The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf (PROGRESS UPDATE)

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

PART 2:  ARRIVAL:  COLLECTING IDEAS

 

 

This section continues the harrowing (and sometimes amusing) adventures of Alexander von Humboldt and his companions from their arrival on the shores of South America to when they leave Philadelphia, U.S.A.  Humboldt's expedition was more about collecting ideas than just natural history objects.  Humboldt witnessed such things as deforestation, environmental destruction, slavery, mining damage, various agricultural and political ideologies, volcanoes, mountains, rivers and jungles, which would ultimately lead to an altered perspective of nature and man's effects on nature. 

 

The 5 chapters that form this section of the book show how Humboldt developed an understanding of nature and man's place in nature.  The author also shows how current environmental ideas and ecological concepts (environmental degradation, keystone species, climate zones, finding the magnetic equator, etc.) were influenced by Humboldt's work. 

 

Humboldt also sailed to North America to meet with the President of the U.S.A, Thomas Jefferson.  This chapter takes a look at how politics and nature should belong together.  Humboldt debated nature, ecological issues, imperial power and politics in relation to each other.  He criticised unjust lad distribution, monoculture violence against tribal groups and poor work condition of the indigenous population.  He also had issues with slavery which he considered a disgrace and the greatest evil - he believed that justice and freedom were more important than numbers and the wealth of a few.  I was interested to learn that the U.S.A had very little information on their neighbouring countries and Jefferson obtained this information from Humboldt.  There were also interesting discussions on cash crops vs. food crops and a nation's ability to sustain itself.

 

"Nature was Humboldt's teacher.  And the greatest lesson that nature offered was that of freedom.  'Nature is the domain of liberty' Humboldt said, because nature's balance was created by diversity which might in turn be taken as a blueprint for political and moral truth.  Everything ... had its role, and together they made the whole.  Humankind was just one small part.  Nature itself was a republic of freedom."

 

I found the description of Humboldt's journey through Latin America to be too brief.  However, I'm not sure the author could have added any more details without bogging the book down and making it too long.  So, I feel, in the end, the author managed to find an acceptable balance between too much detail and including the information that is relevant to Humboldt's investigations and his developing perspective about nature and it's interconnectedness.