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The ‘greatest scientist of his age’ has a lot to say to ours

The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World

By Andrea Wulf


473 pages, $30

By Michael D. Langan

This wonderful book on the life of Alexander von Humboldt, is something you’ll prize even if you don’t know a weed from a willow.

Humboldt was “the visionary German naturalist whose ideas changed the way we see the natural world – and in the process created modern environmentalism.” “The Invention of Nature” is a captious title, but it gives the book some panache.

It was he, according to author Andrea Wulf, who forged a radical redefinition and vision of nature: that of “a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone.”

This is a powerful idea that is explored at length in this book that comprises, in addition to its text, more than 130 pages of footnotes. Basically the point is that Humboldt identified similarities between climate and vegetation zones on different continents. In his daring expeditions and investigations of wild environments around the world, he was the most famous explorer and scientist of his age.

The layout of the book is simple and beautiful. The author separates the book into five parts: Emerging Ideas, Collecting Ideas, Sorting Ideas, Spreading Ideas and Evolving Ideas. After Humboldt published his second volume of Cosmos in 1847, he realized that he had even more to say, “ranging from the stars and planets to the velocity of light and comets.” Our author describes Humboldt as “the greatest man since the deluge.”I wouldn’t go that far, but he beats the hell out of the wimps who are changing science to accommodate political opinion today.

“In North America, his name still graces our counties, thirteen towns, a river, parks, bays, lakes and mountains.” Von Humboldt was indefatigable: he climbed volcanoes, trudged through Siberia, and, through it, all he translated his research into publications that “changed science and thinking.”

And Andrea Wulf, who has written for the New York Times, the WSJ and the Financial Times, is your nonpareil guide. Born in India, moved to Germany as a child, she was trained as a design historian at the Royal Academy of Art in England. Author of “Chasing Venus, Founding Gardeners,” she co-presented “British Gardens in Time,” a four-part series on BBC television.

An aside: You’re reading my mind if you wonder if Humboldt Park in Buffalo was named after Alexander von Humboldt. The answer is yes. More recently, it’s called Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. Originally it was 56 acres designed by Frederick L. Olmsted. First called “The Parade” because of occasional military displays, it was built in 1874 and, after 1896, renamed Humboldt Park.

Humboldt Parkway was originally connected to Delaware Park. As a student in the mid-1950s, I could drive up a leafy and bucolic Humboldt and nearing Hamlin Park, turn left onto Hughes Avenue, and park my ’48 Plymouth on that street while attending Canisius College.

However, the construction of the Kensington Expressway in the early 1960s made commerce king, dissecting and chewing up an admirable original Buffalo landscape. Here’s one loud “boo” for screwing up a beautiful park in the name of progress for a motorway.

As early as 1801 Humboldt talked of “mankind’s mischief … which disturbs nature’s order.” There were moments in his life when he was so pessimistic that he painted a bleak future of humankind’s eventual expansion into space, when humans would spread their lethal mix of vice, greed, violence and ignorance across other planets.”

Humboldt also saw the good in things. He was able to shape his discoveries into poetic narrative that caught the imaginations of the greats of his time. Wulf notes that he inspired other naturalists and poets, such as Darwin, Wordsworth and others, indicating that the great naturalist shaped Thoreau’s “Walden.”

The German poet Goethe compared Humboldt to a “’fountain with many spouts from which streams flow refreshingly and infinitely, so that we have only to place vessels under them.’”

All this is about time. Deniers of man’s influence on poisoning the environment seem to be in ascendency. But evidence of the opposite is all round for those with eyes to see. (The Irish Times, for example, reported recently that fish in the oceans has declined by 70 percent since the 1970s.)

Andrea Wulf’s book is a timely gazetteer. It shows us as she writes, “the myriad fundamental ways in which Humboldt created our understanding of the natural world, and she champions a renewed interest in this vital and lost player in environmental history and science.”

Michael D. Langan is a frequent book reviewer for The Buffalo News.