Humboldt’s Vision of Nature

Humboldt portrait 1806 Friedrich Georg Weitsch (Wikipedia)

An artist’s imagining of  young Humboldt at work in 1806, by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (Wikipedia)

Our ecological imagination—our sense of nature as a global, interconnected and sacred whole—has roots in many sources. A relatively unfamiliar one is the work of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a manic, prolific explorer and naturalist of the German Romantic era. Humboldt’s life and work are the subject of an outstanding biography by Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (2015).

Humboldt’s trademark was the web of connections he drew around whatever he observed. Nature, he insisted, could not be grasped in the slices and pieces into which other scientists chopped it but only as a whole. He looked at each specimen, whether a plant or a human institution, in its relation to global patterns of terrain, weather, and behavior. Such a perspective called for not only information but imagination and emotion as well. His works are as full of poetry as they are of data.

His seminal journey during his thirties took him on a five-year exploration of Latin America. Wherever he traveled, he compared. In the Andes, a moss reminded him of a moss in northern Germany. In Mexico he found trees similar to those in Canada. Measuring temperature and altitude as he climbed stormy volcanoes and crawled across frozen ridges in the Andes, he envisioned the plants of the world in vegetation zones consistent around the planet. He published a large diagram of a mountain with labels for plants at their respective altitudes around the world, from mushrooms at the depths to lichens just below the snow line. No one had ever seen a graphic of ecosystems from a global perspective like this.

 

Humboldt (mappingthenation.com)

(mappingthenation.com)

Humboldt was the first to note that cutting down a forest set off a cascade of environmental problems, triggering the loss of topsoil, the rapid runoff of rainwater, the flooding of rivers, the drying up of springs, the decline of agriculture. He observed how the farming of single crops for trade, such as indigo in Peru, ruined the soil ‘like a mine,’ and impoverished the people. “He debated nature, ecological issues, imperial power and politics in relation to each other. He criticized unjust land distribution, monocultures, violence against tribal groups and indigenous work conditions” (105).

During his return from South America, Humboldt stopped by the White House to visit another scholar of agricultural economy, Thomas Jefferson. The two saw eye-to-eye on all subjects except one. Humboldt had seen enough slavery in South America to convince him that it was butchery without justification, economic or otherwise.  For Humboldt, “What is against nature is unjust, bad, and without validity,” and humans, like plants, all come from one root. “’Nature is the domain of liberty,’ Humboldt said, because nature’s balance was created by diversity” (108). Jefferson agreed but never freed all his slaves (106).

Humboldt noted similarities between the mountains of South America and Africa and argued that those continents had been joined in the past, anticipating the modern theory of plate tectonics.

In his later years in Berlin, he gave a series of free public lectures that packed halls with people from all walks of life. Traffic clogged the city on the lecture days. “He talked about poetry and astronomy but also about geology and landscape painting….He roamed from fossils to the northern lights, and from magnetism to flora, fauna, and the migration of the human race” (194). He spoke from notes layered with clippings, bits of book pages, scribbled post-its, illustrations.

humboldt kosmos(eternalexploration.wordpress.com)

From Kosmos, a map of cultures and peoples in South America (eternalexploration.wordpress.com)

He convened gatherings of scientists from across Europe to exchange information and ideas, establishing in effect the modern scientific conference. Fascinated by the earth’s magnetic field, he successfully urged governments to build a network of magnetic stations across the globe, setting a new level of international scientific cooperation.

In consultation with specialists, Humboldt spent his last years writing Kosmos, a multi-volume survey of what was then known about outer space, the climate and geology of earth, the relation among plants, animals, and humans, the history of science, and the perceptions of nature by artists and poets through the ages.

In 1831, the 22-year-old Charles Darwin boarded the Beagle for his own formative voyage and brought with him Humboldt’s seven-volume narrative of the Latin American expedition. Darwin followed Humboldt in seeing nature as a grand ecological system in constant flux and precarious balance. But while Humboldt looked for the integration of nature, Darwin looked for beginnings. On the Origin of Species appeared a few months after Humboldt’s death in 1859.

In her epilogue, Andrea Wulf writes that Humboldt’s name remains unfamiliar to many because, as the last scientist to study his field so broadly, he has been eclipsed by modern specialists famous for singular discoveries and theories. (Darwin is one example.) Yet when I read today about reverence for nature, anxiety about the climate, and the fused destinies of humans and the environment, I hear Humboldt loud and clear.

What Is the “Nature” In Naturalism?

Religious or spiritual naturalism (I’ll use spiritual for both) is a subject dear to my heart. But sometimes I wonder about what exactly we have in mind when we use the word nature. In what I read and even in what I’ve written, the meaning of nature seems prone to being shifted or narrowed to suit the discussion. I bring up the topic with some trepidation because nature is at the core for groups I am happily part of. But maybe that’s a good reason to raise it.

Virtually everyone values nature in the form of the woods, the fields, the mountains and ocean, the animals, plants, the air and water around them. But if asked for a definition of nature, spiritual naturalists offer up a generally accepted definition that is much broader than any of this earthly scenery. Nature as spiritual naturalists conceive of it is all that would not be considered supernatural. Nature refers to the universe of materials and forces that we perceive with our senses and that scientists infer from their observations.

But the breadth of this definition may take us places we had not planned on going. We often reiterate, for example, that we humans are part of nature. But many people might be reluctant to include our cities, cars, computers, pollution and other human products as part of nature, even though all of these fall within the category of things in the universe.

Another complication in labeling the whole universe as nature is that this natural vastness possesses almost none of the characteristics that we often attribute to it. The light at sunset shines in various wavelengths, but without humans to admire those sunsets, they would not be so famously gorgeous. Similarly, while the universe may resemble organic life in its evolution and its cycles, the universe—nature in its totality— is not “alive” in our usual sense of the word. In short, apart from certain principles of physics, nature has no universal characteristics at all, no living qualities, no values.

(dsarichphotography.com)

(dsarichphotography.com)

Still, so many of us seek meaning and understanding from nature at large or from some piece of it. We take strength from our traditions of gratitude and reverence for the universe. In doing so we select from nature according to our spiritual needs. We value the land, sea, and sky for the transcendence they offer from our rough-and-tumble society (even though that society too is natural). And we cherish the cooperation and interconnection that we find in the cosmos and among living things—even though such collaboration is not always benign, for animals and humans often cooperate in order to prevail over others. We find in nature what we need and we set other parts of it aside.

Up into my middle age, I was intrigued by accounts of how the universe began and how it unfolded. But for the last couple of decades, that question has faded and others have moved to the foreground. These are questions related to reviewing my life, anticipating death, and trying to grasp the flow of daily life. Today, the universe story no longer raises the hair on the back of my neck. But the history of living things still does. I too have sliced nature my own way.

Loyal Rue has written, “Nature is enough.” I sometimes think that “nature is too much.” It is big, it is both unchanging and in constant transformation, and it is easy for us to read into it without realizing that we are doing so. Perhaps inevitably, we carry a double vision of nature. We need to hold in mind the totality of nature that is beyond easy description at the same time that we revere the portions of it that move us.