By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Andrea Wulf
Narration by: David Drummond
Humboldt is a widely recognized name in the 21st century. However, knowledge of who carries the name is not well-remembered. Andrea Wulf’s book title, “The Invention of Nature”, gives an inkling of Alexander von Humboldt’s stature as a renowned explorer who recognizes the interconnection of the world in which we live. Humboldt lived among 18th and 19th century conquerors, philosophers, artists, and political leaders. From personal relationships with Goethe, Schiller, the royals of Prussia, the king of Spain, and leaders in Russia and Bolivia, Humboldt observed and categorized nature in its glory and frailty.
Humboldt is born to wealth but eschews its potential for power and prestige to become a mining engineer. As a mining engineer, he falls in love with travel, observation of nature, the adventures of climbing mountains, and inspecting volcanoes. In his travels, he records demographic information; takes area temperatures, altitude measurements, and samples of flora and fauna throughout the world. His early expeditions and detailed records reinforce conclusions of Darwin’s voyage in the Beagle years before Darwin’s seminal work on “The Origin of Species”. After deaths of his mother and father, Humboldt’s entire inheritance is used to finance his consuming interest in the history of the cosmos. Though Humboldt dies penniless, more rivers, mountains, and national landmarks are named after him than any other explorer in history.
Humboldt’s most extensive exploration begins in Latin America in 1799. With authorization from the Spanish royal court, he explores and reports findings on lands owned by Spain. Without financial assistance, Humboldt organizes his greatest expedition. No other foreigner had been given such access to Spain’s land holdings in Latin America. This initial Spanish invitation leads to later expeditions that are financially supported by Charles IV of Spain but the first expedition is at Humboldt’s expense. That exploration, and later expeditions to Russia led Humboldt to his most enduring revelation.
With Russia’s 1829 invitation, Humboldt explores the Eastern frontier. With that expedition, and his many years in Latin America, Humboldt is prepared to draw a (then) startling conclusion. He publishes the first two volumes of “Kosmos” in 1845 and 1847. Humboldt concludes human beings live on a planet that is a part of a greater natural environment; i.e. an environment in which human existence and actions change the world’s eco-system. When forests are cut, when rivers are diverted, when dams are built, there is a cascading number of changes that occur in the world’s eco-system. Until Humboldt’s “Kosmos”, there is little to no understanding of the importance of man’s actions on the world’s eco-system.
Humboldt’s expeditions; his recorded demographic information, and eco-system insights make him famous. His detailed history of Spain’s holdings in the future lands of Texas provide vital demographic information to Thomas Jefferson on the Rio Grande frontier. Humboldt meets with Jefferson at the White House. Humboldt professes to like Jefferson and the history of Jefferson’s role in writing the Declaration of Independence, but he decries the concept of slavery in the United States. Humboldt’s opinions are based on his early observations of slavery in Latin America.
Initially, Humboldt endorses Napoleonic reform in France and the emergence of rule of law that protects the poor as well as the rich. However, Humboldt is not liked by Napoleon, according to Wulf, because Humboldt begins to criticize Napoleon’s increasing dictatorial powers. Humboldt is close friends with Schiller and Goethe, two scions of the age. Bolivar is a young friend of Humboldt before his rise to power in Bolivia and Latin America. Wulf recounts their early relationship and Humboldt’s surprise at Bolivar’s political emergence as a Latin American leader. Though the people of Latin America begin to criticize Bolivar, Humboldt continues to praise his reign.
Darwin meets with Humboldt as Humboldt is nearing the end of his life. Darwin’s written recollection is of adoration for Humboldt’s research and writing in the “Kosmos”. At the same time, Darwin notes that Humboldt is quite forceful in his conversations and of a man who speaks more than listens when discussing a chosen subject. Though Humboldt mesmerizes many, he brooks no interruption on his peregrinations.
Wulf notes that though Humboldt is considered handsome by women, he never marries. Most of his close friends are men. Wulf notes that many of his expeditions were with men of his own age or younger. Humboldt writes of a deep and personal love for many of his male friends. The inference is that Humboldt may be gay but, like Da Vinci, Wulf suggests Humboldt is consumed by a restless imagination that discounts sexuality and directs his energy and attention toward exploration and invention.
Many maps are based on Humboldt’s expeditions. His many travels offer detailed information about mountain ranges, rivers, and underwater sea currents. Humboldt’s last employer is Frederick William IV of Prussia who supports him with a pension. Humboldt remained at Frederick William’s beck and call until the king’s death. Humboldt dies of old age with a history that offers immortality through the naming of national monuments throughout the world.