I am happy to say that I spent Thanksgiving with “the greatest man since the Deluge.”
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
I’m referring to Alexander Von Humboldt, whom I mentioned in an earlier post. I wrote that Humboldt, a Prussian explorer, geographer, and naturalist had originated the idea of “the great web of life” and foreseen human-caused climate change. He died in Berlin in 1859 at age 89, less than a month after sending his publisher the last volume of his monumental work, Cosmos.
At the time of my post, I had just begun reading Humboldt’s biography, The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. Impatient with my slow progress on this important book, nature grounded me with a snowstorm on Thanksgiving Day, and I devoted the entire day to finishing my reading. What a great but also disorienting experience.
As I read, I began to realize that my education had been flawed in a tragic way–but not just mine, that of everyone in America who hadn’t had the opportunity growing up to learn something about this man’s studies. Fortunately, several friends, including one in Berlin, reported that they did know about him.
And thank goodness for Wulf. It would take a lifetime to study all of Humboldt’s discoveries, but Wulf’s summary is brilliant. It is a masterpiece of research and writing that brings Humboldt and his adventures to life. She is rather private about her background, but I think she is German, born in New Delhi, India, but raised in Hamburg, Germany.
Wulf writes that when Humboldt died, he was so renowned among scientists, scholars, thinkers, artists, and heads of state worldwide that his knowledge and influence were looked back on as the “age of Humboldt.” (The quote with which I began this post was by Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV.) Even American newspapers referred to him as “the most remarkable man ever born.”
As I read, I kept wondering, “Why haven’t I ever heard about him before?” I felt gypped. His work should have shown up somewhere in my liberal arts curriculum because in addition to scientific data, he had included art, history, poetry, and politics in his books. He is well known all over Europe and in South America, but here Humboldt had pretty much disappeared.
Wulf explains in her epilogue: An anti-German sentiment came in with World War I, and it endured for many years. German publications were burned here, books were removed from libraries, and German-American citizens were sometimes attacked. In England, the royal family changed their last name from “Saxe-Coburg and Gotha” to “Windsor,” and the works of Bach and Beethoven were not being performed.
Well, there you go. The gifts of Humboldt’s genius were interred here in America, a tragic loss from a war we won.
A REDEMPTIVE HISTORY
I hope what I’ve written inspires many readers to explore Humboldt’s biography. I can’t do justice to its content beyond saying that it may well be transformative. However, I personally benefited in an additional way. From my perspective, Wulf’s book kind of redeemed the masculine in the moment.
Dangerous males all over the world are in the media’s spotlight right now, and I don’t think I need to go into all the ways that the term “dangerous” applies. The story of Alexander Von Humboldt is that of a man who was the polar opposite. I was fascinated by the history of the intellect, physical courage, and stamina he dedicated to his lifelong effort to learn as much as he could about Earth and share it in order to save it.
And that wasn’t all. Wulf points out that he inspired five other men who did similar service: Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel, and John Muir. Darwin of England developed the theory of evolution, Thoreau created a renowned work of American nature writing in Walden, and Marsh with Man and Nature stimulated preservation and conservation movements not only in America but also internationally. Haeckel, a German zoologist and artist, wrote a book titled The Riddle of the Universe that advanced the idea of the unity of God and nature; and John Muir championed putting the American wilderness under Federal protection.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As I read about all these extraordinary men, I noticed that none of them cared a fig about money; they just needed enough to get their work done. They risked their lives in some cases, and all of them were passionately dedicated basically to preserving the beauty, wonder and viability of all life on Earth–our “home.” They were very aware of the lust for power and wealth they were up against. As Muir said, “Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded.”
These men were true heroes. It is so comforting in this perilous moment to be reminded of their selfless dedication to saving this beautiful world from our own destructiveness. We desperately need more of their kind–men to love and revere rather than fear and regret in positions of power.
AND SO. . . .
Begone, ye Provocateurs! Time for your nemeses to rise–or your Higher Selves to manifest. If not, our shame will endure “Evermore,” quoth the Raven.
“The story of Alexander Von Humboldt is that of a man who was the polar opposite”.
Thank you for introducing me to this remarkable man, Alex Humboldt. You helped remind me of the millions of men who have been doing ‘women’s work’ and who have most often been our unsung heroes. I’m referring to men who choose to teach kindergarten and first grade children, especially in underprivileged neighbourhoods. I’m reminded of Doctors Without Borders, risking their lives. But I’m also aware that, throughout history, great men have devoted their lives, often in near poverty, to creating alternative views of life itself. These are the artists, the poets, and the musicians. I believe strongly that our most astute scientists, doctors, philosophers, mathematicians ,and scholars had the benefit of the study of the arts. I believe that their interaction with the arts expanded their young minds. I am not saying that women were not as influential nor were they any less ‘unsung heroes’, but I am implying that there are good men amongst the rotten apples.
Shame on the leadership of this nation for removing the arts programs from schools. And for not supporting the men and women who are trying to give our children the tools they will need to succeed in their future:Open and expansive minds.
Another extremely informative and thought-provoking article, Ellen. This comment seems repetitive but your articles have really been excellent. I agree with Dotsie and your general comments about being better keepers of this one and only planet that we have. I remain optimistic about where we are and what we can do. The onus is on younger generations Worldwide to accept responsibility and accountability as we have (in my opinion).. Once again I thank you so much for your research and the Thanksgiving blessing you shared with us.
Thank you for making me aware of a climate change activist from SO long ago! You know how much I care about and taught about the environment and climate change and was able to influence my students and family.
Ellen’s acquaintance with AH mirrors mine. Until I read a review of Wulf’s book, I had a fuzzy recollection there was a current named for a Humboldt but that was it. Recently, I read Henry Beston’s 1948 Northern Farm: A Chronicle of Maine, a book of reflections about nature and the rhythms of the seasons on a small farm in rural Maine. Beston concludes on a somber note, saying “I venture to set down a statement of a country man’s unchanged belief. What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history.” Beston’s earlier and better known The Outermost House about a year of life on a remote Cape Cod beach celebrates the natural world and man’s place in it but finishes with a warning nonetheless. “Do no dishonor to the earth lest you dishonour the spirit of man.” Well, beginning with Humboldt and later Thoreau we cannot say we were not warned about the outcome we face today. We have done this to ourselves. Turns out we were the serpents in the Garden all along
I thought that the quote from John Muir about nothing dollarable being safe is so apt, unfortunately. Already in the early 19th century Humboldt pointed out how the desire for economic gain, say in mining or timbering, was destroying the environment, and humanity certainly hasn’t changed its ways since then. By the way, Humboldt also wrote scathing depictions of slavery in South America and in the U.S., which he visited on his way back to Europe. In his opposition to slavery, Humboldt was also ahead of his time.
Glad you enjoyed the book,
Loved this blog and a brand new awareness about a man I never heard of. Thank you for that and for reminding us to strive towards our higher selves in this perilous time.
Hope to see you before too long.
Karol Ryan (Yvonne’s friend)