The Naturalist We Know Nothing About

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
by Andrea Wulf
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, 496 pages

First the facts. Alexander von Humboldt did not invent nature. What he did was observe and chronicle the natural world more precisely than any scientist before him, making giant strides in our understanding of the natural world. Some even argue he invented ecology.

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Most of his extensive data came from a five-year-long exploration of South America beginning in 1799. He traveled with scientific instruments, a supercomputer of a brain, and a poet’s heart. His companion was gifted French botanist Aimé Bonpland. They discovered that nature was an interrelated web of life. If you pulled a thread you could unravel the whole. By the 1820s, Humboldt had become the foremost scientist in Europe. He recalibrated the known world.

So, a show of hands: Who knew anything about Alexander von Humboldt?

He may be the greatest naturalist the English-speaking world knows nothing about. And therein lies the “what for” behind Andrea Wulf’s song of a book. It’s a sweeping and gripping biography of this mostly forgotten scientist, in which Wulf aims “to restore him to his rightful place in the pantheon of nature and science.” She should get an A+ for moxie.

A child of the Enlightenment and the son of a wealthy Prussian family, Humboldt read the journals of Captain James Cook and drifted through the intellectual salons of Berlin. His poet’s heart was primed by a lifelong friendship with Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Humboldt was the real deal, perhaps the last of a generation that could hold everything known about the natural world in a single noggin. He introduced the concepts of vegetation zones and isotherms, and he recorded human impacts on nature, including deforestation as an etiology for climate change. For 30 years he even held the world’s high-altitude record for climbing to 19,413 feet on Chimborazo peak in the Andes, in today’s Ecuador.

His 75 days in a canoe with Bonpland on the Upper Orinoco in Venezuela in 1800 showcased the richness of rain forests and proved that the Orinoco and Amazon shared a watershed, and his nine-month, 1,300-mile trek pin-balling through the Andes reinforced the idea that nature feeds off itself, that everything is a part of the whole.

After his expedition to South America, which included stops in Cuba, Mexico, and Washington, DC, Humboldt arrived in Paris to a hero’s welcome. He was 35.

Wulf writes that with him were “trunks filled with dozens of notebooks, hundreds of sketches and tens of thousands of astronomical, geological and meteorological observations… 60,000 plant specimens, 6,000 species of which almost 2,000 were new to European botanists.”

As much as anything, Humboldt believed that knowledge should be shared. His book Personal Narrative was a compass for young scientists. He milk-fed them with both intellect and money. “He eats dry bread, so that they can eat meat,” his sister-in-law once said.

It was Goethe who advised him to amp up his game with imagination. To think of nature as a work in progress. The advice worked. Because of his skill as a writer, Wulf calls Humboldt “the Shakespeare of the sciences.” And others share her view. Ralph Waldo Emerson called Humboldt “one of those wonders of the world, like Aristotle, like Julius Caesar… who appear from time to time, as if to show us the possibilities of the human mind.”

Indeed, Humboldt’s 34-volume Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent also inspired thinkers and scientists like Charles Lyell, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir, and indirectly, the rest of us. The state of Nevada was almost called Humboldt. Imagine that.

Wulf recently told National Public Radio that her book is really about all the people Humboldt influenced, and her prose includes mini-biographies of many of them. The writer and historian spent three-and-a-half years working on this latest tome. It’s a compelling story backed by 110 pages of notes and sources. Hands down, she is a researcher and writer worthy of her subject.

Humboldt died in Berlin at the age of 89 in 1859. He remains a household name in Europe and Latin America. In Venezuela, every schoolchild knows his name. And now, perhaps, thanks to Andrea Wulf, he’ll take his place on the top-shelf of naturalists lauded by the English-speaking world.

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