Discovering Alexander von Humboldt

Discovering Alexander von Humboldt

Almost forgotten today — at least in the English-speaking world — in his day Humboldt was described by Ralph Waldo Emerson as the most famous man after Napoleon and “one of those wonders of the world.”
Alexander von Humboldt revolutionized the Western conception of nature by describing it as an interconnected living web.
– Andrea Wulf [1]

There is a moment in the history of mankind in which we invented … Nature. Of course, nature existed even before, it has always existed, by definition. But this was the intuition of a visionary – I would not know how else to define the genius who discovered, two centuries before us, the urgency of global issues that threaten our very existence today.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (2015), the long story of the life of Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (14 September 1769-6 May 1859) by Andrea Wulf – is an extraordinary book for several reasons.

First, for having (I confess, I had a very vague knowledge) made Von Humboldt known. German naturalist, tireless explorer, geographer, and botanist. What they say, a polymath. He ran two main expeditions: to South America (1799-1804), 9,650 km, partly on foot, partly on horseback or by canoe, in the United States, then six months in Central Asia (1829) aboard a carriage for almost 15,000 km.

An impressive production of books, with a sensational circulation for the time – the five volumes of “Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe” (Kosmos, Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung, 1845-1862), reached 87,000 copies.

Alexander von Humboldt

A multitude of insights and discoveries on botany, taxonomy, geology, anatomy, climatology, astronomy, history, geopolitics. He studied the political, social, and economic conditions of the populations of South America, due to the Spanish domination. He was the first to contest the inhumanity of slavery.
And then, extreme climbs for the time: Pichincha (4960 m), Chimborazo (6,310 m, presumably up to an altitude of 5,600 m).

A true figure of international importance, Von Humboldt met and spent time with Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar – on whom he had a great influence, in his rebellion against the Spaniards – and he was inspired by other giants whom we still consider today as the fathers of a holistic approach to life and nature: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Charles Darwin (1809-1882), Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Walt Whitman (1819-1892), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), John Muir (1838-1914), Washington Irving (1783-1859), Ida Laura Pfeiffer (1797-1858). Most of them have a dedicated chapter in the book (they appear in the story one after the other and I found myself exclaiming – But how, did he meet Goethe?!).

Andrea Wulf

The book reads like a thick (473 pages) compelling novel that winds along the life, works and expeditions of Von Humboldt, almost like in a story by Jules Verne (as ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’) and reveals an impressive and meticulous research work (at the end of the book there are dozens of pages of notes and references), of extraordinary scientific value. Yes, Andrea Wulf is definitely Alexander von Humboldt’s greatest expert in the world…

I followed Humboldt’s footsteps and travelled to some amazing places, from listening to howler monkeys in the rainforest at the Orinoco in Venezuela to standing above the clouds on 16,400 feet on Chimborazo. – Andrea Wulf [2]

[1] The Forgotten Father of Environmentalism, Andrea Wulf

[2] Why This Design Historian Turned Award-Winning Author Writes In Her Attic

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