Christmas was an abundance of wonderful new titles to get me started for the New Year. And one is an absolute treasure trove of delight.
Who knew what a marvellously eccentric and imaginative person Alexander von Humboldt was? I think my knowledge was limited to Humboldt’s Current and yet he has more plants and geographical features named after him than anyone else. He was the first person to visualise the relationship between temperatures and expressing it graphically – he invented the isotherm; he also observed the relationship between plants on one continent and at one elevation and another, creating a graphic picture of something he called the Naturegemälde – this doesn’t have an easy English translation but roughly means a “painting of Nature”.
Humboldt produced his first sketch of the Naturegemälde in South America and then published it later as a beautiful three-foot by two-foot drawing. To the left and right of the mountain [the volcano Chimborazo – which in his day was thought to be the highest in the world] he placed several columns that provided related details and information. By picking a particular height of the mountain (as given in the left hand column), one could trace connections across the table and the drawing of the mountain to learn about temperature, say, or humidity or atmospheric pressure, as well as what species of animals and plants could be found at different altitudes. Humboldt showed different zones of plants, along with details of how they were linked to changes in altitude, temperature and so on. All this information could then be linked to the other major mountains across the world, which were listed according to their height next to the outline of Chimborazo.
As well as this uniquely sympathetic view of global relationship, Humboldt also observed the effects that Man was having on the climate, as early as 1800 in South America he had observed that deforestation altered the rainfall, it also meant greater loss of top soil as the lack of trees and undergrowth caused flooding which swept away layers of soil; he observed subsequently in Russia that the burning of trees and coal altered the clarity of the air, causing air pollution – though he did not call it that. But he did warn anyone who would listen (and this sounds horribly familiar) that these deleterious effects would come to haunt us.
As a polymath, he mixed scientific observations with a close study of indigenous peoples, he witnessed the slave trade at close quarters and was an abolitionist as early as 1799, a lone voice crying in the wilderness – relating colonisation and the “evil trade” immediately. His observations included a serious study of the effects of cash crops (monoculture) largely produced by slave labour and subsistence farming, where food supplies produced locally along with a small proportion of cash cropping was better both for the people and for the soil.
The list of people that Humboldt met during his lifetime is staggering: Wolfgang Goethe, Simon Bolivar, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Lyell, Charles Babbage, kings, queens and politicians of all stripes and countries (to name but a few); other scientists flocked to see him when he was visiting or living in Paris, London, Berlin or St Petersburg; his lectures, which he gave for free, were packed especially with women who were not able to study at universities, and his many publications read by everyone.
His Personal Narrative was one of the only books that Charles Darwin was to take on the Beagle, and Humboldt’s style of writing and description were hugely influential.
To say that this was a man ahead of his time is a magnificent understatement. Nearly everything that we now accept as fact – the movement of tectonic plates, the formation of mountains, the global inter-relatedness of climate to ocean temperature, land temperature and therefore weather, and also connection between land mass in Africa and South America was all there in his writings and observations. Climate-change was something he foresaw in 1800. His influence on later thinkers, Darwin and Lyell among them, is massive – in fact Darwin probably would not have arrived at the theory of evolution without it, Humboldt opened the door wide enough for Darwin to burst through.
Andrea Wulf has done a marvellous and welcome job of bringing to life this engaging, inventive and influential man, The Invention of Nature is quite astonishing and delightful.