Summiting mountains, paddling along the Orinoco, and riding across the dusty Llanos, historian Andrea Wulf struggled to reanimate a journey undertaken centuries before, in a time without airplanes or reliable maps. She found the path overgrown, almost as forgotten as the man who’d blazed it. Sifting through the thousands of scientific letters he’d feverishly written throughout his life, Wulf came to understand the extent to which Alexander von Humboldt’s view of the world shaped the great minds of his era. She came to understand how Humboldt, born a German aristocrat, pushed a continent to revolution and fought to preserve its natural beauty, inspiring a generation to do the same in his absence. She discovered a forgotten leviathan, the intellectual founding father unsung in our history books. Now she aims to change that in her book, “The Invention of Nature.”
Humboldt was born with an analytical mind and an ineffable spirit. Made restless by his stifling aristocratic upbringing, Humboldt tore away from childhood Latin lessons to wander the forest. Painstakingly documenting his discoveries, Humboldt came to be known as the “little apothecary.” His curiosity grew with time and he soon found himself deep in the mines of Freiberg, then travelling along the Rhine. He criss-crossed Europe, working feverishly to write treatises on subterranean molds and riverside basalts. All whom he met marveled at the speed of his speech and the breadth of his knowledge. Goethe himself praised Humboldt’s intellectual virtuosity, noting that a single day with Humboldt was like years with another.
Together they struggled with a question that defined a Kantian zeitgeist: how can one understand nature? Goethe posited that life can only be understood as a whole: an animal is not a machine, but rather comprised of parts which only work in relation to one another. Humboldt went even further.
Upon turning 30, Humboldt journeyed to the New World. He strode from the steaming jungles of the Venezuelan Orinoco to the dry steppes of the Andes, seeing more of the continent than any man before him. Years later, Bolivar named him the “discoverer of the New World.”
Humboldt was famed for his perfect memory: While his peers struggled to recall the previous week’s findings, he could pick out the most minute details of a leaf he’d pressed years before. As he journeyed through the continent, he watched with wonder as the plants that greeted him on his surmounts reminded him uncannily of those from his childhood in Berlin. Goethe had argued that every living being possessed an urform, or a latent potential shape, which would then be molded by the environment within which it grew. Astounded by similarities in flora from regions separated by vast oceans, Humboldt began formulating a theory of evolution decades before the HMS Beagle departed English waters with Charles Darwin and a copy of Humboldt’s “Personal Narrative” aboard.
It was upon the Ecuadorean mountain Chimborazo that Humboldt truly understood the totality of it all. Surrounded by miles of green, growing along the mountainside first as bamboo, and then as dense jungle, and then evergreens, and then lichen touching the cold mountain tops, Humboldt saw the mountain as a living being. In an age of taxons and painfully specific divisions splitting biological hairs, Humboldt recognized the wholeness of nature — the absence of any component would kill the being. Environmentalism was born atop a snowy volcano.
As Humboldt returned from the Andes to Venezuela, nearing the end of his five year journey, he stopped by the shores of Lake Valencia, very different then from their first encounter. The waters had fallen and the spring-fed streams that had fed into it ran dry. The European planters, Humboldt noted, had done irrevocable harm by burning the lake’s surrounding forests and diverting its waters, not only to Lake Valencia but also to themselves. In the valley below sat empty shells of towns, the inhabitants long having fled the deluges a sick Lake Valencia could no longer contain. As Humboldt watched swathes of green rainforest go up in flames, he warned that human interference could bear devastating consequences for “future generations.” He was disgusted by the way in which the Europeans tortured the land and its inhabitants.
Humboldt’s reach extends beyond conservation, beyond taxonomy. Having fallen in love with the wilderness of the New World, he lamented that its inhabitants should suffer under strict Iberian rule. Humboldt urged a distraught Simon Bolivar to stand up for his countrymen even at the cost of disloyalty to Spain. While he admired American love for liberty, Humboldt exhorted Jefferson to end the practice of slavery, which he held to be the “greatest of evils which have afflicted humanity.” His works spread around the world, inspiring in Muir and Thoreau and Emerson and Poe a deep appreciation for the intertwining of nature and art. His name touched the ends of every continent, from the Humboldt Current to Humboldt Peak.
The centennial of his birth was celebrated around the world. His contemporary fame was rivaled only by Napoleon’s. He shapes our understanding of the world, from politics to insects and everything in between. Yet he is forgotten.
In her book “The Invention of Nature,” Andrea Wulf seeks to “rediscover Humboldt.” Wulf takes on an environmental maverick, a taxonomic genius, a geologic titan, a revolutionary and a visionary. In Humboldt’s spirit, she addresses each facet of his work breathlessly and in-depth. It’s through the relentless pace of the prose that we understand Humboldt’s unceasing energy and sharp mind. By taking us along Humboldt’s journey, Wulf allows us to come to the same revolutionary conclusions as Humboldt did centuries ago. Doing so, she realizes, we are made to “understand why we think as we do today about the natural world.” Humboldt has molded the urform of the way we see our world, as Wulf faithfully reveals, echoing Humboldt’s last words: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.”
Contact Josh Purtell at josh,firstname.lastname@example.org .