A small crowd gathered in the Howard Room at the Blue Hill Public Library in late July to reflect upon and discuss particular aspects of a book published by historically prominent Blue Hill figure Jonathan Fisher.
Three University of Maine, Orono, professors presented on Fisher’s 1834 work Scripture Animals. Liam Riordan and Richard Judd of the history department, and Ben Friedlander, an English professor, each spoke for 30 minutes before sitting down to field questions from the audience.
During prepared remarks, each professor offered a specific interpretation of the work in light of his scholarly expertise.
Riordan assessed the importance of Scripture Animals in light of its existence as an artifact of material culture.
He examined the taxonomies of people Fisher presented in the work. Riordan suggested that, in comparison to our modern context, Fisher appears to have been somewhat benighted, yet if he is examined within the context of his own time, he can be understood to have been somewhat more tolerant.
Fisher classified human beings into certain broad and difficult categories including “Negroes,” “Tartars,” “Laplanders,” “Native Americans,” and “Europeans.”
Judd spoke about Fisher as an example of an individual concerned with documenting his natural environment. The title of Judd’s presentation was “Jonathan Fisher and the American Naturalist Tradition.”
Judd studies the history of environmentalism in the United States. He said Scripture Animals is a clear testament to Fisher’s interest in the natural world.
The period of time in which Fisher lived was also one of great discovery in the newly formed United States. Of that era, Judd suggested, “This is the great age of continental exploration.”
It was also, he said, a “pre-Darwinian inquiry into the meaning of nature in America.”
Much of the investigation into the nuances of the natural world at that time was informed by a desire to impose Biblical organizational principles onto the found phenomena.
There was also the impulse to impose some degree of order on the great number of new natural species being discovering.
In Fisher’s descriptions of animals, there is a tendency towards anthropomorphism; the various species are given human traits, and tendencies. Judd said, “Readers gained ethical grounding from Fisher’s animal taxonomy.”
Fisher was also openly dismissive of certain animals. He wrote about beetles that they “probably enjoy such a portion of happiness as is more than a balance for all the suffering they occasion.”
Friedlander discussed his understanding of Fisher as informed by his knowledge of the artist Leonard Baskin. Baskin was a 20th century American artist and printmaker.
“Both,” Friedlander said, of the two artists’ understanding of the natural world, “respect that world in respect of its alterity [otherness].”
Friedlander touched on the interpretations of animals Fisher had. Of the louse, Fisher wrote, “God can use them to execute his judgment on the proudest of men.”
He also noted that Fisher’s thought was unusual for a Christian minister and naturalist of his historical era. He briefly spoke about Scripture Animals in light of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s contemporaneous essay titled Nature.
After the three presenters had completed their remarks, they opened the room for questions.
Several members of the audience offered insights about particular attributes of Fisher.
In response to questions about understanding Fisher in the context of the era in which he lived, Riordan spoke about considering Fisher as having been somewhat cosmopolitan. He suggested this in light of the broad scope of Fisher’s writings about global peoples despite the relatively insular nature of his place of residence, Blue Hill in the early to mid 1800s. Fisher was, Riordan said, “not without a broader sense of world.”
The practical necessity of Fisher’s entrepreneurialism and diverse functional skills was also considered, after questioners asked about the breadth of Fisher’s capacities.
Jonathan Fisher lived from 1768 to 1847 and was the first Congregational minister of Blue Hill. In addition to his ministerial duties, he was also a painter, an architect, a surveyor, a farmer, and a writer.
His painting “A Morning View of Blue Hill Village,” from 1824, is a recognizable image of the town in the early stages of the American republic.
The Jonathan Fisher House, Fisher’s one-time house that presently serves as a museum of his life and work, is located at 44 Mines Road, Blue Hill.