Riding the Humboldt Current
book review by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
by Andrea Wulf
Somewhere amid the ebbs and eddies of a curious childhood I wondered who Alexander von Humboldt might be. I had as yet no experience of what 200 years ago would have been called a polymath, a savant or autodidact. I had noticed all the places named for him, sprinkled on maps of the world, and assumed he was some kind of explorer. It was not till I took up sailing in my late twenties that I learned of the Humboldt Current, a cold nutrient-rich Pacific current known to fishermen from time immemorial, that runs up the coast of South America from Chile to Peru, Ecuador and Columbia. Somewhere I got the image of Humboldt sailing north along that coast, a lone man dipping a thermometer over the side at regular intervals, taking notes.
Sometimes we have to go back a long way, to see where we made a wrong turn — but then the right way can feel like a shortcut, coming quickly and surely to the old home place with fresh eyes. Which is how I’ve been feeling again and again, reading Andrea Wulf’s invigorating biography, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Knopf, New York, 2015). It is always worth finding original thinkers and touching the original form of their thoughts, especially when time can so often compress, distort and erase until we wonder how we could have gone so far wrong.
But first a speculation. Could it be that the urgency of now, of today’s choices and consequences, especially those concerning the ecosystem, the earth as environment, habitat and home, are the results of long-standing willful ignorance? Let us consider the example of Alexander von Humboldt as Andrea Wulf imagines and offers him. She sees this well-educated young man distanced from his parents as extremely social, a scientist of excellent habits who was able to amass, organize and correlate data, and build to astonishing insights on a global scale. By a stroke of fortune he inherited enough money and outlasted one controlling parent, so was able to fund his interests and help fellow scientists for half of a long life. He was tall and handsome, well-spoken, open and passionate. He could draw maps and sketch specimens in their living contexts. His social nature was also of an unusual sort — he craved to meet kindred spirits, and freely offered to share his specimens and measurements and theories — and his purse — with most of those he met. His lectures and discussions were legendary even before the publication of his best-selling books. And his capacity for friendship was also a rare gift: his friends included not just scientists, but statesmen and thinkers, poets and revolutionaries, who mostly took to him right away. His friends included Goethe, Schelling and Schiller, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Albert Gallatin, the English botanist Joseph Banks, the Kings of Prussia Frederick Wilhelm II and III, and Simon Bolivar, the liberator of Spanish colonial South America. His charm and passionate directness in the service of his studies was also legendary, as was his memory for the telling detail, the crucial measurement.
But there are also two other starting points to Humboldt’s story. He was a revolutionary, and a romantic, dedicated to the ideals of the American and French upheavals, born the same year as Napoleon and the year before Wordsworth, who came to maturity during that stormy and artistically pregnant time from 1776 to 1815. His charm long masked his conclusions and political intent. When he met Jefferson at the White House in 1804 he knew enough not to lecture the president on the slave-owning which he detested, but instead directed his observations toward the passionate fellow scientist and dedicated gentleman farmer. Because of the Spanish monarch’s secrecy Jefferson was most interested in Humboldt’s firsthand account of political and social conditions in Central and South America, and Humboldt was only too willing to oblige.
He also became a scientist of a kind that fell out of favor in the middle of his career. Captain Cook, Bougainville, and other explorers of the 18th century had carried on board a naturalist, usually an educated gentleman who paid his own way, a scientist trained to collect specimens and help flesh out the big picture. Darwin embarked as just such a naturalist on the voyage of the Beagle, 1831-36. But by the early 19th century science was increasingly closeted into ever-tighter disciplines, which allowed for the genteel turf wars common to academic institutions. In fact, it was not until the 1970s with the gradual acceptance of ecology and environmental science as studies, that science began to widen out again and include the ecosystem and its biodiversity in a way that would have been both familiar and exciting to Humboldt.
Humboldt saw the dangers of monoculture wherever he went, and he became the first to write and speak of how a colonial culture of slavery harvesting its cash crops of tobacco, sugar cane, coffee, cotton and indigo were a blueprint for oppression and a force for environmental degradation worldwide. As an observer he had an uncanny sense for what might prove relevant, an insatiable thirst for the odd detail. In the jungle along the Orinoco he transcribed several words in the extinct native language of the Altures, spoken in a hut by a pet parrot. And in mountainside mining country he noted the erosion caused by cutting timbers used to shore up the mines, and the hidden price to the ecosystem being paid by all other living species. As he summarized concisely, “By felling the trees which cover the tops and sides of mountains, men in all climates seem to bring upon future generations two calamities at once; want of fuel and a scarcity of water.”
Yet Humboldt was not primarily a farmer or gardener. His passions included botany along with geology, weather and climate, though most of his formal training was as a professional geologist, and his certification and short-lived first career was as a mining inspector. But given this scientific footing he quickly branched out in his travels to include all the sciences of life, to observe rivers and seeds, planets and stars. Every plant and animal needed to be observed in its natural setting, what today we call habitat and environment. An instinct for speculation led him to wonder and reach out, to pursue implications in what would be a lifelong quest. How and where did the magnetism that affected the compass needle affect the earth? Was it stronger at sea level or high in the mountains? Stronger at the equator or at the poles?
Most men may feel the times they live in as a river to be crossed, swift in the middle, sluggish along the shorelines of childhood and old age — its main channel often an irresistible current that sweeps and tumbles the individual along despite his best inclination or will. He may be lucky to remember to breathe, and not be held under till he yields. But Humboldt seemed fully alive to the revolutionary moment and its necessities throughout his long life. He was born on a flood-tide of revolution in both politics and science. In his explorations he found himself drawn to meet and work with artists and philosophers as well as scientists. He traded notes and specimens and letters with most of the major researchers and thinkers of the age.
Notably the one great mind that he met but did not get along with was Napoleon. Perhaps Humboldt had no use for Napoleon’s co-option of the sciences for political gain and social control, as he had done on his military excursion to Egypt. The 200 scientists he brought along provided an elaborate fig leaf for plans of conquest; the discovery of the Rosetta Stone diverted from calculations for a Suez Canal to connect the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. And there was a rivalry in the publishing world between these two best-sellers, since Napoleon’s work on Egypt was in competition with Humboldt’s work on Spanish South America. It is also worth remembering that Napoleon was trained as an artillery officer, and that his men shot the nose off the Sphinx for target practice.
Humboldt read and spoke French, Spanish, and English, as well as his native German. He initially wrote many of his books in French. He learned Spanish in his early 30s for that first great exploration to South America, 1799-1804, and learned Russian in his late 50s in order to make his 1829 scientific excursion to Siberia. But after his early successes, his works were soon translated and published in a dozen languages.
As befitted his subject, Humboldt’s prose style could be dense without being turgid. He was always capable of bearing a freight of detail, and yet turning in a heartbeat to summarize and evaluate. Answering at once, again and always the explorer’s two questions: What am I looking at? And What am I looking for? Letting the reader ride along, opening the unknown as he goes.
“The earthquake in one instant is sufficient to destroy long illusions.” This remark from his Personal Narrative regarding the psychological effect of his first earthquake at Cumana, 1799, shows the exterior observation converted to interior responses. Testing his sense of having a solid earth underfoot, it is both objective and subjective, neither standing apart from the other.
In his interactions with heads of state, Humboldt learned what ideas were in favor or out, and where the power really lay. Attempting to mount an expedition to the Himalayan mountain range in his late 40s he found he had to apply to the East India Company, not the British government, for a passport and permission, and was refused. No number of influential British or international scientific supporters could prevail on the Company to change its ruling.
Humboldt’s endless and wide-ranging interests were constantly expanding to include new observations, thoughts and questions, so Wulf’s efforts have had to be similarly broad and deep. She pursued Darwin’s notes in his copy of Humboldt’s Personal Narrative and found an active kinship between his thoughts and those of Humboldt, though their first and only extended meeting in England was a failure. Humboldt lectured Darwin nonstop at his usual rapid-fire pace, not allowing Darwin a chance for the questions he had prepared. Humboldt thus missed one of his greatest chances for scientific collaboration and influence, since Darwin had questions about Humboldt’s observations at the Obi River in Siberia, where the east bank’s life forms all came from Asia, while the west bank’s life forms came only from Europe — with no apparent crossover. Yet Darwin felt fortunate to have had Humboldt as a model for his prose and for his scientific outlook, and always took the long view. He had also rooted his scientific career on close observations that could support earth-shattering conclusions, and honored Humboldt’s example in all the work he did.
Humboldt was a revolutionary scientific and social thinker who for much of his life didn’t need a job or a patron, who could fund his own researches and subsequent publications. But eventually his inheritance was spent, and the honors that King Frederick Wilhelm III had bestowed on him for years finally arrived with strings attached. He was recalled to Berlin for the final years of the king’s life, and with the succession of Frederick Wilhelm IV to the throne in 1840, he was more closely bound by his daily and ceremonial duties as court chamberlain attending the Prussian monarch. The world’s most famous scientist had become a victim of his own fame, and his researches and writing were relegated to late-night hours stolen from his rest and from the daily social round.
The final third of Andrea Wulf’s book transitions away from a strict biography and moves to consider Humboldt’s influence on the following generations who benefited from his works, including Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, John Muir and others. Unlike Darwin and Jefferson, for example, what these American thinkers share in common is what we might call their activism, their urge to wake up the reader and enlist his help in a larger political and social cause. Unlike most of these naturalists, Humboldt hadn’t directly experienced the pain of seeing environmental degradation over time. He offered no Rip Van Winkle visions of a sleepy hamlet in a natural setting grown to a booming and barren metropolis while he slept. By contrast, in Muir’s narrative of his walk inland to Yosemite, we see a Central Valley gone from the vast lush meadow he had first crossed, to what Muir would call “the world’s largest orchard and vegetable patch,” its natural beauty and diversity “ploughed and pastured out of existence.” Yet Humboldt’s first excursion to South America did alert readers to these wider implications, as he included observations about losses to habitat and soil caused by grazing, tillage, irrigation and mining. Humboldt saw nature as a vast living whole, a “web of life” which included geology and astronomy, and fitted together in intricate ways, some of which are still seen as mysterious today. He was the first to use isobars on his maps, those lines of elevation that gave the contours of mountains and valleys, and often showed the limits of various species of vegetation. He was also the first to call attention to how eastern South America fit into the curve of West Africa, and declared: “That which we call the Atlantic Ocean is only a valley excavated by the forte of the waters; the form of the seacoast, the salient and re-entrant angles of America, of Africa, and of Europe proclaim this catastrophe.”
After he was called home, on 3 November 1827, Humboldt began a series of sixty-one lectures at the university in Berlin. These talks proved so popular with a general audience that he added another sixteen lectures at Berlin’s music hall. For six months he lectured several days a week, speaking of his great love, science, addressing his conclusions from the vast resource of his observations and measurements. He charged no admission fees, and half of his audiences were women, still denied entry into Prussian universities. His audience included the monarch and most of his court. His last work, Cosmos, was constructed on these lectures, for which he used his notes as a springboard. Cosmos was fittingly the largest of his works in its implications, with data supplied him by an army of scientists, since, except for his 1829 journey across Russia, he could no longer travel and measure for himself. He worked on it for more than two decades, revising his plan upward from two volumes to the final five volumes published between 1845 and 1862, the last appearing shortly after his death in 1859. It was a bestseller and a publishing triumph throughout Europe and the United States.
But Humboldt was never quite done being the center of the scientific world. In the last years of his life he routinely received 4000-5000 letters a year, and wrote 2000 responses. And into his late 80s Cosmos continued to be the most pressing reason for his existence. He finished writing the last volume only a matter of weeks before he died.
Aboard a planet that increasingly harbors unpredictable changes in weather and climate, many of us have become convinced we need more than a new energy system — we need a new belief system. Or perhaps what we really need are venerable models brought up to date. Artful scientists like Humboldt and his contemporaries were able to measure and finally see a world that tested easy assumptions about time and causation, challenged outmoded belief systems, and posited fresh ideas and reached a new understanding about both nature and the slow action of change over a scale of time previously unimagined.
For half of Humboldt’s life and even after his death the world named places and landmarks after him, perhaps in hope he might come visiting, weave them into his wholehearted and omnivorous study of the world, maybe even show them something about their world and themselves hidden underfoot, that they might not have otherwise known.
As a scientist Humboldt bears comparison with the likes of a Jacob Bronowski or Carl Sagan for the range and passion of his advocacy, for his ability to not just “do” science, but to discover and convey its insights at a high and sustained level. Today his successors embarking on such an expedition would take along sound recorders, film and still cameras, GPS equipment, even infrared photography, instead of Humboldt’s sextants, barometers, thermometers and other measuring devices available to him (including his instrument to measure the blueness of the sky). The publication would mostly be achieved as a film, rather than in language augmented with sketches and maps rendered as wood engravings. Which leads me to suggest that the reader might appreciate seeing Humboldt’s work more directly, not just through the laudatory comments of contemporaries and his more recent readers. He wrote daily from direct observation and measured experience, and was renowned for the elegant and accurate expressions of what he perceived, as well as for his stunning conclusions, that spoke to his time and beyond. Andrea Wulf evaluates the explorer splendidly as a kind of clearing house of ideas, how he offered his presence and consciousness as a crossroads or marketplace for those accumulations and siftings of effort essential to science. Given her examination of him as an environmentalist, the reader might appreciate a closer approach to Humboldt’s essence and appeal. He wrote thousands of pages, ultimately read by millions of people in a dozen languages worldwide — people who were entranced not by fictions but by the realities he depicted and the conclusions he arrived at. Readers of such work don’t crave an escape, but an immersion in reality, and couldn’t help but want to watch over Humboldt’s shoulder, as he travels along. Consider this piece of Humboldt, describing a tropical midday in South America, which inspired the ending of Darwin’s Origin of Species, that he never lived to see:
“How vivid is the impression produced by the calm of nature, at noon, in these burning climates! The beasts of the forest retire to the thickets; the birds hide themselves beneath the foliage of the trees, or in the crevices of the rocks. Yet, amid this apparent silence, when we lend an attentive ear to the most feeble sounds transmitted by the air, we hear a dull vibration, a continual murmur, a hum of insects, that fill, if we may use the expression, all the lower strata of the air. Nothing is better fitted to make man feel the extent and power of organic life. Myriads of insects creep upon the soil, and flutter round the plants parched by the ardour of the Sun. A confused noise issues from every bush, from the decayed trunks of trees, from the clefts of the rock, and from the ground undermined by the lizards, millipedes, and cecilias. There are so many voices proclaiming to us, that all nature breathes; and that, under a thousand different forms, life is diffused throughout the cracked and dusty soil, as well as in the bosom of the waters, and in the air that circulates around us.”