Alexander von Humboldt, a master of the living

Photo: Editions in Black and white
Humboldt and his companions in Cayambe, a volcano in nearby of Quito

There was a time, in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, where the explorer, naturalist and German geographer Alexander von Humboldt was a celebrity. His vision of nature, he who spoke for the first time a large ” network of the living “, his countless works, his personality, insatiable and voluble were the sensation of Europe and America. Now relegated to the relative anonymity of the atlas, its founding idea is busted with a breath extraordinary by the writer and historian Andrea Wulf, in The invention of nature, a biographical essay well-researched, must be read as an adventure in itself.


The journey as the revelation

Born in Prussia in 1769 into a wealthy family, Alexander von Humboldt has distinguished himself in his youth of her brother’s studious by his desire to explore. In their country home, he collects and draws insects, rocks, plants — which earned him the nickname of ” the little apothecary “. He does not know, then, that his fascination for nature and the trip will be his life. “There is in me a strength, he would write, which makes me often feel that I lose the head. “

Thanks to a comfortable inheritance, Humboldt starts from 1796 to prepare for his first expedition. But his departure will be delayed — the fault, tells very cleverly Andrea Wulf, wars naval, political dealings, and the power sprawling to the religion, which sees science as a negation of God. Prepare a shipment, at the time, had sometimes the whole of the war of attrition.

When Humboldt arrived in New Granada (in present-day Venezuela), it is the revelation. His study of the thick jungle and teeming, made their way down the Orinoco in a canoe with sensitive measuring instruments, but especially his difficult ascent of the volcano Chimborazo reveal his theory on the unity of nature, according to which ” everything [is] connected as by “thousands of threads””. His famous Naturgemälde, or ” physical picture “, is the illustration of this network of infinitely complex natural phenomena, a kind of relief no doubt of the world.


The rest of his scientific life and will be to the rider. Inventor of the isotherm, discoverer of the equator, geomagnetic, large, comparative, Humboldt will evoke for the first time that climate change could be induced by human activity. Something very risky, the naturalist would denounce as the colonization and the slavery he had witnessed in South America, which will force the british Crown to him to close the door of the Indies, to her dismay.


A thought in legacy

Photo: Editions in Black and white
According to Humboldt, this illustration was a very faithful representation of the library of his apartment Oranienburger Straße in Berlin.

In his lifetime, but also after his death, Humboldt had generated among his peers admiration sometimes close to veneration. Such passion inspired the naturalist, moreover, passed on in his writings, precise and lyrical, a sort of frenzy seized her readers, interlocutors, and friends. We can’t be surprised, not that Andrea Wulf lingers, in the last chapters of the book, to work based on multiple theories of Humboldt — which reached their peak shortly before her death in the immense Cosmos.


This review is exhaustive : the theory of evolution of Charles Darwin, nature’s solitary Waldend’Henry David Thoreau, the treaty argument Man and Nature by George Marsh against industrialization and the destruction of nature, the concepts of ecology and “nature religion” introduced by Ernst Haeckel, the activism of John Muir for the preservation of the environment in the United States are presented in the context of their emergence, in a direct line with the humanist vision of their predecessor.


And Humboldt today ? “It is as if his ideas had become so common that it was gone behind their obviousness,” writes Andrea Wulf. One can, however, attest that The invention of nature restores with a rare virtuosity a portion of this imbalance. Leaving, by the way, a great sense of responsibility vis-à-vis nature, this wonderful thing alive and united has become so fragile.

Extract from ” The invention of nature ”

The real purpose of the trip, he said, was to discover how “all the forces of nature are linked together and intersect each other” — that is to say how the nature, organic and inorganic, between-t-it-in-interaction. Man must strive to attain “what is good, and great,” wrote Humboldt in his last letter from Spain, ” the rest depends on fate “.


Main works of Humboldt

Essay on the geography of plants (1807). This first book published on his return from South America exposes his ideas on the geographical distribution of plants and the network of the living. His famous ” physical Picture “.

Paintings of nature (1808). This series of scientific observations, combining travelogue, poetry, and scientific analysis will remain the most popular of the naturalist — and his favorite.

Views of the Cordilleras and monuments of the indigenous peoples of the America (1810-1813). Abundantly illustrated, this book describes the natural environment and the peoples and the civilizations encountered by the scientist in Latin America.

Travel to the regions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent (1814-1831). Unfinished, this story in several volumes, relates the journey of Humboldt in Latin America, where it was accompanied by the French botanist Aimé Bonpland.

Cosmos (1845-1862). This work, that of his life, on which he worked more than 20 years, is an extensive treatise in five volumes on the stars, the volcanoes, plants, humans, science and the history of humanity.

The invention of nature. The adventures of Alexander von Humboldt
★★★★ 1/2

Andrea Wulf, translated to English by Florence Hertz, Black on White, Lausanne, 2017, 640 pages