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Looking Closer at Look at Your Fish

“In science, I concluded, even in fields as apparently apolitical as ichthyology and glaciology, the story always involves more than a fish in a tin pan or lines etched on bedrock. Culture, history, and beliefs about humans determine, now as in the nineteenth century, who exactly is invited into the science laboratory to “look and look again” at the fish in the pan, and who exactly has the leisure and means to take a trip to Maine.”

— Marion K. McInnes, “Looking for Louis Agassiz: A Story of Rocks and Race in Maine


Less than a week after I published a blog post that referenced Louis Agassiz and the Look-at-Your-Fish-school-of-natural-history-instruction, I stumbled upon an essay that upended my perception of Agassiz, glaciers, and the apocryphal fish. “Looking for Louis Agassiz: A Story of Rocks and Race in Maine” flashed on my radar via my google scholar alert for Acadia National Park and Dr. Marion McInnes pulled me down a history of science rabbit hole to face my own field site and writing in an unforgiving mirror.


McInnes weaves together the geologic history of Mount Desert Island, Maine, Agassiz’s well-founded theories on glaciers, and his illegitimate theories on race in an astounding piece that’s part archival detective story, part cultural criticism. This essay is engaging and thought-provoking and scathing. I did not escape unscathed. Because, here’s the thing: I elided Agassiz’s racism when I quoted Look at Your Fish. I knew better — I read Chrisoph Irmscher’s 2013 biography Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science and half-remembered Agassiz’s spurious writing on superior and inferior races even as I was typing up pithy takes on his pedagogical style.


Both McInnes’ essay and Irmscher’s Agassiz biography cover the breadth of Agassiz’s career as a scientist and teacher. In the mid-19th century, Agassiz leveraged his position as a public intellectual to expound on race: his writing and lectures added scientific credence to the idea of the white superiority. He was an abolitionist and a champion of glaciers over the biblical Noah’s flood as a geologic force. He also rejected Darwin and believed in a theory of multiple creations, which included separate creations for different human races, the “newest” and best model being white Europeans like himself. My personal brand is loving 19th century naturalists, and my historical ecology research makes it clear that all my favs are problematic. This essay reinforces the important point that glossing over these problems, especially if they were cultural norms, is itself problematic.


McInnes’ essay centers on her quest to find the Agassiz Outcrop, a site that, at the outset, she believes is a National Historic Landmark in Maine celebrating an outcrop of 510 million-year-old Ellsworth Schist bedrock bearing glacial striations and Agassiz’s name. Except she discovers that the Agassiz Outcrop is unmarked, half-hidden beside a parking lot, and its status has actually been inflated by a mistake on — it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, added in 2003, but it is not a capital ‘L’ Landmark. Ellsworth is on the mainland side of the bridge to Mount Desert Island; it’s where I do my grocery shopping on my way to my field housing each spring and boasts the Home Depot where I’ve spent thousands of dollars of grant money on corner gutter pieces, zip ties, cloth weed barrier, and various other field ecology supplies. As I read McInnes’ essay, I could picture most of the geological formations she references — the pink granite, the glacial erratics — but I had never heard of the Agassiz Outcrop. Then, I saw her photo and I immediately recognized the parking lot. I’m a pretty curious person with a stubborn streak in research projects, but I’m not sure I would have followed the threads that McInnes plucks from here; I think I might have let the project die in that parking lot of underwhelming landmark status and disappointment. I am genuinely amazed by what McInnes has crafted from the ashes* of the Agassiz Outcrop anecdote, and her dedication to unwinding the story of Agassiz, this outcrop, and the cultural moments they connect. As she writes in her introduction, “when I started this project I thought I was taking a trip back to the Palaeozoic and pre-Cambrian Eras, but in fact I landed squarely in the nineteenth century.”


Among my favorite moments in this essay is when McInnes reads Agassiz’s ‘Glacial Phenoma of Maine’ from a bound copy of the year-end edition of Atlantic Monthly in her college library: “When I took down volume XIX to look for Agassiz’s articles on Maine, the leather spine tore along the seam; red dust coated my fingers and stained my clothes. All the better: this was the volume published in 1867, here in my hands, and not on a sterile computer screen.” A more recent paper on Maine glaciology looms large too: Smith and Borns’ “Louis Agassiz, the Great Deluge, and Early Maine Geology” published in Northeastern Naturalist nineteen years ago. Smith and Borns turn out to be the catalyst behind the Agassiz Outcrop’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places; it was their recommendation that landed the site this honor. But McInnes is more interested in what Smith and Borns’ left out of their writing on Agassiz: race.


“In their article for Northeastern Naturalist in 2000, Smith and Borns sidestep the issue of Agassiz’s racism; they simply do not refer to his views on race at all. One might argue that they wrote this piece, after all, for an audience interested in geology, not social history…Yet this reasoning does not suffice. In the last section of their article, Smith and Borns consider Agassiz’s legacy outside of his contributions to glacial theory; they highlight his contributions to science education, his skill as a mentor of future brilliant scientists, and his support of women…I can understand their quandary as writers, and I continue to appreciate the research Smith and Borns have done on nineteenth-century geologists, including Agassiz, who studied bedrock in Maine. But if Agassiz’s enlightened views of women are relevant to the case they make for his being “one of the world’s preeminent natural historians,” then so are his views on race.”


Here, McInnes cuts through a thousand thorny arguments with incredible clarity. Why did I feel so guilty reading this after publishing a blog post that conveniently forgot to mention Agassiz’s racism? I think McInnes nails this sin of omission. In her writing on stripping memorials of problematic namesakes she plucks a perfect metaphor from the google map view of the road that passes by the Agassiz Outcrop: a ‘FILL WANTED’ sign. “This alternative, it seems to me, calls for research and interpretive work rather than erasure of the past. We want and need the full story of science history: we need to fill in what has been left out of geology textbook chapters on Agassiz’s Ice Age Theory; and “FILL” could usefully be added to the signage in the galleries of what once was the Agassiz Museum of Comparative Zoology.”


I cannot recommend this essay enough. When I teach Field Natural History, I will assign it in tandem with Look At Your Fish; the two pieces are now inseparable in my mind. It is amazing how this improbable connection came together: an essay written by a Professor Emerita of English at DePauw University, published in the latest issue of Mosaic, an interdisciplinary critical journal that I’d never heard of before. This is, by all accounts, a paper I should never have read. But, the practice of reading a paper a day can be expansive and magical; it can allow for opportunities to read broadly and cast a wide net, or an interdisciplinary Acadia-sized-net. For these reasons, I’m just sort of charmed that my off-again on-again dedication to #365papers became a conduit for the universe to reach out and smack me for letting Agassiz’s racism slide unchecked in the year of our goddess 2019. I will do better.


*terrible wordplay here — Ellsworth Schist is not igneous rock.



McInnes, Marion K. 2019. Looking for Louis Agassiz: A Story of Rocks and Race in Maine. Mosaic: a Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature. 52(2): 35-56.


Banner Image: Agassiz Outcrop, photo by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie


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