invention cover

Wulf, Andrea. The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2015 (473pp.$30).

These days the name Alexander Von Humboldt resists recognition. But in his time (the late 18th and early 19th centuries), he was a world celebrity, an acknowledged adventurer, mountain-climber, naturalist, “natural philosopher”, inventor, best-selling author, socialite and extremely influential lecturer. Today in the United States, his name graces four counties, thirteen towns, a river, and numerous bays, lakes and mountains. On the centenary of his birth, 25,000 people attended the unveiling of a Humboldt statue in Central Park, an unveiling that had been preceded by a torchlight parade, a mayoral proclamation and a large formal banquet. The front page of the New York Times was devoted solely to Alexander Von Humboldt. In Boston a centenary celebration was attended by luminaries like Louis Agassiz, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Even President Grant attended an observance in Pittsburgh. So too did Millard Fillmore in Buffalo.

A new biography and scientific overview of the life and achievements of Von Humboldt has just appeared. Its accomplished author, Andrea Wulf, lives in London where she trained as a design historian at the Royal College of Art. The author of books like “Chasing Venus” and “Founding Gardeners”, her career has brought her a number of distinguished prizes and awards, mostly in the field of horticultural writing. “The Invention of Nature” chronicles the vast wandering life of Von Humboldt, organizes his observations and conclusions, and presents a panoramic summation of a world-view that Wulf argues is now more relevant than ever given our new knowledge in the areas of field ecology, climate change and species extinction. As is often true of Knopf books, “The Invention of Nature” is a gloriously made piece of book-craft, stunningly printed on fine paper, replete with gorgeous and informative illustrations, copious notes, and a generous bibliography. Wulf’s writing is fluid, direct and perceptive.

Humboldt was a Prussian who spent most of his adult life on the move, in South America, Cuba, and Europe. Wulf recounts his adventures, scientific endeavors and literary efforts in a lively style. Humboldt knew and corresponded with everybody—Frederick the Great of Prussia, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and George Cuvier, Simon Bolivar and Thomas Jefferson, just to mention a few of them. In essence, Von Humboldt sought after the “unity of nature”. His books, to modern tastes unreadable given their gossipy digressiveness, were then sought-after treasures. He published the fifth volume of his masterpiece “Kosmos” as he took to his deathbed. Although Humboldt saw himself as “just a generalist”, Wulf argues that Humboldt’s concept of “nature” was transmitted to such future greats as Darwin, Thoreau and John Muir. He deserves to be called, according to Wulf, the father of the green movement, an observer who called into play the ultimate interconnectedness of life.

Perhaps inspired by Humboldt, Darwin began his own voyage of discovery aboard the Beagle, a voyage that was to have more profound consequences than Humboldt’s. Darwin sent Humboldt a copy of his book “The Voyage of the Beagle”.  Von Humboldt, always a generous friend, wrote back, “You have an excellent future ahead of you.”