The Green Humboldt

15. 3. 2017

Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. 473 pp.

This recent bestseller follows the life of the naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), and traces the influence of his grand oeuvre. Humboldt’s impact on our contemporary understanding of nature is at the core of this engagingly written, well-researched, and visually beautiful book.

The premise of the book is that Alexander von Humboldt has been “largely forgotten in the English-speaking world.” (335) Partly a biography, partly a travelogue and a popular work of history of ideas, the book excavates Humboldt’s one-time global fame. The centenary of Humboldt’s birth, in 1869, was celebrated from Melbourne to Moscow and North America. In Boston, R.W. Emerson declared that Humboldt was “one of those wonders of the world.” (6) The Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV proclaimed Humboldt to be “the greatest man since the Deluge.” (282) Wulf’s list of towns, parks, rivers, waterfalls, bays, lakes, minerals, and animals named after the Prussian-born titan runs to several paragraphs. The state of Nevada was almost called after the German; nearly 300 plants and more than 200 animals were named after Humboldt.

A Central European reader perceives a Humboldt for English speakers, and a Humboldt seen through a contemporary perspective of ecology and environmentalism. Wulf’s Humboldt is not as much an inventor of nature, as an inventor of “ecology.” In 1866, the German scientist Ernst Haeckel used the word “Oecologie” to name Humboldt’s discipline, the “science of the relationships of an organism with its environment.” (307) Wulf notes that Humboldt was a generalist at the time when science was specializing; his all-encompassing passions were getting irrelevant, as was his attempt to combine science with imagination, poetry, and art. But the book presents Humboldt not as someone who was marking the end of an era, but as the Ur-Vater of our own visions: as a man of global vision, who “networked” with other scientists and transcended disciplines. Wulf argues grandly: We see nature as we do because of Humboldt’s vision. She emphasizes the idea of wholeness and interconnectedness in the heart of Humboldt’s all-embracing approach to nature.

Wulf was born in India, grew up in Germany, and lives in London, where she was trained as a design historian. She is fascinated by her subject, and portrays the Prussian naturalist’s omnivorous and exalted interests with a matching enthusiasm. Humboldt’s Wanderlust is contagious, waking a reader’s desire to follow his steps across the globe, to South America and Russian and Mongolian steppes and mountain ranges. The world that Humboldt approached with his scientific instruments was almost surprisingly little known. Humboldt set out to climb the inactive volcano Chimborazo in Ecuador, at the time believed to be the highest mountain in the world. Not much was known about South America. The information he collected throughout his travels were an invaluable source of information for Thomas Jefferson and for Simon Bolivar, the leader of revolutions against the Spanish rule in the colonies. Humboldt returned to Europe from South America with 60,000 plant specimen; out of the 6,000 species that he carried in his trunks, almost 2,000 were new to European botanists.

Humboldt went on two major expeditions; one across the Americas in his youth (1799-1804), along with the botanist Aimé Bonpland, and one to Russia and Altai several decades later, in 1829. His dream to travel to the Himalayas was blocked by the East India Company, apparently because of his criticism of the colonial rule. When he got a permission to travel to Russia (his official task was to look for platinum and other precious metals as Humboldt had a previous career in mining), he had to promise to abstain from commenting on serfdom. The two long expeditions nevertheless enabled him to draw some global conclusions from his manifold observations of plants, minerals, volcanoes, animals, and sky.

What emerged from his observations was an image of nature as an interconnected whole, and as a “global force.” Humboldt realized that “everything was interwoven as with ‘thousand threads.’” Nature was a living organism. Upon returning from Chimborazo, Humboldt sketched his Naturgemälde, a drawing of the mountain that included information about height, humidity, atmospheric pressure, and species of plants and animals at different altitudes. The drawing showed that “nature was a global force with corresponding climate zones across continents.” (89) Wulf credits Humboldt with discovery of the geomagnetic equator and isotherms, as well as being the first one to understand climate as a “system of complex correlations between the atmosphere, oceans, and landmasses.” Humboldt was concerned with the effects of deforestation and mining, with the reasons for changing water levels. Humboldt was a precursor of the studies of climate change.

Wulf describes Humboldt’s voracious interests during his grand tour of Venezuela in 1800:

“Humboldt was interested in everything: the plants, the animals, the rocks and the water. Like a wine connoisseur, he sampled the water of the various different rivers. (…) He observed the stars, described the landscape and was curious about the indigenous people they met and always wanted to learn more. He was fascinated by their worship of nature and thought them ‘excellent geographers’ (…) They knew every plant and animal in the rainforest, and could distinguish trees by the taste of their bark alone—an experiment that Humboldt tried and failed miserably.” (71)

Depictions of Humboldt’s activities such as tasting tree barks and unknown waters, as well as depictions of his numerous achievements border on parody—at least to a reader familiar with another bestselling book based on Humboldt’s life, Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World (published in German in 2005). Kehlmann based his comic novel on a contrast between the expansive naturalist and the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. To Germans, apparently, Humboldt never lost his place in the cannon, has never been forgotten, and thus deserves a somewhat comic treatment.

Wulf’s view, by contrast, is charmed and sympathetic. The book informs us that Humboldt was the one to introduce Brazil nuts to Europe. He measured the blueness of the sky above Chimborazzo with his cyanometer (Lord Byron ridiculed him for it), and during his ascend of the volcano he noted humidity and tested boiling point of water at different altitudes; he and his companions also “kicked boulders down the precipitous slopes to test how far they would roll.” (87)

It is to the merit of Wulf’s writing that she does not psychologize, although her subject at times appears somewhat maniacal: Humboldt made endless rounds of salons, he lectured and talked incessantly, “always in motion, never stopping.” (240) She depicts Humboldt’s personal quirks with attention to detail: “When he arrived at a party or gathering, he usually shuffled through the room, his head slightly tilted and nodding to the left and right as he passed the others. Throughout this opening sentence, Humboldt’s flow of words did not stop once.” (242) Darwin was disappointed when he met his idol for the first time; he did not get a chance to talk.

After a stay with Jefferson in the young United States, Humboldt returned to Europe in 1804. He settled in Paris, then a hub of science, and devoted the next two decades to publishing his findings and to lecturing. Humboldt disliked his native Berlin, but was for decades dependent on the stipend bestowed upon him by Prussian kings Wilhelm III and IV; Humboldt’s status of a chamberlain was paradoxical for a free thinking scientist who preferred to live in Paris even during the war between France and Prussia, an act that bordered on betrayal. His attitude differed from that of his brother Wilhelm, the founder of a university in Berlin, who was a diplomat in the service of Prussia. Humboldt preferred to write his books in French; the king Friedrich Wilhelm III eventually requested his return to Berlin.

Humboldt’s scientific exploits are depicted against the backdrop of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, and their reactionary aftermath; the growth of militarist Prussia, and England and its colonial rule over India. We follow Humboldt on an excursion to Russia of Tsar Nicholas I. We learn about Humboldt’s strong stance against slavery and colonialism, about his admiration for the United States (with the exception of slavery), about the competitive nature of archeological excavations under Napoleon, about Humboldt’s role in saving the Jardin des plantes in Paris when the space was to be given to military use. An important parallel to Humboldt’s travels are the philosophical and poetic underpinnings of his thinking; his life-long friendship with Goethe, his foremost interlocutor, as well as the more distant, yet relevant influence of Kant’s philosophy on thinkers such as Goethe and Humboldt.

Humboldt’s travels formed the basis for numerous volumes of Voyage aux regions equinoxiales du nouveau continent and the five volumes of Kosmos. Entwurf einer physischen Weltgeschichte (some of the most popular volumes were reissued in English recently). The history of publishing these books, Humboldt’s lecturing in Paris and in Berlin (his lectures were crowded, attended by people of all social classes), his exchanges with other scientists, form another fascinating subtext of the book. Darwin admired him and brought copies of his work on his voyage on the Beagle. The French composer Hector Berlioz and Ralph Waldo Emerson thought of him highly. Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka, dedicated to Humboldt, was a response to Cosmos, to name a few of the most illustrious tributes.

The chapters covering his posthumous legacy consist of portraits of several scientists, thinkers, and writers, who were either influenced by Humboldt or have some affinities to his thinking: Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, who helped to found the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and was concerned with man’s impact on nature, such as deforestation; the “father” of the US national parks John Muir, the German scientist Ernst Haeckel. Although there are links between them and Humboldt (we know that they read him and valued his work), the choice of these particular people seems somewhat arbitrary—and is obviously skewed towards the US. These chapters track Humboldt’s influence in several directions: Thoreau tried to reconcile scientific observation with poetry; they were all concerned with man’s negative impact on nature and the need to protect it. The zoologist Ernst Haeckel (mentioned earlier as the one who coined the word ecology) published, between 1899 and 1904, Kunstformen der Natur, which included beautiful zoological illustrations that influenced Art Nouveau.

The links between the design’s interest in the organic world and Humboldt are perhaps questionable, and so are some of the proposed contemporary links such as the link between Humboldt and the current environmental activists in the book’s Epilogue. In reinventing Humboldt for our age—and even more specifically for urban dwellers who are passionate about composting or put beehives on their rooftops and chickens in their backyards—the book may stray too far in projecting our contemporary concerns. It would be useful to distinguish between Humboldt’s context and that of our era, presented in the book as in need of the union of science and poetry. But these anachronisms do not prevent us from enjoying the sea of fascinating details and being infected by Humboldt’s wonder and wanders. The book includes insights into botany and into Humboldt’s composition of lecture notes, information about his collaboration with illustrators and engravers, and the details of the physical and material conditions of his travels. It is the physicality and materiality that captivates, Wulf has reinvented Humboldt for our era’s “naturalists,” for the Internet age that newly appreciates materiality and physicality of the natural world.

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