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Author Andrea Wulf on Alexander von Humboldt, ‘founding father’ of environmentalism

September 27, 2016
Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Joseph Karl Stieler (public domain / Wikimedia Commons)

There are more places in the world named after Prussian explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt than anyone else. Rivers, waterfalls, glaciers, mountains, lakes, bays, counties, and towns across the globe carry his name. The state of Nevada was nearly the state of Humboldt.

Yet he’s almost forgotten, especially in the English-speaking world.

That’s because his influence on our view of nature is so fundamental that we can hardly perceive it, argues Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Knopf, 2016). She’ll speak about the book in a public lecture on October 4 at 5 p.m. in the Hawkins-Carlson Room at Rush Rhees Library. Her talk is part of the Humanities Center Lecture Series, focused this year on the environment.


Andrea Wulf / Antonina Gern

Humboldt, who lived from 1769 to 1859, was once a household name, the most famous scientist of his day. The centenary of his birth was celebrated across the world. He was a tireless adventurer and astute scientific observer who, Wulf contends, invented the modern idea of nature: a global web of life in which humankind is only one piece among many.

“Humboldt was not known for a single fact or a discovery but for his worldview,” she writes. “His vision of nature has passed into our consciousness as if by osmosis. It is almost as though his ideas have become so manifest that the man behind them has disappeared.”

He was the first to suggest human-induced climate change. Wulf calls him the unacknowledged “founding father” of current-day environmentalism, who influenced such pivotal figures as John Muir, George Perkins Marsh, and Rachel Carson. And he drew the veneration not only of scientists like Charles Darwin—who called him “the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived”—but authors, artists, politicians, and poets. Among his admirers were Thomas Jefferson, Johann Goethe, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau.

“He’s a scientist who’s obsessed with hard scientific data, but at the same time he is saying we need to use our imaginations,” says Wulf. “We will only protect what we love—he’s driven by a sense of wonder.”

Wulf calls Humboldt “one of the last polymaths,” whose scientific work was shaped by his conviction that human experience of the natural world was not just a rational pursuit but also a sensory and emotional one. For him, science and the arts were inextricable.

Ironically, Humboldt was writing his masterwork, Cosmos—published in five-volumes between 1845 and 1862—just at the time that science was becoming professionalized. He began the book in 1834, the year that the term “scientist” was first used.

As he wrote Cosmos, he struggled with the burgeoning body of specialized scientific work. “He sees how it exponentially increases everywhere,” Wulf says. He would write to scientific experts, asking them to check over his drafts—but by the end of his life, there was no way any one person could remain atop all the science being produced.

Historian and writer Wulf is the author of five books, including The Brother Gardeners: A Generation of Gentleman Naturalists and the Birth of an Obsession (Vintage, 2010), winner of the American Horticultural Society’s Book Award in 2010, and Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation (Vintage, 2012), a New York Times bestseller.

To write her newest book, she retraced some of Humboldt’s adventures. “He wasn’t a cerebral scholar,” she says. “He was brazenly adventurous.” In following his footsteps, especially in South America, she realized “how much he was pushing his body to his limits.”

Fueling his travels was a love of nature that he sought to ignite in others. “At a time when other scientists were searching for universal laws, Humboldt wrote that nature had to be experienced through feelings,” she writes.

That her book is shelved among biographies in bookstores makes Wulf quizzical.

“For me, it’s never been a biography of Humboldt,” she says. “It was always a biography of how we think about nature.”

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Category: Society & Culture