ORIGINS OF NATIONAL GEOGRAPHY

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Опубликовано в библиотеке: 2021-10-31
Источник: Science in Russia, №1, 2013, C.80-87

by Nikolai VEKHOV, Cand. Sc. (Biol.), Russian Research Institute of Cultural and Natural Heritage named after D. Likhachev (Moscow)

 

Gavriil Tanfilyev (1857-1928), characterized by a zoologist and geographer Lev Berg (Academician from 1946) as a "versatile naturalist--a botanist, soil scientist and a geographer"-- is the founder of many concepts forming the basis of modern science on the Earth, including classification of climatic zones. In the course of studies of an unprecedented diversity in our country, he arrived at a conclusion: only national researchers "can solve a series of complex geographical problems".

 

The future scientist's teachers at the Department of Physics and Mathematics of St. Petersburg University were prominent encyclopedists such as Andrey Beketov, botanist-evolutionist, one of the founders of the morphology and geography of plants, Honorary Member of St. Petersburg AS (from 1895), and Vas-ily Dokuchaev, natural scientist, geologist and soil scientist. They influenced him in forming the main trends of his scientific research.

 

In 1883, after graduating from the university, Tanfilyev began work at the department of the Ministry of State Properties and concurrently continued studies of vegetation, physical and geographical characteristics of Russia and cooperated with his tutors. Thus, in 1892, on Dokuchaev's invitation, he took part in an expedition intended to study steppes, after which he wrote a scientific paper The Forest Limits in the South of Russia and in 1895 he defended it as his master's thesis. The same year Tanfilyev in the capacity of privat-docent began to deliver a course of botanical geography in his alma mater and was accepted to St. Petersburg Botanical Gardens (in 1899 he became the chief botanist there).

 
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In the summer of 1892, the scientist went to the Timan (or Malozemelskaya) tundra (today, the Archan-gelsk Region) to study local nature and living conditions of natives--Samoyeds, or Nenets people. During the journey, he made essential observations represented in 1894 in the paper Across the Tundras of Timan Samoyeds in the Summer of 1892, which is used even today as a textbook for beginner natural scientists. The author described accurately and in detail local habits and household organization, meteorological conditions, vegetation, natural landscapes of the tundra of different types and first in the world offered its classification: stony, peat-hummock, spotted, or bald (clayey, sandy) and peat-hilly tundra.

 

At the same time the researcher raised the problem of the polar (northern) limits of forests, having pointed out that in general it is parallel to the sea coast, though rather winding, and in some places their massifs go deeply into the tundra forming "strips" or "islands" in the river valleys. According to Tanfilyev, such "penetration" can be explained by favorable conditions for the outflow of soil water surplus and lowering of the permafrost horizon; on the adjoining areas it, on the contrary, rises that results in the formation of swamps and degradation of forest cover.

 

The materials collected by Tanfilyev in the course of the expedition were incorporated into one of the issues of a very popular in our country in early 20th cent. illustrated collection European Russia, recommended by the Ministry of People's Education for "libraries of grammar schools for boys and girls, vocational schools, pedagogical institutes, seminaries and free public libraries and reading rooms". Based on the collected materials, in 1912 he defended his doctoral thesis in geography The Forest Limits in Polar Russia on the Results of Research in the Tundra of Timan Samoyeds at St. Petersburg University. The ideas on the physical and geographical features of the tundra described in this scientific paper were further developed by other national specialists.

 

Besides, Tanfilyev also was an outstanding researcher of steppes. He explained formation of chernozem typical of the soil of this climatic zone by decay of plant residues and influence of the loess rich in lime (a sedimentary rock) that forms a solid compound with them known as humus*. It was a high concentration of lime carbonate and sodium salt that enabled the scientist to explain

 

*Hunus--a soil leyar making up the major part of its organic matter (up to 90 percent); contains nutrients necessary for higher plants, forming as a result of a biochemical transformation of flora and fauna residues; an important criterion of soil fertility.--Ed.

 
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existence of specific vegetation peculiar to this very geographical area. To measure the salt content in the soil, he developed the so-called effervescence method (the soil containing lime salts bubbles if mixed with diluted chlo-rohydric acid) that is widely used till now in the course of field research.

 

The scientist noticed: the black soil usually starts about 75 km southwards from the border between the coniferous and broad-leaved forests. Areas occupied by the latter with loess as a subsoil were named by Tanfilyev as prehistoric steppes--according to the scientist, there also was humus there before, but it disappeared with the time, was washed out by rain and melt waters. He substantiated his standpoint in 1896 at the meeting of the Soil Committee (today, the Soil Institute named after V. Dokuchaev, Moscow). Forest planting in the northern steppe limits was considered by the scientist as a logical result of soil and geological processes, and not denying the impact of the climate on the expansion of the organic world in the territory of our country, he stated the following: the condition of the plant cover is not constant, it inevitably transforms under the influence of changes in soil conditions.

 

His teaching on the prehistoric steppes opened up a new approach to the studies of geographical zones of the Russian Plain as constantly transforming. According to Yevgeny Lavrenko, a geobotanist and geographer. Academician from 1968, it was his works that to a large extent explained the impact of physical and geographical factors on the development of the plant cover of derelict lands (ploughed up fields that were not cultivated for long), in particular, impact on the sequence and duration of recovery periods. Moreover, the scientist's interest to these questions, first of all, to the relation between the soil and the vegetation forming on its surface, did not disappear for the whole period of his scientific life.

 

Tanfilyev proposed an original idea of arrangement of geological structure, relief, hydrography, soil conditions and vegetation of steppes as interrelated processes and events. He pointed out abundance of water bodies, both permanent and temporary, including saucer-shaped hollows filled with water only in spring that soon dry out in their territory, and also determined specifics of regions within this geographical area.

 

Thus, the West Siberian Lowland in a corresponding climatic zone is characterized by a plain, almost horizontal terrain. "The terrain here is almost horizontal", Tanfilyev wrote, "with hardly seen places occupied by birches or developing saliferous vegetation". You will see neither gullies nor slopes and will move by a surprisingly

 
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monotonous territory, where the landscape does not change for 10-20-30 versts...".

 

The researcher regarded local Barabinskaya and Kulundinskaya steppes as unique natural phenomena: they are characterized by parallel swells or "wooded ridges", stretched from north-east to south-west separated by lowlands, often occupied by rivers, lakes, marshes or salt lakes. According to the scientist, during the last global cooling period (about 26-20 thous. years ago), a glacier moved there from the north, and even little extra water forming in the course of melting was enough to make a part of its stream run to the southwest, which led to the formation of this unique terrain.

 

Tanfilyev arrived at the following conclusion: most lakes in Western Siberia are not drying; their water level is fluctuating from time to time, which is natural. Like in the European Russia, the subsoil here is loess, loesslike clay and reddish marly clay* rich in carbonates (carbonic acid salts and ethers). The black earth usually covers the above-

 

*Marly clay contains a lot of calcium carbonate and has some properties similar to marl--a rock consisting of calcite or dolomith and clayey minerals.--Ed.

 
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mentioned "wooded ridges", and saucer-like lowlands between them, located in most comfortable conditions in terms of water supply, are characterized by a higher content of alkali in the soil and an abundant vegetation, in particular, they are covered by small birch groves.

 

The scientist spent a lot of time trying to find reasons of absence of broad-leaved species (elk, maple, ash tree, elm, apple tree, pear tree, cherry tree, etc.) common for European Russia, in a greater part of Siberia. Undoubtedly, the severe climate over the Ural Mountains is a very significant factor; first of all, these species cannot stand spring frosts occurring in the period of vegetation. But Tanfilyev believed that the main reason of absence of the above-listed species lies in geothermal conditions: in May-June, at a depth of about 1.5 m, where a dense root system is located, low temperatures are registered, that is why trees cannot take enough water from the soil to compensate for evaporation by leaves and dry out. Many species degenerate into low trees with appressed to the earth prostrate stems and branches.

 

National science on natural zones was promoted to a large extent by scientific papers Physical and Geographical Areas of European Russia (1897) and The Main Properties of Vegetation in Russia (1903), in which Tanfilyev substantiated a zonal (prototype of subsequent systems of geobotanical zoning) and provincial segmentation of steppes. And his book The Botanical and Geographical Map of the Russian Empire (1903), one of the first scientific papers of that type published in our country, was compiled according to the combined zonal-typological principle. It described different types of national vegetation (tundra, taiga, black earth and chestnut steppes, pine forests, birch groves, sandy, saliferous and clayey deserts, loess desert steppes, etc.) and clearly spacial ("zonal") units, such as "transsteppe" (i.e. a combination of leaf forests and meadow steppes), mountain belts in the Crimea, in Caucasia, in Central Asia, etc.

 

Moreover, he was the first scientist who proposed to divide European Russia into four physical and geographical zones (1896): northern (spruces with strips of peat-hilly, sandy, clayey, stony tundra, bogs, taiga, dry valleys and mixed woods); southern (with fragments of pale loess soils and black earth); Aral-Caspian saliferous desert and Southern Crimea. It is worth mentioning that this system, with small details and amplifications, is used in botanical geography even nowadays.

 

In 1903, Tanfilyev published a review The Main Properties of Vegetation in Russia, that was the only paper on

 
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this topic till the mid-20th century. According to the author, the most reliable criteria for physical and geographical zoning are soil and geographical factors. He regarded climatic lines and limits of expansion of wood species used before as highly problematic. His fundamental paper The Essay on Geography and History of the Main Cultivated Plants (1923) became one of his highest achievements; in particular, he described the main factors affecting worldwide distribution of plants essential for man--cereals, vegetables, fruit trees, chestnut, nuts, oranges, oil plants, etc.

 

The map of botanical and geographical zones of the Russian Empire developed by Tanfilyev had a great influence on sciences on the Earth. The first part was dedicated to the northern regions of the country (predominance of taiga with plots of tundra, bogs; soils and subsoils poor in soluble salts, rich in lime); then the scientist described the southern parts of Russia (steppes with patches of steppe lands; soil conditions are rich in soluble salts, especially chlorine, carbon and sulphuric acids, dark-colored humus, and plant cover). The next territorial unit--deserts (with inclusions of steppes along

 
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the foot of the Turkestan Uplands; soils are more or less saliferous there). It is then followed by mountainous regions of the Crimea and Caucasia with beech and oak forests (with belts of arborescent cade, broad-leaved and coniferous species, dense undergrowth and lianas), and finally, Turkestan with walnut, poplar and apple-tree forests.

 

Concurrently, the scientist also offered some variants of a territorial division of the country. One of them is described in his scientific paper The Main Properties of Vegetation in Russia; it shows a real picture of the terrain, flora and soils of the Asian part of the country. According to Academician Lev Berg, this scientific work is unique. The multivolume work Geography of Russia (1916-1931) is considered the crown of Tanfilyev's scientific activity. As explained by Berg, it is "a fruit of enormous erudition of its author and many years of field and laboratory work. It has no analogues in terms of content, used literary sources, fair approach and knowledge of the subject".

 

The first volume of this edition, in essence, the first national work on the geography of our state, is dedicated to the history of its studies before 1845 (date of establishment of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society), including relevant institutions and publications, degree of map coverage; the second volume describes the terrain of the European territory of Russia and Caucasia. The third volume characterizes the Asian part of the country, the fourth--earth magnetism, climate, rivers and lakes, and finally, the fifth volume is dedicated to seas. Unfortunately, the author died and did not finish this monumental work, in particular, there are no chapters on the national geography of soils and plants.

 

In 1905, the scientist, in order to recover his health, moved to Odessa and actively engaged into pedagogical activity. In 1916, at the general meeting of teachers of grammar and vocational schools for boys of the local educational district, he delivered a report Excursions to the Secondary School of the Odessa District. Tanfilyev pointed out an extreme importance of similar educational methods for studies of the native land, proposed to introduce them into school plans and establish funds that would cover expenses incurred for educational activities.

 

At the Novorossiisk University (Odessa) the scientist delivered lectures on the general earth science and regional geography, developed a number of new courses,

 
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including a course of physical geography of Russia. He was worried about lack of text-books on the subject he taught. That is why in the foreword to the first volume of the above-mentioned multivolume scientific work he pointed out: "Up to date Russian literature cannot offer a scientific paper that could be considered a university course of geography of Russia... This situation made me publish an extended course of national geography I deliver at Novorossiisk University."

 

Meanwhile, in his works Tanfilyev always underlined a unique diversity of geographical conditions of our country and stated that national researchers were in the privileged position as compared with foreign scientists. "The extreme north-east of European Russia and most part of Siberia are in the permafrost region, but we know neither limits of this region, nor its depth, even though there are some attempts to solve these issues. They must be solved by Russian scientists, since permafrost is not observed in Europe. <...> There is no place in Europe that could be characterized by such a typically intense and developed soil as our black earth with all its varieties. That is why no place can offer so comfortable research conditions, dependence of soils' nature on the climate, terrain, age of the country and other factors, on the one hand, and influence of the soil on the nature of plant cover, on the other side. <...> The nature of uplands in Caucasia is more fully presented, than in the Alps, it is more complete, its climate and flora are immeasurably varied, fauna richer and more original, contrasts of the nature on different slopes are rather sharp...". This conclusion made by the scientist is relevant even today.

 

 


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© Nikolai VEKHOV () Источник: Science in Russia, №1, 2013, C.80-87

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