Rock Creek, Montana Months ago I bought The Invention of Nature: Alexander Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf and put it aside to take with me off-the-grid. I had thought, how appropriate, read a book about the famous German explorer, naturalist, and scientist of the 19th century whose name graces mountain ranges, ocean currents, weather maps, and even US landmarks including things like Humboldt County in far northern California. The book is excellent, but there also turned out to be an unexpected dividend, if you happened to be old-as-dirt and reading the book on your birthday.
Humboldt lived from 1769, virtually at the dawn of revolutions in America and France, until 1859, almost the beginning of the Civil War in the United States. Living to 90 years old is still something worth amazement even in the 20th century more than 150 years later, but then it was truly exceptional.
Humboldt made his mark young, having exhausted an inheritance with a 5-year expedition – and the publications that followed it — that took him deep into South America through Columbia and into Brazil along the Orinoco River. He climbed mountains thought to be the tallest in the world at that time, which we can still see on a clear day near what is now Quito, Ecuador, in order to collect rocks, plants, and take endless measurements. He returned via Havana and cities in the United States where he met and debriefed everyone from President Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin on conditions in South America, though his trip was facilitated by the Spanish government. By the time he returned to Europe at thirty years old after his grueling adventures, he was the toast of Berlin, London, and Paris as well as South America and the United States.
Wulf makes a constant and strong case for Humboldt as a scientist breaking new ground and ahead of his time on subjects as critical as the understanding of the interconnectedness of nature or the environment, as we would see it now, to being an early voice theorizing on what has now become our understanding of tectonic plates in the formation of earth’s landmasses. Enjoyably, she keeps the book from being a mere travelogue by interestingly connecting Humboldt, who has lost his status with many as a household name, to many contemporaries where he had both connections and huge impact. The poet and author of Faust, Goethe, in Germany was a mentor and friend. Jefferson and others were constant correspondents. Simon Bolivar, a man of many statutes in Latin America and claimed as the liberator of a number of countries, was a companion and friend. Emerson and Thoreau followed his footsteps. Byron and Wordsworth included him in poems. Darwin was a fanboy.
Though I have more to go on the book, what makes it a great birthday book for me is reading about his troubles getting into India, which I know too well myself now, and after a 30-year delay his next and therefore last great expedition to Russia at basically 60-years old, when many would have written him off as a dinosaur ready for little more than a pedestal and a headstone himself. He made it all the way to the Chinese border and was able to confirm similarities between mountain ranges in far eastern Russia to what he had discovered in the Andes. For good measure he had theorized that diamonds could be found in combination with other rocks he was finding, and, damned, if they weren’t.
The book is worth reading just for the measure of the man, but it’s also worth a close reading just as a reminder of what is possible as long as we keep the fires burning, work every day and give meaning to our lives and stewardship to our communities, both large and small. Read Humboldt and The Invention of Nature on your birthday, and when you finish, go out find and explore new worlds, and bring the knowledge and experience back to all of us.