I bought this book in Berlin at an English bookstore, St. George's Bookshop in Prenlauer Berg. I'm such a chameleon and of course, only draped in the colors of the latest book I've read, which is always the best ever, but this book really added depth and meaning and history to the things that I really care about. First of all, it's about a German, which added context to our trip. It's about the invention of the very idea of of the interconnectedness of being on planet earth, and traces the birth of the ecological and conservation movement from Alexander von Humboldt's journey through South America and the impact that his books had, through the people he influenced – with chapters devoted to Darwin, Thoreau, George Perkins March, Ernst Haeckel and finally John Muir.
Alexander von Humboldt was born on September 14, 1769 in Berlin. His family was well-to-do minor nobility. His older brother Wilhelm was famous in his own right as an educator and intellect – I'm sure I saw a statue of Wilhelm when I was in Berlin. As a young man, Alexander v H had the same struggles we hear about so often with families - particularly 19th century families, where the conservative sensible father wants his sons to get conservative, sensible jobs. And of course all AvH wanted to do was see the world. He was intrigued by news of the New World. But he stayed in school and applied himself and became an expert on geology and useful to the mining industry.
He got an introduction to Goethe. Goethe was very into science and had his own theories. They would have long discussions. This was important because Goethe and Schiller to an extent had a big influence on AvH - his appreciation of Nature wasn't just intellectual, but poetic. So one of the premises of the book is that Alexander v Humboldt was the first popular science writer -– he didn't just write with his mind, but with his heart and gave birth to a whole new genre of writing. He was hugely popular in his day. The Humboldt Current was named after him, as well as - I assume - Humboldt county in California.
At any rate, he excelled as a geologist and became well-known without academic circles but never gave up on his dream of traveling. In 1799, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, he was able to secure passage to South America, which at that time was pretty much completely colonized by Spain and closed to outsiders. Thus began a five year journey. I could give you the blow-by-blow but that's what the book and the online resources like this nice Encyclopedia Brittanica article are for. What I remember from reading most are the bugs. The traveling through different ecosystems - high desert with wild llamas, the rivers and forest and meeting the natives – and everywhere, bugs. As he travelled, his macro view of Nature began to take shape. Life is an interconnected web. Ecosystems are related, but consistent around the world. Going up in elevation is the same as going North.
There was the observational part of the narrative as well as the sheer adventure of it all.
He basically tracked through the Wilderness in two separate trips - the first time going up a river in Venezuela, I think, and proving it was connected to the Amazon watershed. Then he came back, went to Cuba, and then came back to South America and climbed the Andes. He climbed Chimborazo - an extinct volcano in Ecuador to a height of 19,286 in 1802 –without oxygen or any modern climbing equipment – he didn't reach the top but this remained the record for highest ascent for three decades.
When he came back he spent the next quarter century making the rounds of the salons and publishing an incredible amount of books - making himself the most fashionable, emulated and influential scientist of the 19th century. His impact was polymathic. Social, scientific, artistic and cultural. I almost forgot to say that he was good friend with Simon Bolivar and had strong opinions about how the environment - and the natives - were treated by Colonialism (this was a big reason why he was never allowed to consummate his dream of visiting the Himalayas, because of the controlled paranoia of the British East Indian Co.) He observed. He drew. He measured everything. He sent letters and samples back. He discovered the equatorial line. He measured the magnetism from the poles. He discovered, first hand, altitude sickness. He measured the blue of the sky. And he wrote a thrilling narrative.
Everyone read his work. The Romantic poets of course and mostly importantly, maybe, Darwin.
He loved living in Paris, and always felt that science was a nation with no borders. When he returned to Berlin to be kept as a golden bird in a cage by the king, he suffered. Late in life he was allowed one last journey – he travelled across Russia to the Altai mountains. Most of of the Russia Steppe was repetitive, but he crossed into Mongolia, and was able to measure and observe and meet the Chinese at the border.
At the end of the book, there are separate sections on those he influenced. Some we've heard of, some not so recognizable. Darwin. Thoreau. George Perkins March. Ernst Haeckel. And finally, John Muir. As the book went into these other sections, I felt a sense of loss. Is that all their is? But then each of these people were fascinating in their own right – and Andrea Wulf gives a stirring insightful narration of the impact of each as well as their relation and acknowledgement of the Humboldt in some of what they said and in all they did.
Why is Humboldt sort of forgotten today? A big part of that is that he was German - and like Haeckels, his legacy was sullied and even tarnished by association with the Prussians and the Wehrmacht.
In the end, I walked away with three things that I hope I never love.
One, an appreciation for nature and a fascination with new vistas.
Two, an for the never-ending adventure that is life - many of these guys just never slowed down but kept creating, learning, exploring.
And finally, more context on the Belle Epoch and Art Nouveau - which I'm further fascinated by.