“…he believed that a great part of our response to the natural world should be based on the sense and emotions. He wanted to excite a ‘love of nature’. At a time when other scientists were searching for universal laws, Humboldt wrote that nature had to be experienced through feelings.”
To understand Alexander Von Humboldt, as told brilliantly by Andrea Wulf in The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World (Amazon | Indiebound) is to see the natural world in relation to everything — philosophy, art, music, poetry, politics and most of all, ourselves.
It was no surprise that I stumbled upon the book again, after hearing about it two years ago in a piece from The New Yorker. I walked into Book Tree in Oakland for the first time and there it was. I thought it was only fitting since it was Earth Day that day (April 22), a day to demonstrate environmental protection around the world. It wasn’t until after reading the book that I found out that Earth Day also falls around the birth anniversary of John Muir (April 21), the American naturalist and environmentalist greatly inspired by Humboldt.
Since then, learning about Humboldt became a wild ride — his life was a rich tale of discovery, of curiosity, of connecting, of giving. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a man whose sole purpose in life was to find out more about the natural world and weave it seamlessly with other disciplines.
Humboldt wasn’t interested in classifying plants for the sake of research alone, nor was he scaling mountains and measuring height and altitude to make money with his discoveries. He was interested in making connections and seeing how every thing was interrelated.
Humboldt was assembling the data he needed to make sense of nature as a unified whole. If nature was a web of life, he couldn’t look at it just as a botanist, a geologist or a zoologist. He required information about everything and from everywhere, because ‘observations from the most disparate regions of the planet must be compared to one another.’
Humboldt reminds me of astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson in some ways, as both have the capacity to introduce complex concepts and make them even more relevant in new and surprising ways. They also both have the ability to speak about the natural world and bring it to a level that’s personal and familiar, which fosters a deeper understanding and generates more interest.
Perhaps what is even greater is their perspective of humankind’s role in the world we live in — that we are not above nature, nor the cosmos. Once Humboldt reached Cumaná in Venezuela, he reached a new level of truth:
Humboldt had entered the most magnificent web of life on earth, a network of “active, organic powers” as he later wrote. Enthralled, he pursued every thread. Everything bore witness to the power and the tenderness of nature, Humboldt wrote home with swagger, from the boa constrictor that can swallow a horse to the tiny hummingbird balancing itself on a delicate blossom. This was a world pulsating with life, Humboldt said, a world in which “man is nothing.”
I usually balk at the mention of any discoverer, specially European ones (think: Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan) for obvious reasons. But in this book, Wulf was adept at illustrating Humboldt’s unique disposition of inquiry while many famed European explorers usually sailed to Asia and Latin America for conquest.
In the same place where he was excited by the “web of life,” he also became privy to the harsh political and social realities.
There was one aspect that dampened Humboldt’s joy: the slave market opposite their rented house, in Cumaná’s main square. Since the early sixteenth century the Spanish had imported slaves to their colonies in South America and continued to do so. Every morning young African men and women were put on sale. They were forced to rub themselves with coconut oil to make their skin shiny black. They were then paraded for prospective buyers, who jerked open the slaves’ mouths to examine their teeth like “horses in a market.” The sight made Humboldt a life-long abolitionist.
Upon his visit to the United States, he reveled in the company of Jefferson and Madison but balked at the institution of slavery. Having seen the effects of colonialism in Latin America and its devastation of the natural world, he saw slavery as the same thing — oppressive and dehumanizing. He even commented once that all the problems of the colonies were due to the imprudent activities of the Europeans.
He debated nature, ecological issues, imperial power and politics in relation to each other. He criticized unjust land distribution, monocultures, violence against tribal groups and indigenous work conditions — all powerfully relevant issues today.
It is no surprise then that El Libertador Simón Bolívar, influenced and inspired by Humboldt’s writing, would lead six nations to independence. After meeting with Humboldt and Paris and reading his work, he came back to South America to forge independence from Spain.
As he had stepped on South American soil, Bolivar had been fueled by his vow on Monte Sacro in Rome to free his country.
It was also a fight that was invigorated by Humboldt’s writings, almost as if his descriptions of nature and people made the colonists appreciate how unique and magnificent their content was. Humboldt’s books and ideas would feed into the liberation of Latin America — from his criticism of colonialism and slavery to his portrayal of the majestic landscapes.
And it wasn’t only Bolívar that Humboldt inspired to make revolutionary changes, he also influenced a number of scientists, writers, philosophers and leaders around the world. Most notable are Charles Darwin, who carried Humboldt’s book Personal Narrative (Amazon | Indiebound) aboard the HMS Beagle for five years, and John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in the U.S.
There is still so much that I haven’t included in this post, which only means that I hope many more folks will read this book. What Humboldt wrote about in the 1800s is still incredibly relevant today, and instead of looking at what’s happening through a single-issue lens, we should strive to see the connections.
Humboldt would still say that the external world only existed in so far as we perceived it “within ourselves.” As it was shaped inside the mind, so did it shape our understanding of nature. The external world, ideas and feelings “melt into each other,” Humboldt would write.
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