The original ecologist
COUNTIES in three states bear his name, as does an ocean current in the southern Pacific, some two dozen mountain peaks from China to the Sierra and a glacier in Greenland. Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his last significant poem to him, Walt Whitman drew directly upon his writings for “Song of Myself.” And in 1869, on the centennial of his birth, cities across America shut down to celebrate. But scarcely anyone these days has heard of the explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt. “As far as the twenty-first-century memory . . . is concerned,” writes Aaron Sachs in his adoring “The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism,” “he may as well have gone down with his ship.”
That ship, the Concepcion -- bound for Philadelphia from Havana -- sailed through a hurricane-like tempest in the late spring of 1804 to deliver the generous-spirited Humboldt to the United States, where he would talk science and politics at the dinner table of President Thomas Jefferson. He stayed in America only a month, marveling at the young country’s “gift of Liberty” even as he abhorred the “abominable law” that defended slavery. His legacy, though, resonates beyond that single, brief visit; strains of Humboldt still run through the best of American environmental and scientific thought.
It was Humboldt who established that variances in climate, influenced not just by latitude but also by ocean currents and wind patterns, dictated which animals would live and what plants would thrive in a certain region. It was Humboldt who first fully recognized the sensitive connections among all ecological systems, the delicate balance of nature that the exploitation of resources necessarily disrupts. And it was Humboldt who taught us, as Sachs puts it, “that we can never know the full ecological impact of our resource use, since all natural forces are so intimately interdependent -- which, in turn, dictates that we tread on the earth as lightly as possible.”
Born in the same year as Napoleon Bonaparte in the then-Prussian city of Berlin, Humboldt was groomed for life as a financier; his brother, Wilhelm, was a famous linguist. Both his parents died early, however, and the young Humboldt quickly surrendered to his peripatetic nature. At age 29, self-schooled in meteorology, geology and astronomy, he set out with French botanist Aime Bonpland for the Spanish colonies to study, in Humboldt’s words, “the Construction of the Globe” and “the influence of the atmosphere and its chemical composition on organic life.”
For the next three decades, Humboldt walked the edges of Andean volcanoes, battled swarms of Amazonian bugs, collected ancient plant cures and climbed an icy mountain in Ecuador past 19,000 feet. He revolutionized global exploration, changing forever the way Europeans and Americans viewed the natural world. He compelled a generation of American explorer-naturalists, including John Muir and John Wesley Powell, to encompass in their travel stories not only the geography and the weather but also the details of the human inhabitants they met in the places they found.
Sachs calls these men “Humboldtian” -- describing them as expeditioners who not only gathered specimens and measured the winds, but also shared Humboldt’s “concern with social divisions: the deepening gulf between classes,” as well as with “the increasing separation between science and art” and the “constant tension surrounding race and ethnicity.” Like the famous Sierra mountaineer Clarence King, they believed theoretically in the equality of all men, be they brown, black or white; they decried slavery and denounced the imperialism that often inspired expeditions. But they were also often torn: King acknowledged his reflexive racism toward Native Americans even as he defended their rights to their land. Humboldt himself insisted that European readers of his books recognize what horrors colonialism had wrought, yet his work also furthered colonial interests, mining as well as agriculture, that ruined local lands and bankrupted agrarian economies.
Mostly, though, Humboldt’s legacy was to promote social justice along with his natural discoveries. According to Sachs, had environmentalism based itself on Humboldt instead of Muir -- who eventually abandoned Humboldtian principles to become a protector of pristine wilderness -- no one would be able to pronounce the movement dead today. Nor, had we all listened to Humboldt, would it astonish the guardians of our wilderness that urban smog was polluting protected desert refuges hundreds of miles away or that isolated Yosemite rodents were losing their habitat to climate change. Humboldt told us more than a century ago that everything is connected. Why, then, does this still seem such a radical idea? Perhaps our collective amnesia about Humboldt has been intentional: His was the ultimate inconvenient truth. As mercury builds up in our predator fish and plastic litters the ocean, one can imagine Humboldt hovering in the afterlife, gently muttering, “I told you so.”
Sachs is clearly smitten with his subject, and his enthusiasm bubbles over in the lively chapters he devotes to Humboldt’s life. The problem, however, is that so little of the book is focused on the explorer; rather, in an effort to track his influence through society, Sachs veers off in other directions, crafting long chapters about Muir and George Melville, South Seas explorer J. N. Reynolds and mountaineer King, describing shipwrecks and expeditions he ties only obliquely to Humboldt himself. Neither a particularly readable nor sensibly organized book, “The Humboldt Current” seems to have been written with academia in mind -- many notes, many references and almost no narrative shape. After I finished its first 105 pages, I skipped to the epilogue and read the rest backward, which seemed to make no difference at all.
This would be fine, except that there is so much to tell about Humboldt. I craved to hear more about the tenacious egalitarian whose name appears on maps with greater frequency than any other person, the expansive and wise explorer who wrote reverently of the people he encountered in remote lands and faithfully took measurements of the wind and temperature even while his storm-lashed ship threatened to pitch him to his death. I wanted to know more about how Humboldt’s apparent homosexuality informed his perspective -- whether perhaps his own outsider status created in him unusual sympathies for the indigenous peoples so many of his contemporaries scorned. Sadly, Sachs skitters around the topic of Humboldt’s sexuality like a Victorian schoolmarm, as if it would be somehow impolite to investigate why the man never married and wrote vivid love letters to men. It seems sheepish, even unfair.
Humboldt died in 1859, the year Charles Darwin published “The Origin of Species,” a treatise that would later supplant Humboldt’s more romantic interpretation of the universe. His own writings have survived to be read in college ecology courses, but few biographies have been written about him. In that sense, Sachs has done something worthy of gratitude: He has reintroduced a 19th century sage to a generation that sorely needs his wisdom. Given the precarious state of our planet, we would have done well to remember Humboldt sooner and better.