I am teaching this semester a course on the History of Science, and am using two of my books: Science in the Ancient World, and Frontier Naturalist: Jean Louis Berlandier and the Exploration of Northern Mexico and Texas. The latter was a product of a good ten or so years of thinking, writing, and research and coming to know, vicariously, the life of Jean Louis Berlandier.
Berlandier was inquisitive, a courageous scientist and explorer, captivated by the inherent beauty of the Texas and Mexican Gulf Coast, intrigued by the incredible natural variety of Texas and Mexico in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. He was also a sensitive observer of the Tejanos, Mestizos, and Americans, as well as the dozens of tribes that were indigenous to, or had immigrated to, Texas and Northern Mexico. Berlandier’s writings and extensive collections of natural and human artifacts were purchased from his widow by Darius Nash Couch, and much of it is preserved by the Smithsonian Institution, Harvard University’s Grey Herbarium, and Yale University’s Beinecke Library.
My writing seeks to recapture the life and experiences of past individuals, and I believe I successfully accomplished this with the French-Swiss-Mexican Jean Louis Berlandier. I first learned of Berlandier about a decade ago when I was working on an encyclopedia of American science . I wanted my encyclopedia to include some Mexican and Spanish scientists, and learned that Berlandier, a native Frenchman who immigrated to Mexico in the 1820s, was one of the best naturalists of his time. He also was an explorer and journalist, artist and cartographer: I was hooked! I discovered that few people had written about Berlandier, that his works exist mostly in manuscript form (in Spanish and French), and that he is largely unknown today–hopefully this has changed some since Frontier Naturalist was published in 2012! I have always enjoyed retracing the lives of explorers and scientists in early America, and my interest grew in trying to learn about, recapture the journeys and writings of, and portray through a narrative history, the life of this fascinating person. It took me several years to research and translate Berlandier’s journals of his travels throughout Texas and Mexico in the 1820s, 1830s, 1840s, and early 1850s. These journals formed the basis for my book, which is largely a narrative account of the many journeys this scientist took in a largely unknown part of America.
I used the same techniques of empathetic research, what I call the dialogue with the past, in my newest book on Captain John Smith: The Sea Mark.