Humboldt and the Young Explorers

Humboldt and the Young Explorers

The father of ecology proves a worthy tale to the father of adventure seeking collegiates

Hello Interactors,

The next couple episodes will be a little off beat as I’m coming to you from the east coast of the United States. It’s time to deliver our little birdies from the nest so they may build their own. Dorm room nesting is a common sight this time of year among many young human adults seeking knowledge and independence. It can be observed in the towering cities of New York City and the smallest lowland wooded enclaves of Waltham, Massachusetts.

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For this momentous trip I’m listening to a book about a young man who launched to places further away than this. It’s a book I wish I had consumed long before now – The Invention of Nature by historian Andrea Wulf. It tells the tale of a man few have heard of but have most likely have heard the name – Humboldt. Alexander von Humboldt. His name graces more geographic places, plants, and animals around the world than any other. That’s because he was the first person to travel the world scientifically articulating what traditional Indigenous knowledge keepers have known for millennia – that all of nature is connected by an intricate web we now call an ecosystem.

1843 portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Karl Joseph Stieler. Source: Wikipedia

Born in Germany in 1769, he was the most celebrated scientist of his time. Upon his most famous and influential trip to South America, in his twenties, he observed how Spanish colonialism had ravaged the land. Acres of native vegetation had been cut and burned to make way for monoculture cash crops like sugar cane, wheat, and corn where all profits were then sent to the Spanish monarchy. Streams and rivers had been diverted to water these thirsty crops leaving lakes, ponds, and subterranean reservoirs dry. Local plants and animals, including Indigenous populations, were suffering as a result.

The local Spaniards and Creoles believed there must be a leak in the earth causing these conditions, but it was Humboldt, through meticulous geographic, geological, and meteorological observation, who determined it was the crops that had caused the devastation. He surmised that between the increased temperatures caused by the loss of trees and vegetation (that naturally cool and release moisture into the air) and the drying up and hardening of the soil (thus depleting the earth of groundwater) that significant damage was being done to the area.

He posited that such destruction at larger scales around the world may alter climatic patterns. He introduced the idea of human induced climate change in 1800. He further observed that these negative effects originated with infective colonialism of European and American profit seeking imperialist machines that relied heavily on the abduction and trade of human slaves from Africa and local Indigenous populations to work the fields of these monocultural crops.

Governments and corporations didn’t just ignore Humboldt’s warnings, they accelerated the pace of production and destruction. That insistence continues to this day as countries and corporations fight for access to natural resources and cheap labor – far out of the reaches of complicit eyes and ears – to feed the beast of rampant worldwide consumerism. As Humboldt warned, over 200 years ago, at the peril of earth’s resources and their interconnected web of life. You can’t say we weren’t warned.

1804 Map of the Louisiana Territory. Jefferson and his cabinet sought information from Humboldt when he visited Washington, D.C., about Spain's territory in Mexico, now bordering the U.S. Source: Wikipedia

Alexander von Humboldt remained a harsh critic of colonialism, capitalism, and slavery until the day he died. He witnessed firsthand the early devastating impact greed was having on the planet and its inhabitants – most especially Black and Indigenous people. Humboldt was a heartfelt man, but his true love was science. He abhorred politics and politicians though remained popular among them all, except Napoleon.

Thomas Jefferson was particularly enamored with Humboldt. They shared a common affinity and thirst for botanical, astronomical, and geographical knowledge. Humboldt shared with Jefferson all he knew of South America and Mexico who was starved by the Spanish of any information at all. While he shared in the spirit of two science loving naturalist friends, that knowledge turned out to be instrumental in helping Jefferson, and the United States, increase their imperial standing in the world and its widespread ecologically damaging capitalistic dominance. Humboldt endeared himself to Jefferson mostly because he was impressed with Jefferson’s commitment to liberty.

Though he disapproved of Jefferson’s adherence to slavery, he was wary of criticizing Jefferson directly for fear of disenfranchising their friendship. However, his diary, and the diary of others, reveals he did so in private to Jefferson’s friends and colleagues. Some history scholars criticize Humboldt for not using these opportunities to sway the opinions of these powerful men, but Humboldt believed science should rise above politics and the best way to share science was to share it with everyone who would listen regardless of their political or governmental affiliation.

Humboldt worked tirelessly, day and night, wherever he happened to be living. Scientific luminaries and academics could not understand how a single man could be so well versed in so many subjects, be seen in so many places on a given day or night, while continuing to discover new insights about the world – all with boundless energy. He spoke so fast and on so many topics, in three languages, that people said one could learn in two hours of listening to Humboldt what would take months to master on their own.

Humboldt botanical drawing published in his work on Cuba. Source: Wikipedia

He was a slight and nimble man with thin delicate hands. These attributes served him well squeezing into caverns and mines and placing sensitive miniscule blossoms into tiny glass vials. But he also had the strength and determination to endure extreme altitudes climbing rocky trails with shoes ripped to shreds. Upon total failure, he would hike barefoot. With his feet sometimes bleeding, he would stop every few hundred meters to take measurements with his barometer, altimeter, and sextant while collecting rock and plant specimens, drawing diagrams, and illustrating landscapes. It was he who first speculated on plate tectonics two hundred years before their full understanding by observing common plant species and geology between, say, a western coast of one continental land mass and the eastern coast of another.

Humboldt and his fellow scientist Aimé Bonpland near the foot of the Chimborazo volcano, painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1810). Source: Wikipedia

It's unfortunate that one of the most intriguing, intelligent, and ecologically committed scientists to have ever lived, who inspired everyone from Charles Darwin to Henry David Thoreau, eventually succumbed to the realities of endless European wars and political turmoil. These ordeals limited his travels to other lands he desperately wanted to visit, explore, and further connect his web of knowledge and the web of life.

Given his broad and groundbreaking studies, travel, and international fame makes one wonder why Humboldt is not a household name today as it once was in the 1800s despite being in countless scientific books, journals, and maps. Is it that the complex connections and relationships that make life possible and sustainable are too difficult to teach or comprehend? That can’t explain why Newton or Einstein are so popular. Maybe it is just easier to teach the memorization of the scientific facts of biology and physics and the strict classification schemes of rocks, plants, and animals, than the rich interdependent interactions on which each of them relies.

Isothermal map of the world using Humboldt's data by William Channing Woodbridge. Humboldt was the first to scientifically articulate how climatic zones stretched in horizontal bands around the world. It was a mind blowing revelation. Source: Wikipedia

Or perhaps we’ve grown ambivalent. Have we grown too comfortable to care about the workings of the world? Maybe Humboldt’s ideas are too threatening to the very institutions of colonialism, unbridled capitalism, and the over exploitation of natural and human resources he warned everyone of. Has overt capitalism made us too comfortable, complacent, and complicit? Perhaps those in power think it best not to perpetuate the ideas of a man critical of those systems that maintain the power of few, the comfort for some, and the education of many.

Napoleon thought so. He tried to have Humboldt banished from Paris, the heartbeat of scientific discovery and individual liberties at the time, suspecting him a subversive threat to Napoleonic domination. After all, it was politics and power struggles by the Napoleonic Wars that interrupted Humboldt’s continued quest to document, communicate, and share the scientific knowledge of ecosystems; the roots of which exist in traditional indigenous knowledge colonists squelched, shunned, or stole. Perhaps the same power and politics that held Humboldt back continue to hold us back today.

But we’ve had over 200 years to adjust course and have done nothing. Is it too late? I think not. Besides, there’s too much at stake for us all to remain ambivalent. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend this book. May it mark the beginning of your own journey. Let’s all follow in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt and share with our web of connections the ecological web connecting all of life.  

Interplace explores the interaction of people and place. It looks at how we move within and between the places we live and what led us here in the first place.