Winner of the 2015 Costa Biography Award
When Alexander von Humboldt, at the age of 30, took himself off to South America in 1799 little did he, or the world, realise that he would be there for 5 years and that he would formulate the theories and proofs that would shape and inspire scientists and thinkers for centuries thereafter. He would show that the earth, the sea currents, the air currents, the ecosystems are bound together in one living organism, a great chain of cause and effect. Disrupt one link in the chain and you disrupt the whole. He was the first to become concerned with the ecological damage we humans cause in general and with deforestation in particular. Not only that, he knew how to engage the public. His writings presented his findings in a way that was inclusive – blending science with literary flourish and sentiment to enable non-experts to understand his discoveries. His drawing of the natural landscape and the plant distribution in the Andes was revolutionary.
The books he published were magnificent. Lavishly illustrated, no expense spared. The production team consisting of the best cartographers, illustrators, typesetters and bookbinders available to him. By the time he published the first volume of Cosmos in 1845, they were collector’s items before they even left the presses and the rest of world waited breathlessly until a translation became available. (I’ve added an activity to my bucket list. I need to see an original one day. )
So how did Humboldt, the discoverer of continental drift, the magnetic equator and the inventor of isotherms we see every day on the weather maps, become “The Lost Hero of Science” in the English-speaking world? We may have chosen to forget him due to his nationality and the course of 20th century history. ( A supreme irony in that he was happier in France than in Germany and would have chosen to stay in Paris, had he not been dependent on his income from the King of Prussia. His inheritance was spent financing the South American trip.) Or we may have assimilated his ideas so completely, that their originator has been rendered invisible. Andrea Wulf wrote her book in order to find him, to make him rematerialise and to reassess his importance to our current understanding of the world.
Her book is a wonderful read, written in an accessible style that Humboldt would approve. Tracing Humboldt’s early years of restlessness and frustration, staying in Germany on the orders of his mother – no inheritance otherwise. Sailing to South America with Aimé Bonpland on that life-defining and dangerous adventure, one which Wulf brings to life. Returning to the Europe of the Napoleonic Wars, striving to remain apolitical until recalled to Germany to serve the king. His restlessness never leaving him. Making his final expedition across the Russian Steppes and into China at the age of 60! What a man! What a mind! His monarch, Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia once called him “the greatest man since the deluge”. I wouldn’t ascribe to that but I understand the sentiment.
The final third of the book is devoted to the influential scientists, writers and environmentalists who took up Humboldt’s ideas and ran with them: Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir. These chapters are as immersive as Humboldt’s biography, with every word proving Wulf’s point that the man who shaped the way we understand the world, whose centennial in 1869 was celebrated with parades on the streets of America but is now largely forgotten, deserves to be restored to his rightful place in our collective memory.
© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016