How do we responsibly represent nature?

Andean Agriculture, Peru. Image from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.
This was sent out as part of our monthly newsletter about all things climate. We look at how historical drawings play a new role in the climate crisis, and ask how do we responsibly represent nature?
Objects sediment meanings in the tissues of their layers. We turn our attention to the sediments of a story that links indigenous image making in the sixteenth century, European scientists in the early 1800's, agricultural workers in the 1980's, and life in the Andean mountains today. The region of the Andes that we focus on here are considered some of the most complex agro-ecological regions in the world.

Our story begins in 1799 when Alexander von Humboldt set sail for the Spanish colonies of South America, aiming to make botanical, astronomical, geographical, and other scientific observations and experiments. Chief among them was his Essay on the Geography of Plants, which reported on the connection between elevation and vegetation, accompanied by an elaborate hand colored print, the Tableau Physique (shown below). The print rendered Mount Chimborazo, an Andean peak in what is now Ecuador, overlaid with the Latin names of plant species Humboldt and his group of botanists collected on the mountain slopes. Humboldt’s sketch and notes represented the connection between levels of vegetation and elevation on the mountain, with notes about species, altitudes, and snow lines. Although geoecology was not an original idea of Humboldts, his essay and especially the Tableau Physique are origin moments of the science.

Humboldt’s illustrations have been taken up by contemporary scientists interested in mapping the upward movement of vegetation due to our warming climate. In 2019, a group of ecologists found that plant elevations on mountains around Chimborazo had risen in elevation by around 250 meters, an observation consistent with the worldwide movement of vegetation to higher elevations at the rate of 10-15 meters per year. They also found that the permanent snow level on the mountain had risen by the same amount. In the circuits of international climate science, Humboldt’s drawing takes on new sedimentations of meaning.
Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, Géographie des plantes Équinoxiales: Tableau physique des Andes et Pays voisins, from Essai sur la géographie des plantes, 1805, hand-colored print, 24 x 36 in., Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, © Copyright The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Humboldt traveled to the Andes at the height of Spanish imperialism. During that time, the Andes was the living place for the majority of people in Ecuador and Peru, among whom pre-Columbian lifeways and colonial resistance were everyday realities.
From the early 1500s, the Spanish had - through genocide, war, and incredible cruelty - created a colonial system of tribute that took the form coerced of labor and taxes paid to the Spanish colonial government. The wealth of the colonies and the Spanish elite was built on the free labor of indigenous and African slaves. As Mary Louis Pratt reminds us in Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992), Spanish colonial culture was intensely hierarchical (a racial structure with European born Spaniards at the top, gradually moving down according to amounts of indigenous and black blood), and saturated with conflict. Spanish silver mines in the Andes were particularly harsh forms of servitude for indigenous and African populations. Just twenty years before Humboldt arrived, indigenous people in the Andes revolted against the creole elites.
Despite this, the social life of the Andes is noticeably absent from Humboldt’s image. Nothing that would evidence obstacles to Spanish colonial rule were present within the Tableau Physique. Instead, through his text and images, Humboldt constructed South America as primitive wilderness, an image that would have enduring influence in European descriptions of the continent.

How do images create different worlds through sticky connections? The world making processes of the Tableau Physique contrasts with other material visions of the Andes. This drawing from 1588 is believed to be done by indigenous Andean artist Francisco Tito Yupanqui. It renders Cerro de Potosi, site of the largest Spanish mine in the Americas. The Virgin of Copacabana, long associated with the mountain, is pictured at the summit.

Francisco Tito Yupanqui, Cerro de Potosi, 1588.

Images of the Andean mountain ranges are also captured in contemporary arpilleras, quilts made by agricultural workers, primarily women. Popularized during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1980s, arpilleras are quilted images made for metropolitan audiences that frequently depict agricultural life in the high mountains. Like Humbolt’s image, arpilleras depict the layers of argo-ecology that take place at different elevations. Instead of Latinate names, the arpillera uses Spanish terms to designate subjects which are both directly referential in the sense of species names, but also carry more slippery social meanings.

Arpillera made by women from the town Melipilla. Women make wool and cook in the foreground, 1995. From Art Against Dictatorship: Making and Exporting Arpilleras Under Pinochet by Jacquiline Adams
Which brings us to a larger view of the Andean cordillera today, and what has been described as one of the most complex agro-ecological regions in the world. Andean farmers in Ecuador and Peru established different, connected levels of agriculture based on elevation, where maize, potatoes, and livestock are reared in “ecozones” that are tightly compressed due to the steepness of the slopes and the narrow width of the mountain range. The high elevation of the mountains - the altiplano - are regions of incredible biodiversity, with over 90 species of wild potatoes, and over 400 different kinds of domesticated potatoes grown. In the 1960s, anthropologists called these connected steps of agricultural production “vertical archipelagos.” Today, farming lifeways in the Andes are under threat from climate change and global labor markets. Large scale agriculture there puts pressure on biodiversity through monocropping. Paying attention to climate change in the Andes today requires a holistic approach, bringing together problems and approaches that don’t put blinders on the human in favor of Latinate naming systems.