I’ve spent the past week reading two books, The Fifth Woman, by Swedish writer Henning Mankell, author of the Wallender series, and The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt and the New World, by Andrea Wulf, science writer extraordinaire. I’m very fond of both the mystery and science genre. But when the latter is liked to history, I am over the moon. In the next day or so, I will finish both books.
I discovered Wulf when I was still reading short stories excerpted from various magazines, like The New Yorker, and published once a year in an anthology. I recall one short story Wulf wrote about birds with no feet that horrified me and made me aware of the way Europeans added to collections back home.
Humboldt himself knew Lord Banks who built Kew Gardens in London, as well as William Bligh of Bounty fame who sailed with various British expeditions, including Cook’s last voyage designed to collect plants from around the world. Science grew from a very ragged beginning.
But Von Humboldt was different. Thanks to him we have a science today that recognizes and respects the web of life. Humboldt is considered the father of ecology and environmental science.
In 1801, when Humboldt visited South America, he recognized and wrote about the devastation humans had caused the environment through their reckless exploitation of the natural world. Since Humboldt’s time, we have known about human caused climate change (no, it’s not a Chinese hoax).
Humboldt influenced great thinkers from Malthus to Thoreau and Walt Whitman. He was great friends with Goethe, the German Shakespeare and friend of nature. He knew Thomas Jefferson (they talked about farming and argued about slavery).
Humboldt knew and influenced Darwin, who read Humboldt’s masterwork while he was on the five-year voyage of the Beagle that visited the Galapagos Islands where Darwin framed his ideas about natural evolution. It has been said of Humboldt that he was a preDarwinist, because he anticipated Darwin’s theory of evolution.
When I was growing up, we didn’t hear much about the German thinkers because the US had just finished two world wars involving Germany. Everything German from German irises to hot dogs had been renamed. (at last today, most garden centers are calling the tall bearded German irises by their proper name).
I can’t say enough about this wonderful book by Wulf (Mankell isn’t bad either).
Below, scenes from the Wiki entry on Von Humboldt. He is portrayed in the painting of his encampment in South American near the Andes. Other illustrations are about the Altay, a region in East Central Asia (see map) where Von Humboldt traveled later in life.