The father of nature writing, intrepid explorer, friend to revolutionaries and US presidents, Alexander von Humboldt was the original scholar adventurer. Fearlessly footloose and boundlessly curious, the Prussian-born Humboldt climbed mountains, traversed rugged terrain, collected specimens, and scribbled, scribbled, scribbled from the late 18th through the mid-19th centuries as he pursued his uniquely rapturous vision of nature.
His journeys took him deep into South American jungles and across Russian steppes. He discovered isotherms, found the magnetic equator, and wrote prose with a literary verve. He saw grave consequences of environmental degradation as he captured what he observed in dozens of books. He fused empirical observation with an idiosyncratic subjectivity. Not quite a pure scientist, not quite an artist, Humboldt stood poised between these two poles.
In “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World,” Andrea Wulf reclaims Humboldt from the obscurity that has enveloped him. Wulf, author of several works that combine biography with explorations of natural history in the Age of Enlightenment, is as enthusiastic as her subject. “Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere . . . ‘In this great chain of causes and effects,’ Humboldt said, ‘no single fact can be considered in isolation.’ With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.”
The key word is “connections.” It, and several variations on it, recurs again and again throughout Wulf’s account. If she sometimes falls back on lazy repetition, the author drives home the uniqueness of Humboldt’s mind. While scientists broke nature into constituent parts, Humboldt looked to fashion luminous wholes. Standing on an Andean mountain, his mind would wander to the Alps and the Pyrenees as he compulsively collated the plants and rock formations before his eyes, drawing together his data and placing it on vast continuum that linked regions and climes.
Wulf knows her subject well, but her book, divided between a biography of his life and sections tracing his influence on Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and others, sometimes feels disjointed. She is at her best in her vivid and exciting chapters describing Humboldt’s epic travels.
His explorations of the Americas between 1799 and 1804, which took him from Washington D.C., to Lima, Peru, from hot plains to icy heights, profoundly shaped his vision of nature. With his French scientist companion, Aime Bonpland, he voyaged down the Orinoco River, accompanied, at one point, by a mastiff, eight monkeys, seven parrots, a toucan, and macaw.
Here, in the thickness of the jungle — the mosquitos were hell — he saw a mixture of harmony and competition, plants battling one another for precious light. At night, as jaguars hunted tapirs, the air was filled with the sounds of “a long-extended and ever-amplifying battle of the animals.” Such views would influence Darwin as he grappled with his theories of evolution.
Whatever nature’s raw grandeur, Humboldt also saw the worrying hand of humankind at work. He deplored slavery and the ravages of the plantation economy. At Lake Valencia, near Caracas, Humboldt observed the effects of deforestation and developed an early notion of the link between people’s activities and climate change. In doing so, Wulf writes, “he unwittingly became the father of the environmental movement.”
Humboldt’s South American expeditions yielded an enormous trove of information. His notebooks bulged with astronomical, geologic, and meteorological readings. He hauled back some 60,000 plant specimens, several thousands of which were unknown to European botanists. Contending with the disruptions of the Napoleonic wars, Humboldt nonetheless made the rounds in Paris, and then was recalled to Berlin, where he served as chamberlain to the Prussian king.
In Europe he commenced the arduous process of turning data into books — and did so at an almost ridiculously productive clip. His “Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent’’ would grow to 34 volumes, an extravaganza of maps, botanical prints, natural history, zoology, personal and political reflection, “the most expensive work ever privately printed by a scientist.”
Through having his ideas absorbed into the work of Darwin, Thoreau, and John Muir, a founder of American environmentalism, Humboldt is at once everywhere and nowhere. Wulf’s pulsating account brings this dazzling figure back into a dazzling, much-deserved focus.
By Andrea Wulf
Knopf, 473 pp, illustrated, $30
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.