Inconspicuously situated at Central Park West and 77th Street stands a statue of Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), largely forgotten in the English-speaking world. As we approach Earth Day it is timely to consider the impact of this extraordinary polymath who invented the concept of nature's inter-connected forces and unity. At a time when Enlightenment philosophers were still grounded in Aristotle's view that "nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man" Humboldt saw the natural world as an interconnected, fragile web of life.
Humboldt's textual works, Personal Narrative, Views of Nature, and Cosmos, as well as political essays about the colonies, and his maps and graphical depiction of climate zones, inspired scientists, leaders, poets, and thinkers including Johann von Goethe, Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Jules Verne, William Wordsworth, early environmentalist George Perkins Marsh, Erst Haeckel who term Humboldt's discipline "ecology", Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir. Entire philosophical and literary movements--German Idealism, Romanticism, and Transcendentalism--can trace their lineage to Humboldt and he revolutionized fields as wide ranging as agriculture, meteorology, zoology, geology, hydrology, and botany. Over 300 plant and 100 animal species are named after him, as are minerals, mountains, geologic formation, glaciers, waterfalls, bays, state and national parks, moon craters, and an asteroid--more than are named after anyone else.
At the source of Humboldt's influence was his relentless energy and curiosity, which in the early 1800s led him to travel widely to places where few Europeans had traveled before to conduct hands-on scientific experiments, map geologic characteristics, and collect and record botanical samples. With collections of the latest instruments, ranging from telescopes and microscopes, to barometers and pendulum clocks and compasses, he traveled 1700 miles of Venezuela's Orinoco River to the Amazon River basin, across Cuba, Mexico and Peru, (where he climbed Mount Chimborazo, an inactive volcano of nearly 21,000 feet) and across the mountains of Kazakhstan.
From evidence accumulated during his travels, he pieced together systemic patterns, similarities, and connections across contents, inventing the classification of plants by climate zones rather than taxonomy. Observing the coastal matching of Africa and South America, he sensed an ancient connection between the continents that presaged our understanding of plate tectonics. Humboldt also identified the devastating ecological consequences of deforestation, ruthless irrigation, and cash crop agriculture, decrying the impact on habitats of man's "insatiable avarice”. Moreover, Humboldt sensed and observed nature not only empirically but viscerally and emotionally. "Nature", he wrote to Goethe, "must be experience through feeling."
In her thrilling and meticulously researched biography of Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, (2015), Andrea Wulf reminds us of the contributions of this influencer of influencers and restores his rightful place among the pantheon of scientists. With the arrival of Earth Day, consider the impact of Humboldt; there are few better ways to do so than through Wulf's magnificent biography.
Heightened attention to early flower blooms, described in my previous blog, has awakened my visual awareness and made me more attuned to forms and structures everywhere. Lately I've been particularly attuned to surfaces.
By "surfaces" I mean the outermost layer, perceived by sight and touch--boundaries and edges that define, separate, and connect. Consider the many ways to describe surfaces, the characteristics that define them, to name a few: smooth, rough, patterned, textured, hard, soft, straight, curved, color, symmetrical, matte, shiny, reflective. And often, surfaces become all the more intricate the closer one looks. What appears as smooth may in fact be comprised of grooves and particles, with infinite complexity.
City life offers an opportunity to notice the surfaces of our built environment, the geometric, smooth facades of buildings, sidewalks, stairways, and interior spaces--walls, floors, ceilings, furniture. What a contrast these views are to the undulating, uneven and surprising surfaces of the natural environment, of trees, flowers and shrubs growing along streets and in parks, of rocks and water.
Some say that the "Euclidean geometry" of our built environment impairs our "visual fluency", that we innately crave the visual complexity offered by natural environments, visual fields that feed our brains' ability to absorb complexity. Yet, it is worth considering that the materials that create our built environment derive from natural materials: wood harvested, stones gathered and cut, and metals mined and smelted, transformed from their natural state to be put to our use. On a micro-level, their true natural forms become apparent: the cellular structure of wood, and crystalline structure of metals and rocks.
What began as an ordinary day transformed into sensory adventure as I tuned into the surfaces around me.
It is happening: bursts of colors emerging in planted areas of our city as the daylight hours lengthen and temperatures warm.
First came a hint of yellow, barely visible within tightly packed buds. And then one day, just a few days ago, they appeared: the saturated, taxi-cab yellow of forsythia flower, 4-lobed wonders appearing before the shrub’s leaves unfurl. And now a broader palette of wisps of color bloom: the deep red hue of maple flowers, rust-colored elm blossoms, yellow-gold cornelian cherry dogwood flowers, and reddish-pink of crabapple blossoms, daffodils, sky-blue of bluebells, and the yellow and lilac of crocus flowers encircled by blade-like leaves.
Vibrant and expressive, wonders of form and color, these early spring flowers will soon be followed by lilacs and viburnum, wisteria, trillium and magnolia, azalea, cherry and redbud, tulip and tulip tree, and dogwoods – flowers that bloom locally in April, sequencing into blooms of late spring and summer.
Over the past few weeks, much of my attention has turned to the needs of work and family, obligations for which I am grateful as they tether me to relationships and projects I care deeply about. But noticing spring’s first flowers awakens me to what is bigger than my immediate world. I am jolted into awareness of nature and its cycles, of which we--even in the course of day-to-day obligations--are a part. "My goodness," I am reminded. "There is a whole world out there!"
Welcome to spring.
Winter, when so much seems dormant, may seem like a strange time to observe robust plant life, but if you take a close look at nearby trees and shrubs you will notice buds lying in wait to bloom. With a few more weeks of winter, now is a great time to observe these perfect, complete containers of embryonic stems, leaves, and flowers and to explore their variations.
Many of us think that buds appear in the spring. After all, that's when leaves and flowers emerge, following winter's chill. But buds typically form during the summer and fall prior to the spring in which they bloom. Known in the winter as "resting buds", they appear in forms, sizes, and locations unique to each species. "Terminal buds" appear at the end of twigs; "lateral buds" appear along the sides of twigs. Some buds appear individually, others in clusters. And, as with leaves, buds can be situated opposite one another on a twig or alternating, an additional way to identify and differentiate tree species.
As described in Nancy Ross Hugo's enchanting book Trees Up Close, the terminal bud of the American beech is pale yellow-brown, sharply-pointed spear shaped, and sits individually. The terminal buds of the red oak, by contrast, are course and stout and appear in clusters. On some trees, leaf and flower buds are indistinguishable before they begin to bloom. With other trees, such as dogwoods, flower buds may be rounder than leaf buds.
Resting buds are a great way to learn to explore the variety of bud formation and identify tree species. They also are a reminder that even in the depth of winter and in the absence of leaves, trees are abundant with life, ready to blossom with the emergence of spring.
When the chill of winter arrives, you can either run the other way or embrace it. Having spent many years enjoying the outdoors in all seasons and weather, I aim for the latter and in this spirit spent the past week on a dog sledding and Nordic skiing camping trip in northern Minnesota.
With temperatures well below zero and in the single digits, but also in the balmy teens, needs focus in on the basics: food and sufficient firewood with which to boil water and cook, the right clothing for staying warm and dry, and shelter-- in this case a bivvy sack for sleeping under the stars.
The Boundary Waters are remote area that feels all the more remote in the winter. An area north of the "Laurentian Divide", raindrops and snow melt end up in the Arctic Ocean, rather than the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, or Pacific. Led by the fabulous outfitter Wintergreen, founded by Paul Schurke, a noted polar explorer whom we dubbed "Eighth Wonder of the Word" for his endurance, resilience, and intrepidness, the trip entailed traversing blissful miles of frozen lakes and boreal forests filled with black spruce and balsam furs, birch, and aspen.
Along the way was evidence of local creatures -- snow tracks left by wolves, deer, moose, and snowshoe hares -- and continual admiration for our sled dogs, true professionals, each full of personality and eager to pull, dragging sleds carrying our heavy loads of equipment (with skiers breaking trail in the deeper snow). Inuit dogs are the domesticated breed closest to wolf; their wolfish selves emerging in their occasional canine-bearing snarls directed at one another to assert dominance. At the same time they respond like puppies when interacting with humans, basking in attention and rolling onto their backs for a stomach rub.
In the remote frozen region, one's reliance on others becomes all the more apparent, an interesting irony in that one can feel most connected to other people in a wilderness environment. Arriving into the evening's campsite, we spread out to perform tasks assumed almost instinctually: gathering firewood, digging into the lake ice to create a water hole, setting up a fire pit on the ice, with a layer of logs underlying metal fire trays to separate the fire and ice. We cleared areas to set up our bivvy sacks, digging into the snow to shelter the bags from wind. And we tending to the sled dogs, transitioning them from the sled to hooking them up one by one on a line set up along the trees, removing their harnesses, and preparing their food.
While the Boundary Waters are a world away from New York City, there was much that was elemental on the trip that translated to my urban home. If neighboring wolves and our sled dogs are pack animals, so too we humans form packs, finding community and interdependencies among one another, and even asserting--or encountering others asserting--alpha dominance.
My return to New York City from the Great North Woods felt uncanny. The taxi that whisked me from the airport to home seemed confining and way to warm inside. To the driver's chagrin, I opened the window to feel the snap of cold and the breeze -- to breathe again -- and could almost imagine that I was being transported by dog sled across a frozen lake, rather than in a taxi on the crowded Grand Central Parkway.
On arriving home, I took pleasure in having a warm bed and modern conveniences: indoor plumbing and a stove that didn't require gathering abundant firewood. At the same time that I appreciated the significant labor saved by these inventions, they also made me feel disconnected from the elemental features they deliver: fire at the turn of a knob; water at the turn of a handle. No hours spent scouring an island for firewood, with coordinated efforts to chop and saw fallen trees, drag them many yards to our fire pit and sort the wood into fire-starter twigs and birch bark, thicker branches, and logs. No continual chinking into the 2-foot lake ice to reach water. It all seemed too easy, and I pondered for a while what is lost when we receive such abundant resources with ease -- recognizing too how much is gained by not having to focus every day on basic survival needs.
Having unpacked and run a load of laundry (more modern convenience magic!), I proceeded outside, ambling down Lexington Avenue, with each step sensing the breeze along the avenue as it touched the bare skin of my face and noting it felt as constant as the breeze encountered while traversing frozen lakes and forests on skis and dog sled.
By some premonition, I felt a presence that impelled me to look up. And there, aloft on 73rd and Lex, was a Peregrine falcon, drifting on a thermal, a touch of wild in the metropolis, and a reminder of the wildness that persists if we just know where to look.
Trees invite expression of love, especially beech trees. With their smooth gray bark, it's difficult to find an older beech tree that does not have a heart with initials carved into its trunk--at least in Central Park.
Much as hearts are among the more popular tattoos inked onto human skin, the tendency to etch hearts onto the elephant hide-like bark of beech trees suggests that memorializing love comes from a place deep within us. There is something that impels us to mark our feelings of love in ways that pierce below the surface, perhaps because love itself is so deeply felt.
Above are samples of hearts carved on beech trees in Central Park (alas, such etching harms the tree, inviting disease and if deep, disrupting the flow of nutrients).
Did the love last? Did the lovers grow old together like the tree that display their affection? We will never know. But the expression of love lives on, preserved for decades on the bark of trees.
Luminescent, intricate photographic renderings of botanical forms -- "British Algae", otherwise known as seaweed -- appear in light blue and white against a darker blue background. This is the work of Anna Atkins, a long-obscured 19th Century botanist, artist, and pioneer in the application of photography to science. Atkins's work is on display through February 17 at the New York Public Library,
Atkins applied the process of cyanotype, a cameraless photographic method utilizing light-sensitive paper to create in 1843 the first book illustrated exclusively with photographs. She donated the book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, the Royal Society and dedicated it to her father, John Children, a fellow at the Royal Society. Children was friends with John Herschel, an astronomer and early photographic pioneer, who invented cyanotype in 1842 and introduced Atkins to the photographic medium.
Atkins's application of photography to capture botanical images was a leap forward for scientific advancement. As noted in the NYPL exhibit:
"In Renaissance Europe, artists' renditions exploded in popularity as the need arose for repeatable visual information to complement the printed word. The marked rise in the level of scientific inquiry from the 17th century forward paralleled a growing sophistication n these drawings and improved methods of distributing them. Among the most socially useful applications of art and science was the herbal, a genre of reference book on plants that describes their appearance as well as their medicinal, culinary or toxic properties.
The hand of the artist, however, was not always in sync with the eye of the scientist, Rare was the individual who could reconcile the two. Difficulty emerged when the artist could not comprehend- or perhaps wasn't sympathetic to--the kind of information of greatest value to the botanist. Before British Algae, the only pictorial catalogues of botanical collections were illustrations with hand-rendered artists' impressions, or sometimes with actual dried plants affixed to their pages."
The NYPL exhibit, the first dedicated to a full representation of Atkins's productions, not only offers insights into the history of photography and its application to science by a daring and innovative female scientist of the Victorian era, when gender roles usually relegated women to the domestic sphere. It also depicts flora in stunning detail and in ways that highly their exquisite beauty and symmetry.
If cold weather is giving you the blues, step inside the NYPL to discover nature's blue prints.
With temperatures in the New York City area in the single digits and teens over the past few days, a stroll outside can feel like an adventure. One of the more noticeable things about walking outside on a chilly day is that we can see our breath. With every exhale, a small cloud billows from our mouth, wisps whirling, clustering, separating and then fading into the surrounding air.
From each living, breathing animal-being around us, cloudlets emanate with every breath, vaporous chiaroscuro intermingling with the exhales of passers by, as if engaging in a collective dance. Dogs on their outings and birds too display visible breath. Even the exhaust from cars and output from the tall chimney stacks on buildings become more visible, suggesting that in way they too are breathing, or that perhaps we living creatures have our own little engines. Indeed it is the oxygen we breathe in that fuels our bodies. We can live a month without food, a week without water, but only a few minutes without oxygen.
Seeing our breath on a cold day is a reminder of our reciprocity with the natural world around us. The air we take in is 21% oxygen (78% is nitrogen) because of plants, which intake carbon dioxide and mix it with sunshine to create sugar and breathe out oxygen. We are taught in meditation to focus on our breath. How much easier it is to focus on breath when it becomes visible. And how much it reminds us of this minute by minute bodily process -- on average 16 breaths per minute -- that sustains our lives and the lives of others creatures around us.
As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and reflect on the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s as well as issues of racial justice and equality that need attention today, we also have an opportunity to consider how the values underpinning civil rights apply not only among people -- across race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, disability, and religion -- but also to our relationship with nature.
Fundamental to civil rights is a moral attitude of respect, compassion, appreciation for one another's inherent, integral worth, and a sense of community, interconnectedness, and interdependence. The same ethos applied to our relationship with nature -- a perspective proffered by a number of writers, artists, poets, environmentalists and philosophers, and embedded in many religious practices and indigenous cultures -- would radically transform how we engage with the natural world. It would alter how we organize our business, social, and political conventions in connection with nature, from resource extraction, conservation, pollution management, and energy development, to how we choose to engage our leisure time, to how we design our homes and communities.
And in turn, by altering tendencies to objectify inhabitants of the living world around, cultivating respect for nature likely would also enhance our respect for other humans.
We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” ― Aldo Leopold
With a number of days of below-freezing temperatures, ponds in the New York City area are beginning to ice over. Water that just a week ago responded to the subtlest of breezes begins to harden and solidify. The freezing starts on the edges of the pond, where the water is shallow, and crystallizes into a choreography of frozen formations: varying patterns and textures, spindle-like, smooth and pristine, rough and abraded, rivulets and cracks.
The ice encases fallen leaves and twigs, a cryogenic embalming that delays their decomposition until the spring thaw. Infinite small bubbles gather below the frozen surface, and peering down through the ice at these glistening spheres seems not unlike gazing through a glass window at the starry night sky. They form a Milky-Way in aqueous suspension.
Over the coming weeks, assuming the temperature frequents below freezing, the ice will grow toward the ponds' center, until the entire pond is frozen over. This icy sheath, H20 in its solid state, will separate the liquid world below, the realm of hibernating fish, turtles, and aquatic frogs, from the air above containing water in a gaseous state, including the moisture of our own breath, cloud-like and visible, and comingling with the chilly winter air.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.