New Book: Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

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A book review recommendation for all is a wondrous book by Andrea Wulf, titled The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World.    


How is this for reviews of this life: “One of the great ornaments of his age.” from Thomas Jefferson.


“Nothing ever stimulated my zeal so much as reading ‘Humboldt’s Personal Narrative” from Charles Darwin, and according to Andrea Wulf “…saying he would not have boarded the Beagle, nor conceived of the “Origin of Species” without Humboldt.”


Quoting from Wulf: “William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge incorporated Humboldt’s concept of nature into their poetry… Henry David Thoreau found in Humboldt’s book an answer to his dilemma of how to be both a poet and a ‘naturalist’…Simon Bolivar, the revolutionary that liberated South America from Spanish rule, called Humboldt the ‘discover of the New World’”. Goethe, both a botanist and a poet, noted that “spending a day with Humboldt was like having lived several years.” The book paints wonderful scenes of Goethe and Schiller and von Humboldt and their mid-morning philosophizing in Schiller’s garden in Jena, Germany. This in the early 1800’s when natural philosophy included sciences such as geology and biology and zoology, and poetry and prose, and philosophical musings.


Von Humboldt soon departed for his life-changing and world-changing expeditions to South America where he recorded, described and collected plants, made geological observations, measured meteorological phenomena, and like Darwin decades later engendered the intellectual ferment that populated his developing theories of the animate and inanimate world. From this Humboldt developed his theory of the interconnectedness of the natural world, elucidating early theories of ecology, influencing everyone from Darwin to John Muir. His opus “Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe” predates everyone’s sense of that interdependence. He almost called Cosmos Ga’a, an early presentiment of the Gaia hypothesis which emerged in the late 20th century, that takes such interdependence to the next level of scientific thought. 


Wulf posits that more places are named for Humboldt than any other person, from the Humboldt Current to Humboldt Redwoods Park in northern California to, Mare Humboltiana on the Moon. There are over 300 plants and over 100 animals named for Humboldt, including the Humboldt Squid. And I must say, the truly other-worldy flavor of Humboldt Fog goat cheese.


To me, though, this is the real kicker, especially as it relates to “how soon we forget”. At the centennial of Humboldt’s birth in 1869 (he lived from 1769-1859) there were parties in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In Russia he was hailed as the “Shakespeare” of Science. There were public lectures from Adelaide to Buenos Aires, from San Francisco to Philadelphia. Those of you familiar with New York City may remember the Humboldt bust as you emerge from Central Park West. Twenty-five thousand celebrated in the Big Apple for the Centennial, 80,000 in Berlin. But get this; according to Wulf:  8000 people poured into the streets of Cleveland Ohio to celebrate Humboldt!  And all of this from the short Prologue to the book.


Twas’ a different age when scientists were so feted.  I encourage you to go to your local bookstore and to read this entertaining, readable, fascinating book about someone who loved the natural world, both living and unliving, and who still provides great insights into the interconnectedness of all things in this world of ours – and to the merging of arts and sciences, so much clearer to people of an earlier age. I take it back. I see this growing awareness and sensitivity to interconnectedness in my students at Ohio State University, and despite all concerns to the contrary, much of the credit for this goes to the Internet, with its infinite kingdoms of knowledge and connections. At any rate I am about to go order my second dozen copies of this book from the Wooster Book Company for students past, present, and future.