The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

‘With Knowledge comes thought and with thought comes power’

Alexander Von Humboldt

This a wonderful book about one of the most greatest polymaths and inter-disciplinarians of all time. Alexander von Humboldt is a forgotten hero of science, an exceptional man, a restless explorer, “a man who sought to see and understand everything”, a passionate scientist who could speak to the soul of people.

Ralph Waldo Emerson described him as ‘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’, and Simon Bolivar said that Humboldt ‘has done more good for America than all her conquerors’. His name lingers everywhere, there is the Humboldt current that flows north along the west coast of South America from the southern tip of Chile to northern Peru, there is the Humboldt penguin, the Humboldt’s lily, Lilium humboldtii, a perennial herb that is native to California. There are mountains, parks, and rivers named after him.

the invention of NatureHumboldt was born in 1769 in Berlin, the second son of an aristocratic and wealthy Prussian family. When he was a young man, still in Germany , the poet Friendrich Schiller, who later became Humboldt’s trusted adviser and friend, thought that Humboldt would never accomplish anything great because he dabbled in too many subjects. Humbuldt was so rich that once bragged that he had so much money that he “could have his nose, ears and mouth gilded”.  But he left this life of privilege for a life of exploration and understanding of nature. He spent almost all his inheritance to a 5-year exploration journey to Latin America. His observations during that trip shaped his holistic view of nature. The rest of his life, he died in Berlin in 1859 just before his 90th birthday, was devoted to science and the pursue of knowledge. Humboldt published so many books that even he lost track. He died a poor man.

Humboldt combined artistic intuition with scientific observations and he worked hard to capture the public imagination. ‘Knowledge, he said, could never kill the creative force of imagination – instead it brings excitement, astonishment and wondrousness‘.

He was a man of extraordinary energy, ability and education; he influenced scientists, artists, poets, politicians. Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Jules Verne and Goethe. Andrea Wulf says that Goethe ‘wrote Faust in bursts of activity that often coincided with Humboldt’s visits’. John Muir ideas on forest preservation were influenced by Humboldt. In September 1866, Muir wrote to his friend, Mrs Carr, “How intensely I desire to be a Humboldt!

Humboldt had an extraordinary ability to connect things. It was in Lake Valencia (Venezuela), in 1800, that he began to understand deforestation in a wider context and projected his local analysis forward to warn that deforestation and monoculture could have devastating consequences. ‘The action of humankind he warned, could affect future generations’. It was then that Humboldt also developed the idea of human-induced climate change and it’s harmful effects on the environment. When he published his observations, he left no doubt what he thought.

‘When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, with an imprudent precipitation, the springs are entirely dried up, or become more abundant. The beds of the rivers, remaining dry during a part of the year, are converted into torrents, whenever great rains fall on the heights. The sward and moss disappearing with the bush-wood from the sides of the mountains, the waters falling in rain are no longer impeded in the course; and instead of slowly augmenting the level of the rivers, by progressive filtrations, they furrow during heavy showers the sides of the hills, bear down the loosened soil, and from those sudden inundations, that devastate the country.’

Nature’s balance was created by diversity which might in turn be taken as a blueprint for political and moral truth. ‘Everything, from the most unassuming moss or insect to elephants or towering oak trees, had its role, and together they made the whole. Humankind was just one small part‘.

The greatest lesson that nature offered, Humboldt said, was that of freedom. ‘Nature is the domain of liberty’, Humboldt said, ‘because nature’s balance was created by diversity which might in turn be taken as a blueprint for political and moral truth. Everything, from the most unassuming moss or insect to elephants or towering oak trees, had its role, and together they made the whole. Humankind was just one small part. Nature itself was a republic of freedom’.

Humboldt was also the first to relate colonialism to the devastation of the environment. ‘The natural world’, he said, ‘is linked to the ‘political and moral history of humanity. …… Greed shaped societies and nature’.

At the Rio Apure, Humbuldt had seen devastation caused by the Spanish who had tried to control the annual flooding by building a dam. On the high plateau of Mexico City, he had observed how a lake that fed the local irrigation system had shrunk into a shallow puddle, leaving the valleys beneath barren. ‘Everywhere in the world, Humboldt said, water engineers were guilty of such short-sighted follies.’

Andrea Wulf has written a  fantastic, lively book, it has given me such great pleasure. It was about all things I love in life, knowledge, nature, science, traveling. I certainly want to read Humboldt’s work.