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.
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.