Reclus, Élisée

Those light eyes looking at us from the paper are those of Élisée Reclus, geographer and anarchist, born in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande (Gironde, France) on 15 March 1830, and deceased in Torhout, near Brussels, on 4 July 1905. At the time, geographer and anarchist were two words that had very different meanings from the ones we associate with them today. Now geography has been substituted by tourism, and instead of traveling to learn (or, rather, to unlearn so much nonsense), one travels thousands of kilometres as who goes through a doorway, just to change the scenery, only slightly altering one’s habits. Nowadays, anarchism means uproar, irreverence, indiscipline, or mayhem to many people, when for Reclus it was nothing more and nothing less than ‘the highest expression of order’. How hard it is now to talk about certain things! For the author of a Geography that considers human beings in relation to the environment that sustains them, the Earth is the home where men live, and men are all brothers, free and equal, owners of the same rights; we all move under the same Sun and our blood in pumped by identical hearts.

Reclus’ parents had fourteen children, of which eleven survived. His father was a protestant pastor who would explain to his numerous offspring similar ideas, or not, even though in his understanding of the world God occupied the pre-eminent position. He had a great influence upon his children: they admired the honesty and generosity of his good nature, but at the same time they rejected his blind faith in the Sacred Scriptures. Many ideas were changing at the time —Darwin created his evolution theory in 1859, which he had been reflecting on since 1837—, and yet Reclus the pastor clung to biblical tradition and only saw these discoveries as the Devil’s work. Paul, Élisée’s nephew, attributed the religious inflexibility of the pastor to his children’s interest in the study of science. Faced with the abusive preservation of the status quo by any authority, the scientific developments of the second-half of the 19th century would provide a real hope to the eradication of poverty, disease, and inequality.

Elie, the eldest brother, was Élisée’s guide and good friend; once they even escaped from the faculty together to go to the beach. Élisée decided to become a geographer during a trip he made on foot from Berlin —where he followed the courses of Karl Ritter, Humboldt’s disciple— to his house in Orthez, accompanied by Elie, who joined him in Strasbourg, as well as a small dog that follow them for the entire journey. In Montauban, they had both begun to get involved in politics: it was the time before the Revolutions of 1848 that would bring the Second Republic. In 1851, as a result of Napoleon III’s coup d’état, the two bothers took refuge in London. From there, Élisée went to Ireland, where he managed a farm, and embarked for America a year later. In New Orleans he worked as a preceptor for a plantation owner’s children, although he did not last long in that role: on one hand, he did not accept the slave regime, still in force; and on the other, as it appears, he had to flee from one of his young pupils, who wanted to make him her husband.

From Reclus’ passage through Santa Marta’s Sierra Nevada, in New Granada (present-day Colombia), his next destination, where he arrived with the aim to form a libertarian colony, we are left with the beautiful chronicle where he details his frustrated experience. Élisée returned to France —upon Elie’s request, who paid for his ticket—, ill and impoverished, but soon after we see him back on his feet, now a geographer and writing for Guides Joanne, a series of travel guide books by the publishing house Hachette.

The main promoters of Reclus’ work in Spain were Francisco Ferrer Guardia, founder of Barcelona Modern School, and Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. Somehow, the Valencian writer must have seen in Reclus the ‘energetic and impetuous’ lifestyle he wished for himself and which he attempted to achieve with his projects of agricultural colonies in Argentina’s Patagonia and his long journeys around the world.  

In 1869, Reclus published History of a Stream with Hetzel, publisher of Jules Verne’s novels. They were both strict contemporaries: Verne was born only two years earlier and they both died in the same year. Undoubtedly, they knew each other. It is also known that the novelist, who rarely left France, used Reclus’ geographical studies when he wanted to describe the settings of his adventure novels and bring credibility to the story with the scientific data that had been carefully recorded by the geographer.

Universal Geography by Reclus was composed of 19 volumes and featured many collaborators. Prince Piotr Kropotkin was in charge of the Russian part. In the prologue of History of a Mountain, he reveals that he once asked his friend —reflecting on some paintings he had seen in El Prado— why beautiful things live on for centuries, and Reclus answered: ‘Beauty is an idea thought out in its details’. At a time when there were still blank and unexplored places in the world, Élisée Reclus tried to complete the puzzle by offering sketches and maps on human groups, vegetation, climates, events, and by finding relationships between them.

‘The story of the infinite is written in a drop of water.’ Reclus’ life is marked by shifts from big to small, from public to private spaces, by changes of scale and perspective. In 1870, when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, he enlisted in the aeronautical section of the National Guard, led by his friend Nadar, a pioneer of photography and hot-air balloon trips who was also friends with Verne, who served as a model for From the Earth to the Moon. As well as Elie, who was at the time director of the National Library, Élisée was a distinguished participant in the Paris Commune, which is why he lived exiled in Switzerland for many years. In 1895, he permanently settled in Belgium: he taught at the Free University of Brussels and promoted an Institute of Geography with his resources.

Paul Reclus, Elie’s son, lived close to the geographer and became his assistant during his final years. In a text, he sketches his profile; not of the public figure or the wiseman, but of the person in slippers: ‘I remember Élisée sitting at his desk. He spent his time quietly humming a song that seemed essential to writing his prose. (…) He did not edit his texts much. Once he had come up with the idea, he easily knew how to put it in words. He worked with great perseverance; his motto was ‘one page a day’. He could write in pencil in the most unusual places: when the train stopped, in the waiting room of a station, at the corner of a tavern’s counter. In his pocket, displayed as a Caucasian soldier’s weapon holster, he carried a great variety of different pencils. His memory was prodigious: to check a fact he would get up from the desk, pick up the right book, open it to the desired page, and continue writing straight away. (…) He was an excellent hiker. His daughter recalls how he loved to play hide-and-seek and climb trees when he realised he could be discovered. He could not spend long periods of time without exercising: already in his fifties, he attended a gym class with his future sons-in-law Régnier and Cuisinier, and me. He saw Régnier making a dangerous trampoline jump and, very excitedly, he wanted to do the same.’

In the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, Reclus projected a terrestrial globe of a forty-metre circumference; a dream that would never come true: the world captured at a glance. Those eyes as blue as that globe are long gone, as the small body that became smaller and smaller until it disappeared completely. Élisée is buried with Elie in Ixelles (Brussels), under a simple slab attached to the wall of the cemetery, engraved only with their names and the corresponding dates. Due to an unfortunate twist of fate, many of the documents and maps the geographer collected throughout his life ceased to exist. In 1923, a wise Japanese geologist, Mr. Ishimoto, wanted to open an ‘Élisée Reclus’ Institute of Geography in Tokyo. The library was packed up and sent over; the boxes arrived at the Yokohama port, waiting to be disembarked, when the terrible earthquake remembered by encyclopedias took place: the fire on the quay caused the ship to sink, along with all of its cargo.

Despite these disappearances, the name of Reclus is still remembered by readers in many countries and has been passed on from parents to children. The youngest ones can get to know him by discovering certain places and through different publications which are still accessible today. Better than that, it is worth going to the countryside on a sunny day and following the trail of water, searching for the river’s source, feeling the air on your face, feeling part of the world and wishing to share that with others.

Herrín Hidalgo

Portrait of the author by Nadar