Wulf’s Invention of Nature was probably the best book I have read in all of 2017.
Although I knew of Humboldt (and his brother), I had no idea of the extent of his influence on the sciences and of the adventures he went on to gain the deep understanding of the world that he did.
I am still amazed at both.
I am still amazed at the difficulties he faced.
I am still amazed at everything I learned about his and his times from Wulf’s extraordinary book.
And, yet, I haven’t managed to write a proper “review” for this book. Maybe it is because the books that have the most impact on me are usually the ones that are hardest to write about.
So, instead of a review, I’ll replicate my reading notes below:
Reading update – Part 1:
We snatch in vain at Nature’s veil,
She is mysterious in broad daylight,
No screws or levers can compel to reveal
The secrets she has hidden from our sight.
I’m really enjoying this so far. I have a soft spot for Faust but had no idea that it was part inspired by Humboldt – or that he was so closely connected with the Weimar set.
What I am really enjoying in the book so far is how Wulf doesn’t just throw in place names in the expectation that readers will be able to picture the scenes but manages to add snippets of description to highlight that the places in Humboldt’s day were less developed and, more importantly, less accessible that any Google image or map search would have you believe.
I liked that she added that Weimar may have been an intellectual hot spot but it still had cattle being driven through its streets and that there was no reliable postal service – hence Goethe exchanging letters with Schiller in Jena by way of his greengrocer! I had to laugh at this one. I mean, imagine it…the letters of arguably the two most famous German literary figures delivered with the weekly shopping?
The other mentions I was curious about were that of Freiberg and that of the breathing mask and mining lamp Humboldt developed. I grew up not far from Freiberg, my dad went to uni there, and mining has shaped much of the region’s history and landscape.
Unfortunately, the book does not mention much about the two inventions, but I understand from other sources that the lamp was a forerunner of the Davy Lamp, which would have made a huge impact on working conditions in the mines. I am now curious about how exactly that lamp worked and the safety stats before and after the development of the lamp, but I’m not sure this is information that will be easy to dig up.
Looking forward to Part II already.
Reading update – Part 2:
In Part II of the book, we accompany Humboldt and Bonplant on their trip to first Tenerife and then South America.
There is only one question that I keep coming back to after having read this part, and that is:
How on earth did they survive that trip?
Mauled by mosquitoes, surrounded by dozens of other things that could kill them (jaguars, house cats, boa constrictors, crocs, …, parasites, …) the list is nigh endless, and yet, they seem to have come away relatively unscathed.
Even fever and dysentery could not stop them from crossing part of the Andes. The Andes!!
They had no gear to speak of, their shoes were useless, they suffered from severe altitude sickness, freezing conditions, and yet, they survived.
This is also the part where Humboldt comes face to face with slavery and becomes an abolitionist. I look forward to looking this section up in his travelogue. There were issues in rural Prussia at around the same time, where a system of serfdom still existed. This was eventually made illegal in 1807 (effective 1810). While there are obvious differences between the treatment of slaves as witnessed by Humboldt and the treatment of peasant serfs back in Prussia, I am curious to see if he mentions any correlation in his own writings.
I was also hooked on the descriptions of the use of agriculture and the emerging idea how the reliance on cash cultures is a really shortsighted expression of greed at the expense of the community.
Part II ends with Humboldt’s meeting with Thomas Jefferson, which to me was the least interesting part of this section.
Reading update – Part 3:
Part III – Sorting Ideas – tells about Humboldt’s return to Europe, where he is received as a hero. At the same time, tho, Europe is in the middle of drastic changes brought on by the Napoleonic Wars.
Also on a personal level, Humboldt has to make adjustments as he is basically broke and needs to take on “a real job”.
I must say I really like how Wulf contrasts this part of the book with the previous part that was all about the big adventure. In this part, we can literally feel how Humboldt is slowly suffocated by the demands of living in a society that has so many demands on him.
He’s trying to spread knowledge of his discoveries and further his cause (to learn more about the world and then share it with the scientific community) but politics are now a major stumbling block.
He was just too far ahead, too egalitarian, and too liberal for his time!
Who’d have guessed Humboldt fell out with Napoleon???
Who’d have guessed Humboldt’s reputation as a rebel would deny him access to India?
Who’d have guessed Humboldt was considered a rebel?
That part can’t have been that easy for his brother to deal with, either, seeing that he was a Prussian diplomat.
What is most impressive and even whiplash inducing to just read about, tho, is how crazy busy Humboldt kept himself. He was like a squirrel on speed running from one appointment to the next, always on the go, attending up to five different salons per night on several days of the week.
By the end of this part of the book, I can understand why he was longing to travel again. It seems that his mind is more focused and he is more at ease when he is off exploring.
Reading update – Part 4:
At the end of July, more than three months after leaving Berlin, Humboldt reached Tobolsk – 1,800 miles from St Petersburg and the most easterly point on the prescribed route – but it was still not wild enough for his taste. Humboldt had not come this far only to have to turn around. He had other plans. Instead of travelling back to St Petersburg as previously agreed, Humboldt now ignored Cancrin’s instructions and added a detour of 2,000 miles. He wanted see the Altai Mountains in the east where Russia, China and Mongolia met, as the counterpart to his observations in the Andes. As he had failed to see the Himalaya, the Altai was as close as he could get to collecting data from a mountain range in Central Asia.
I’m finding it hard to put this book down. He is such an unlikely rebel, and yet…he gets away with it.
Having been denied access to the Himalayas by the East India Company, and having returned to Berlin, Humboldt is dying to get out again.
I was so relieved when I read about his travels through Russia. Not only because the parts where he travels have been my favourites of the book, but also because I really hate seeing him cooped up.
And of course there several passages where I caught my breath, most notably where he basically upsets Cancrin, the czar’s official delegate, by wanting to see the true living conditions of the eastern peasants and, the second, where he is so set on reaching his destination (also against the will of Cancrin) that he rode straight through a region plagued with an anthrax epidemic. Anthrax!!! WTF, Alex?
“As they sat in silence, hot and cramped behind tightly shut windows in their small carriages, they passed through a landscape of death. The ‘traces of the pest’ were everywhere, Humboldt’s companion Gustav Rose noted in his diary. Fires burned at the entrances and exits of the villages as a ritual to ‘clean the air’. They saw small makeshift hospitals and dead animals lying in the fields. In one small village alone, 500 horses had died.”
I guess the views would have have been worth it:
As for the other parts, I enjoyed learning about how much Humboldt had influenced Darwin. I had never expected this.
I am, however, puzzled by the chapter about Thoreau. Not only was this the least interesting to me, but I found the description of Thoreau quite annoying.
While Humboldt and Darwin were scientists who were able to write well, Thoreau merely strikes me as a – somewhat lofty and self-indulgent – writer, but not really a scientist.
What was the point of including this chapter other than to illustrate Humboldt’s influence across several continents?
Reading update – Part 5:
I am a little sad.
This was a fascinating book, and I loved the chapter that described the last years in Humboldt’s life and the political changes that he was surrounded by, even tho for Humboldt the novelty of revolution had worn off because he had seen and been in the midst of so many of them.
As for the remaining chapters on Perkins, Haeckel, and John Muir, I am in two minds: We did not really need them to understand Humboldt and his times. But, they do illustrate – again – the far-reaching impact Humboldt and his work have had on a future generation that would lead to the birth of environmentalism.
I appreciate the link that Wulf creates between the extraordinary Humboldt and the subsequent discussions that are still current affairs more than I criticise Wulf for meandering a little in the last three chapters
What a book! What a guy!