with flowers and ribbons, or to have a flag poised on his head, and desires the children and women, on his arrival at the huts, to flatter and caress him.

Does not the horse of the Bedouin — another primitive man — come into the tent? And do not the weaning children sleep between his legs? The natural sympathy existing between all these creatures harmonised them in a broad atmosphere of peace and love. The bird would come and perch on the hand of man, as he does even today on the horns of the bull, and the squirrel would frolic within arm’s reach of the field-worker or the shepherd.

Even in their political communities primitive folk did not overlook the animal. In Fazokl, when the people depose a king, they are accustomed to address him as follows: “Since you have ceased to be pleasing to the men, the women, the children, and the donkeys, the best you can do is die, and to that end we will assist you.” In old times men and animals had no secrets from one another. “The beast talked,” so the story goes; but the main thing was that Man understood. Are there any stories more charming than the tales of South India — perhaps the oldest legends in the world — transmitted to the Dravidian invaders by the aborigines? In them elephants, jackals, tigers, lions, jerboas, serpents, crabs, monkeys, and men, hold converse in all freedom, thus constituting, so to speak, the great reciprocal school of the primitive world, and in this school it is more often the animal that is the real teacher.

Associations between man and the animals included, in those early times, a much greater number of species than we find today in our domestic sphere. Geoffroy St. Hilaire spoke of forty-seven, which thus formed, as it were, the retinue of Man; but how many species which he did not mention dwelt of old in intimacy with their youngest born brother! He did not included the many companions of the Indian woman of Guiana, nor the snakes which the Dinkaman on the Nile calls by name, and with which he shares the milk of his cows, nor the rhinoceros that pasture along with other cattle on the meadows of Assam, nor the crocodiles of the Indus, which the Hindu artists show decorated with sacred emblems. Archaeologists have proved beyond doubt that the Egyptians of the ancient empire had, among their herds of domestic animals, three, or even four, species of antelope, and one of wild goat, all of them creatures which, having once been associated with man, have become wild again. Even the hyena-like dogs and the guepards had once been transformed by hunters into faithful allies. The Rig Veda sings the praise of messenger pigeons “swifter than the clouds.” It sees in them gods and goddesses, and exhorts that burnt sacrifices should be prepared and libations poured out for them. Without a doubt, the mythic story of the Flood recalls to us the skill of our earliest ancestors in the art of making use of the carrier pigeon’s fleetness. It was the dove that Noah sent forth from the Ark to explore the waste of waters and the reappearing lands, which brought back in its beak the branch of olive.

And we may say that in many respects the domestication of animals, as we practice it today, exhibits a veritable moral backsliding, for, far from having improved them, we have deformed, degraded and corrupted them. We have, it is true, been able, by selection of specimens, to augment in the animal such and such quality of strength, of skill, of scent, of swiftness; but in our role of flesh-eaters our great preoccupation has been to augment certain four-footed masses of meat and fat — to provide ourselves with stores of walking flesh, moving with difficulty from dung-heap to the slaughterhouse. Can we truly say that the pig is superior to the wild boar, or the timid sheep to the intrepid mouflon? The noble art of breeders is to castrate their beasts, or to create hybrids, which are incapable of reproduction. They train horses “by means of bit, whip and spur,” and then complain that these exhibit no mental initiative. Even when domesticating the animals under the most favourable conditions, they diminish their powers of resistance to disease and their adaptability to new surroundings, making of them artificial creatures, incapable of self-support in the freedom of Nature.

The corruption of species is already a great evil, but civilised science tends also to their extermination. It is notorious how many birds have been destroyed by European sportsmen in New Zealand and Australia, in Madagascar, and in the polar archipelago; how many walrus and other cetacea have already disappeared. The whale has fled from our more temperate seas, and before long will not even be found among the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean. All the great land animals are threatened in the same way. One knows the fate of the aurochs and the bison; one can foretell that of the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus and the elephant. Statistics estimate the production of elephant ivory at 800 tons yearly, which is as good as to say that the hunters kill 40,000 elephants in the same time, without counting those who, after being wounded, go off and die afar in the jungle. How distant are we from the Singhalese folk of old times, for whom “the eighteenth science for man was to win the friendship of an elephant”! How distant from the Aryans of India, who appointed for the captive colossus two Brahmins as companions, in order that he might be taught to practice the virtues worthy of his race!

What a contrast there exists between the two kinds of civilisation I had occasion to see one day in a plantation in Brazil. Two bulls, bought at great expense in the Old World, were the pride of the proprietor. One of them, which came from Jersey, was pulling at a chain which passed through his nostrils, bellowing, fuming, tearing the ground with his hoof, thrusting with his horns, and watching his keeper with a wicked eye; the other, a zebu, imported from India, followed us like a dog, with gentle eyes, begging for a caress. We poor ignorant “civilisees”, living in our closed houses, afar from Nature, which alarms us because the sun is too hot or the wind too cold — we have entirely forgotten even the meaning of the festivals which we celebrate, and which, all of them — Christmas, Easter, Rogations, and All-Hallows — were originally festivals of Nature, though Christianity itself does not know it. Do we understand the meaning of the traditions which place the first man in a garden of beauty, where he walks in freedom with all the animals, and which tell us that the “Son of Man” was born on a bed of straw, between the ass and the ox, the two companions of the field-worker?

Nevertheless, though the gulf which separates man from his brethren the animals has widened, and though our direct influence on those species that remain free in Nature’s wilds has diminished, it seems clear that at least a certain progress has been effected, thanks to the more intimate association which has arisen with those domestic animals which are not used for food. No doubt even dogs have been partially corrupted. The majority of them, accustomed like soldiers to blows, have become degraded beings that tremble before the stick, and cringe and crawl under the threats of the master; others, who are taught savagery, become the bulldogs that seize poor folk by the calf of the leg, or leap at the throats of the slaves; and then again “greyhounds in petticoats”[5] adopt all the vices of their mistresses — greediness, vanity, luxury, and insolence; while the dogs in China, bred for the table, are stupid beyond compare. But the dog that is truly loved, and brought up in generosity, gentleness and nobility of feeling — does he not quite often realise a human or superhuman ideal of devotion and moral greatness?

And cats — who have understood better than dogs how to safeguard their personal independence and originality of character, who are “companions rather then captives” — have they not, too, since the day of primitive wildness in the woods, made advances intellectual and moral which partake of the miraculous? There is not a human sentiment, which on occasion they do not understand or share, not an idea, which they do not divine, not a desire but what they forestall it. The poet sees in them magicians; it is that in fact they do seem at times more intelligent than their human friends, in their presentiment of the future. And such and such “happy family,” exhibited by showmen in the fairs, does it prove to us that rats, mice, guinea pigs and so many other little creatures, only desire to enter, with man, into the great kinship of gladness and kindness? Every prison cell is soon transformed — provided the warders do not impose “good order” — into a school of lower animals, rats and mice, flies and fleas. The story of Pelisson’s spider is well known. The prisoner had begun again to take interest in life, thanks to the little friend whose training he had undertaken; but a guardian of order appears on the scene, and avenging official morality with his boot, crushes the creature which had come to console the unfortunate man!

These facts prove to us the resources which man holds in command for the revival of his influence over all this animated world which now he leaves in the lap of chance, and neglects to associate with his own life. When our civilisation, ferociously individualist as it is, and dividing the world into as many little hostile States as there are separate properties and different family households — when its last bankruptcy shall have been declared, and recourse to mutual help shall have become necessary for the common salvation, when the search for friendship shall have taken the place of the search for wealth — that wealth which, sooner or later, will be sufficiently assured for all; and when the enthusiasm of naturalists shall have revealed to us all that there is of charming, of lovable, of human, and often of more than human, in the nature of the animals, then we shall remember all these species that have been left behind on the forward route, and shall endeavour to make of them, not servants or machines, but veritable companions. The study of primitive man has contributed in a singular degree to our understanding of the “law and order” man of our own day; the customs of animals will help us to penetrate deeper into the science of life, will enlarge both our knowledge of the world and our love. Let us long for the day when the doe of the forest shall come to meet us, to win our caresses by the look of her dark eyes, and the bird shall perch triumphantly on the shoulder of the loved woman, knowing himself beautiful, and demanding, he also, his part in the kiss of friendship!

Élisée Reclus, The Great Kinship Of Humans and Fauna


The history of a stream, even one that is born and is lost in the moss, is the history of infinity. These sparkling droplets have passed through granite, limestone and clay; they were snow on the cold mountain, molecules of vapor in the cloud, white foam on the crest of waves; the sun, in its daily course, made them shine with the most brilliant reflections; the pale moonlight has made them vaguely iridescent; lightning turned them into hydrogen and oxygen, then with a new shock made these primitive elements flow into water. All the agents of the atmosphere and space, all of the cosmic forces, have worked in concert to constantly modify the aspect and the position of the imperceptible droplet; it too is a world like the enormous stars which roll in the heavens, and its orbit develops from cycle to cycle in a movement without rest.

Élisée Reclus, Histoire d’un ruisseau


If Elisée Reclus was held in high esteem as a geographer, he was perhaps esteemed even more as a man by the immense numbers of persons of all nations who had known him. It was impossible to approach Elisée Reclus without feeling the elevating influence of his character—such is the unanimous verdict of those who knew him. The profound scientific honesty of his work was only a reflection of his high personal integrity, absolute disinterestedness, and unlimited love of truth, without any restriction, mental or otherwise, that had become his intimate nature. The sobriety of his life was marvellous. Bread and some fruit was all that he lived upon, even when he worked from six in the morning till eleven in the evening. It was also his favourite food. Apart from the need of warmth that he began to feel as he grew in age, he may be said to have had no wants. He knew how to die poor after having written wonderful books. And he knew how, having attained the high summits of fame, never to rule anybody and to remain the equal of his humblest collaborator and of every one he met with. He certainly was one of the finest specimens of civilized mankind, a man free in the purest sense of the word.

Peter Kroppotkin, Obituary: Élisée Reclus

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