Now that it’s officially fall, I’m catching up on my summer reading. From 2015.
As it happens, however, the book I just finished—Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature—is receiving renewed attention. This lively and incisive biography of the naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was recently awarded the Royal Society’s Insight Investment Science Book Prize.
There are more animals, plants, places and things named after Humboldt than anyone. Yet before reading Wulf’s book, I knew more about the Humboldt squid, Humboldt’s lily, Humboldt Bay and the Humboldt Current than I did about the person whose name they bear; Humboldt the man was a fading footnote to a hazily remembered history lesson.
Charles Darwin called Humboldt the “greatest scientific traveller who ever lived” and said Humboldt’s work “stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution” to science. Simon Bolivar referred to Humboldt as the true “discoverer of the New World.” Humboldt’s writings were admired by Thomas Jefferson, and they inspired the Transcendentalists. In Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Captain Nemo’s library aboard the Nautilus includes Humboldt’s complete works. For a time, it is said, Humboldt’s global fame rivaled that of Napoleon.
Today, Humboldt is largely forgotten in the Western world, his ideas taken for granted. Except, thankfully, by Wulf, who revives this intriguing and profoundly impactful figure with the perspective offered by time and a sense of awe at his adventures.
It is appropriate that so many life forms and geological features are adorned with Humboldt’s name. He was the first to articulate concepts that are now widely accepted as fact, including that the Earth is a “living whole,” a “great chain of causes and effects.” He was the first to explain how forests enrich and cool the atmosphere, and express concern at the effects of deforestation on the environment. He saw the early omens of climate change (more than 150 years later, we’re finally starting to pay attention).
He asserted that scientific writing could—and should—be romantic; that the natural world should be analyzed, but that our responses to it should also be emotional and sensual (it’s no wonder that the likes of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir were fans). He shaped our understanding of nature as a complex web of interconnected components.
The Invention of Nature makes clear that Humboldt’s name deserves its place before penguins and glaciers and peaks, counties and waterfalls and lunar craters.
On a recent hike, amid the falling leaves that would soon renew the soil with nutrients, form the humus that helps the forest floor retain moisture, and feed organisms vital to a healthy ecosystem, I considered that Humboldt’s name—as well as his boundless curiosity, social character and readiness for adventure—would well suit some undiscovered wolf or a new breed of dog.
Interestingly, no canids seem to be named after Humboldt, although his name is attached to various birds, fish and other mammals. Humboldt had no time for pet dogs between his travels to the Americas, Cuba, Russia and throughout Europe, and even when “home” he maintained a heavy workload and bounced between Paris and Berlin.
Besides, Humboldt couldn’t have accomplished half of what he did with canine companions. I’ve been trying to catch up on reading for years, but… Hang on, the dogs want to go out….