Sacred Mountains: How Science, Medicine, and Leisure Transformed Alpine Spaces into Spiritual Places

AHA Session 205
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 308 (Hynes Convention Center)
Susan Schrepfer, Rutgers University-New Brunswick
Michael F. Robinson, University of Hartford

Session Abstract

This panel examines how science, medicine, and leisure in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries led to new conceptualizations of alpine spaces and helped turn mountains into sacred places.  The papers link critical perspectives from the history of science and exploration, history of medicine and disease, environmental history, and the history of tourism and recreation.  Analyzing specific historical contexts in the Himalayas, Andes, and Rockies, the three papers in this session uncover various notions of "the sacred."  In each of the three cases, a variety of explorers, physicians, scientists, tourists, and economic developers developed fresh views of mountainous areas.  Their studies, writings, and interactions with these environments in turn constructed the spaces as scientific laboratories, as regions where climate cured diseases, and as places for recreation and relaxation.  But there was always more at play with these discursive representations and interactions because, underlying the science, medicine, recreation, and other material or rational interactions with specific environments, were emotions and feelings.  In the Himalayas, scientist-explorers and mountaineers studying the region's geography simultaneously expressed a spiritual relationship with high altitude peaks.  There was thus not only a fascinating link among science, geopolitics, and recreation, but also spiritual encounters that transformed high-elevation peaks into imperial landscapes and desirable destinations for those seeking close proximity to raw nature.  In the Peruvian Andes, physicians, tuberculosis patients, economic developers, and policymakers helped turn a supposedly backward region inhabited by slothful Indians into a curative, purifying environment.  By identifying the climate of Jauja as salubrious in the late nineteenth century, physicians helped attract a variety of ill patients.  As Peruvians and foreigners visited the region's health resort through many subsequent decades, they helped foster a new notion of the Andes: as a place where outsiders could improve their health, find emotional rejuvenation, and achieve purity of body, mind, and soul.  In the North American Rockies, sacred spaces emerged through tourism, recreation, and the appropriation of local cultures that celebrated specific landscapes.  Tourism boosters and the leisure class created new landscapes where it was possible to connect spiritually with the mountains, often through risky behavior.  In all three cases, mountains became sacred for certain social groups.  Yet the processes were distinct in each region, as were the historical actors and forces shaping mountain meanings and emotional bonds to alpine spaces.           This session clearly moves away from a definition of the sacred that typically focuses on religion.  Instead, it reveals how science, medicine, and recreation—which were always influenced by power dynamics, social relations (race, class, and gender), and the specific physical environments—all helped generate emotional attachments to certain places.  The comparative international framework opens up important transnational discussions about place-making processes that occurred in distinct historical and geographical contexts.  Putting colonial and postcolonial processes in dialogue with nation building agendas expands the historiography beyond the typical focus on Western Europeans and the transformation of the Alps, where scholarship has concentrated.  Overall, the panel offers new conceptions of sacred mountains and the historical processes creating those landscapes.

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