Book review: The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science, by Andrea Wulf

A new biography of the 18th-century German naturalist, botanist and traveller positions him as the brains behind the modern environmental movement.
A portrait of the German naturalist, explorer and botanist Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt. DeAgostini / Getty Images
A portrait of the German naturalist, explorer and botanist Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt. DeAgostini / Getty Images

The father of nature writing, intrepid explorer, friend to revolutionaries and presidents: Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was the original scholar adventurer.

Fearlessly footloose and boundlessly curious, the Prussian-born Humboldt climbed mountains, traversed rugged terrain, collected specimens, and scribbled, scribbled, scribbled as he pursued his uniquely rapturous vision of nature.

His journeys took him deep into the South American jungles and across the Russian steppe. He invented isotherms on maps and found the magnetic equator; but he also wrote prose with a literary verve and pioneered new ways to describe the natural world. He saw grave consequences of environmental degradation as he captured what he observed in dozens of books. He fused empirical observation with an idiosyncratic subjectivity. Not quite a pure scientist, not quite an artist, Humboldt stood poised between these two poles.

As the UN prepares to convene in Paris this December to hammer out an agreement on climate change and the reduction of greenhouse gasses, a look back on the life and adventures of Humboldt, who prophesied that human activity like deforestation would lead to disastrous ecological consequences, could not be better timed.

In The Invention of Nature, writer Andrea Wulf reclaims Humboldt from the obscurity that has enveloped him. Wulf, author of several works that combine biography with explorations of natural history in the Age of Enlightenment, is as boundlessly enthusiastic as her subject. “Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. ‘In this great chain of causes and effects,’ Humboldt said, ‘no single fact can be considered in isolation.’ With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.”

The key word in this passage is “connections.” It, and several variations on it, recurs again and again throughout Wulf’s account. If she sometimes falls back on lazy repetition, the author drives home the uniqueness of Humboldt’s comparative mind.

While scientists broke nature down into constituent parts, Humboldt was forever looking to fashion luminous wholes. Standing on an Andean mountain, his mind would wander to the Alps and the Pyrenees as he compulsively collated the plants and rock formations before his eyes, drawing together his data and placing it on a vast continuum that linked together regions and climes. “Humboldt ‘read’ plants as others did books,” Wulf writes of his ceaselessly probing mind. “And to him they revealed a global force behind nature, the movements of civilizations as well as of landmass. No one had ever approached botany this way.” He linked together his findings with innovative charts and illustrations that showed the connections he found on his travels in visually striking ways.

Wulf knows her subject well, but her book, divided between a biography of his life and sections tracing his influence on Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and others, is sometimes disjointed by its scope. She is at her best in her vivid and exciting chapters describing Humboldt’s epic travels.

His explorations of the Americas between 1799 and 1805, which took him from Washington to Lima, from hot plains to icy heights, profoundly shaped his vision of nature. With his French scientist companion, Aime Bonpland, he voyaged down the Orinoco River, accompanied, at one point, by a mastiff, eight monkeys, seven parrots, a toucan and macaw. Here, in the thickness of the jungle – the mosquitos were hell – he saw a mixture of harmony and antagonism, plants battling other plants for precious light.

At night, as jaguars hunted tapirs, the air was filled with the sounds of “a long-extended and ever-amplifying battle of the animals.” Such views would influence Darwin as he grappled with his theories of evolution. (As he sailed on the HMS Beagle, Darwin would read Humboldt with avid interest.)

Whatever nature’s raw grandeur, Humboldt also saw the worrying hand of humankind at work. He deplored slavery and the ravages of the plantation economy, which denuded soils, leaving vast tracts of unfertile land where few things could grow. Cash crops like sugarcane replaced “those vegetables which supply nourishment”.

Humboldt was outspoken on the subject of colonialism. Here was a kind of system that oppressed both its subjects and the land. “Humboldt was the first to relate colonialism to the devastation of the environment, “ Wulf observes. “Again and again, his thoughts returned to nature as a complex web of life but also to man’s place within it.”

At Lake Valencia, near Caracas in Venezuela, Humboldt observed he effects of forest clearances, and developed an early notion of climate change caused by drastic changes in the landscape. “Humboldt was the first to explain the fundamental functions of the forest for the ecosystem and climate: the trees’ ability to store water and to enrich the atmosphere with moisture, their protection of the soil, and their cooling effect.” By highlighting how human activity was disturbing delicate ecological dynamics, Humboldt, Wulf writes, “unwittingly became the father of the environmental movement.”

Humboldt’s expeditions in South America yielded an enormous trove of information. His notebooks bulged with astronomical, geologic and meteorological readings.

He hauled back some 60,000 plant specimens, several thousands of which were unknown to European botanists. Contending with the disruptions of the Napoleonic wars, Humboldt nonetheless made the rounds in Paris, and then was recalled to Berlin, where he served as a chamberlain to the Prussian king.

In Europe he commenced the arduous process of turning data into books – he did so at an almost ridiculously productive clip. In this passage, Wulf provides a wonderfully vivid sketch of her subject at work: “With a mind that worked in all directions, Humboldt could often hardly keep up with his own thoughts. As he wrote, new ideas would pop up which were squeezed onto the page – here was a little sketch or some calculations jotted into the margins. When he ran out of space, Humboldt used his large desk on which he carved and scribbled ideas. Soon the entire table top was completely covered with numbers, lines, and words, so much so that a carpenter had to be called to plane it clean again.”

The magnum opus which emerged from his New World travels, Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, would grow to 34 volumes, an extravaganza of maps, botanical prints, natural history, zoology, personal and political reflection. It was an industry unto itself: mapmakers, engravers, artists and botanists worked under Humboldt to fashion its constituent parts, making it “the most expensive work ever privately printed by a scientist”. He incurred debts as vast as the scope of his masterwork.

As the Napoleonic wars raged, Humboldt promoted his theories in Paris and then Berlin. After the peace, he journeyed to London, where he met with scientists and thinkers, and attended meetings at the Royal Society, which feted him. Whatever the divisions created by war on the continent, for Humboldt, scientific endeavour was a pursuit that transcended borders and national differences. “All scholars are brothers,” he declared. However, he failed to secure permission to travel to India, probably, Wulf speculates, because “the East India Company did not want to risk a liberal Prussian troublemaker investigating colonial injustice”.

But Humboldt could not be contained. He completed one more epic journey, one that took him into Siberia and the Russian steppe in 1829. Humboldt travelled some 16,000 kilometres – at age 60, he was as stout and hearty as ever. His journey filled him with awe; but also concern as he noted the effects of deforestation and agriculture, and the “great masses of steam and gas” from industrial centres.

So absorbed are we today into the work of Darwin, the naturalist John Muir and subsequent generations of other environmentalists, Humboldt is at once everywhere and nowhere. Wulf’s account brings this dazzling figure back into a much-deserved focus.

This book is available on Amazon.

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to The Review.

Published: October 22, 2015 04:00 AM


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