It is hard to think of a more impressive book than this – gripping, entertaining and informative as the author marshalls with great skill a mass of facts and ideas.
Although largely forgotten now, with his unflagging energy and curiosity, Humboldt achieved widespread fame during his long life (1769-1859) as a traveller, explorer and writer. Fortunate to have been born before it was necessary to be a specialist, Humboldt was influenced by Goethe to view the world as a unified whole, consisting of multiple interactions. Although, as a scientist, he continued to believe in the importance of close observation and precise measurement in understanding the world, he also grasped the need for imagination. “Nature must be experienced through feeling” and those who limit themselves to the simple classification of plants, animals and rocks “will never get close to it”.
Humboldt was a visionary thinker, ahead of his time. He suggested that creatures had evolved years before Darwin, in turn inspired by Humboldt’s writing, began to think about natural selection. He conceived the idea of an ecosystem, or groups of organisms coexisting in the same environment, decades before another disciple, Haeckel, coined the term “ecology”. Always looking for patterns, Humboldt was quick to notice how plants seemed to differ according to climate, in turn linked to latitude. In the same way, mountains, like the dramatic snow-topped Chimborazo which he climbed in Ecuador, demonstrated predictable zones of vegetation according to altitude, ranging from the tropical palms of the lowland, through the oaks and ferns of temperate climates up to the barren surfaces above the treeline. Through observation, he developed ideas of human-induced climatic change, as in the case of excessive clearing of forests in both Europe and South America. He even invented isotherms.
He realised that the nocturnal outbreaks of cacophony in the South American forests were not, as the natives claimed, the animals’ way of worshipping the moon, but “a long-extended and ever-amplifying battle” as the jaguars chased the tapirs, whose flight scared the monkeys, who disturbed the birds” and so on.
Unable to travel outside Europe before gaining his inheritance at the age of about thirty, Humboldt found the added difficulty of obtaining passage on a suitable vessel when most ships were needed for the Napoleonic wars. Then there was the further risk of being attacked by British warships when he eventually sailed to the South American colonies on a Spanish frigate.
His jouneys were full of bizarre incidents: the natives of the South American Llanos drove a herd of wild horses into a pond to drive up to the surface the electric eels that he was keen to study. Not only did some of the horses perish, but Humboldt and his colleagues made themselves ill from the shocks which could still be generated by the weakened eels. Years later on a trip to Russia, in defiance of the authoritarian government which sought to control his movements, Humboldt took his party on a 2000-mile detour at lightning speed to see the Altai Mountains where Russia, China and Mongolia meet. When their route was blocked by a major outbreak of anthrax, the ruthless Humboldt simply stocked up with uncontaminated food, and dashed through the affected area with all the carriage windows closed.
In the quarter-century gap between a five year odyssey in South America, often totally cut off from events in Europe and his visit to Russia, it is initially surprising to realise that he spent much of the time in Paris, which he loved for its cultural opportunities, or serving through gritted teeth at the court of the King of Prussia, where he disparaged Berlin as “little, illiterate and over-spiteful”. Yet he was far from idle, being prolific in writing detailed, often richly illustrated books about his journeys and ideas on nature in relation to man, lecturing and corresponding with other scientists and thinkers. Having impoverished himself through his travels, publications and supporting young scientists, he was forced to endure a tedious court post humouring the king, when his preference was for democracy, along with his condemnation of slavery.
He longed to travel to India, but was blocked by the all-powerful East India Company’s refusal to grant permission for this, despite his fame.
This is not merely the biography of a hyper-active, charismatic, workaholic genius, liberal-minded, often generous, yet sharp-tongued and dominating conversations in his unconscious assumption of superior knowledge, even talking over a piano specially played for his benefit, only to astound students by quietly taking notes alongside them when he knew there was something new to learn in chemistry or geology.
The final chapters also cover some of the gifted environmentalists who were inspired by him, such as George Perkins Marsh who in “Man and Nature” assembled comprehensive evidence of the destruction of the earth by human activity. “The Old World had to be the New World’s cautionary tale”. But, with the 1862 Homesteads Act which gave every loyal American over 21 the right to 160 acres, how could the march of change be prevented? Another example is John Muir, who set up the Sierra Club, now the largest grassroots environmental organisation in the US, and who was responsible for the establishment of the Yosemite National Park.
This is a fascinating book to encourage others to read, and return to again.