The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf examines the life of the oft-forgotten founder of the modern environmentalist movement. Alexander von Humboldt was a German naturalist and explorer who, despite having his name attached to natural wonders across the globe, is far less well known than those who drew their inspiration from him, including Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and James Lovelock.
Wulf’s fascinating book is thoroughly researched and annotated and includes drawings and portraits of Humboldt and his travels. Like so many naturalists, Humboldt was not a “people person” but a passionate explorer: of places, of plants and animals, of ideas. The Invention of Nature takes us through his early years in Germany through his travels across the Americas and back to Europe.
Admirably, Humboldt’s insatiable curiosity led him to persevere through illness and exhaustion. Far less admirably, some of his research methods were barbaric. In order to examine the electric eels that lurked in the muddy bottoms of shallow pools in Venezuela, he sent horses into the waters and to their painful, gruesome deaths. And the best way to capture the elusive titi monkeys, Humboldt discovered, was “to kill a mother with a blowgun and a poisoned dart. The titi youngster would not let go of its mother even as she came crashing down the tree.”
Yet Humboldt was ahead of his time in many ways. After witnessing the sickening slave trade in South America, he became a lifelong abolitionist. He also noted the harmful effects of deforestation. “After he saw the devastating environmental effects of colonial plantations at Lake Valencia in Venezuela in 1800, Humboldt became the first scientist to talk about human-induced climate change…He warned that humans were meddling with the climate and that this could have an unforeseeable impact on ‘future generations.’”
The last two sections of the book cover Humboldt’s effect on naturalists and scientists from Darwin to Muir. “Environmentalists, ecologists and nature writers today remain firmly rooted in Humboldt’s vision—although many have never heard of him. Nevertheless, Humboldt is their founding father.”
Humboldt’s story is a timely one, especially in an era in which climate change is still not receiving the attention it needs in order to save the planet. Understanding the earliest explorations and discoveries is part of understanding the vast puzzle the global community needs to put together, and quickly, to solve this ongoing and advancing problem. “As scientists are trying to understand and predict the global consequences of climate change, Humboldt’s interdisciplinary approach to science and nature is more relevant than ever. His beliefs in the free exchange of information, in uniting scientists and fostering community across disciplines, are the pillars of science today.”
Midge Raymond is a co-founder of Ashland Creek Press. She is the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short story collection Forgetting English.