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.

Chet Raymo on Santa Claus, Hot Stoves, and the Blooming, Buzzing Confusion

We cannot live without some sorts of make-believe in our lives. Without made-up maps of the world, life is a buzzing, blooming confusion. Some elements of our mental maps (Santa Claus) satisfy emotional or aesthetic inner needs; other elements of our mental maps (a hot stove) satisfy intellectual curiosity about the world out there. We get in trouble when the two kinds of maps are confused, when we objectify elements of make-believe solely on the basis of inner need.

The passage is from Chet Raymo’s book Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection between Science and Religion (1998). Raymo is Professor Emeritus of Physics, raised as a Catholic, with a religious sensibility alongside a firm skepticism. He recently stopped posting on his blog, Science Musings, but the inspiring archives remain open.

We all carry around mental maps of the world—images and words that guide us—that should not be confused with the real world itself. Raymo writes about the two kinds of entries on our maps. Some entries reflect our neediness, since we were children, for emotional comfort, simple explanations, and a sense of our own importance. Santa Claus is on the map for many children. When we’re adults, other superstitions, miracles and astrology often take Santa’s place. Such beliefs help many of us make sense of the world. They also help us feel we have a place in it, for there is nothing worse than thinking that we are only insignificant specks.

As Raymo puts it, these are beliefs about what we yearn for. In contrast, we also put on our maps more objectively realistic items that we learn about. These include the facts that stoves can burn us and that dinosaurs and humans did not walk the earth at the same time.

Artificial island in the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean (pinterest)

An artificial island in the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean
(pinterest)

But—and here’s what makes the book so valuable—Raymo is not saying simply that we should value the learn items and let go of the yearn ones. For a person who values only objective knowledge runs the risk of becoming cold and arrogant. We need a mix of worthwhile knowledge along with an appreciation of what we don’t know and yearn to understand.

Raymo’s central metaphor for all this is that our map resembles an island in a sea of mystery. The island is our knowledge and the sea is the actual, mysterious, and infinite universe around us. On our island, “We dredge up soil from the bed of mystery and build ourselves room to grow. And still the mystery surrounds us. It laps at our shores. It permeates the land.” When such thinkers as Galileo and Einstein illuminate some of the mystery, that mystery sweeps in on a tidal wave and overwhelms much of what we thought we had known for sure. So we rebuild.

As we expand the island and extend its shores, the border between the land and the sea, instead of shrinking, grows longer. That is, the more we know about the objective world, the more that the mysteries of existence beckon the scientists, artists, and other creative people who are open to them. Raymo’s book appeared in 1998, but his metaphor of this extended shoreline fits well with recent discoveries of the many planets circling other stars and with the neuro-imaging of the brain. Both advances in knowledge have, instead of dulling our sense of mystery, excited and extended it.

Where on the island, Raymo asks, do we find the best and most creative work being done? At the shoreline. “We are at our human best as creatures of the shore, with one foot on the hard ground of fact and one foot in the mystery of the sea.”

The stance describes Raymo himself. And it reminds me that to relish both our knowledge of living things along with our sense of the mystery of being alive is a good place to be.