Monday, January 27, 2020

Views of Nature by Alexander von Humboldt

The man who knew everything
Views of Nature, also known as Aspects of Nature, was originally published in 1808 under the German title of Ansichten der Natur. The author, Prussian explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt, revised the work for second and third editions during his lifetime. I am reviewing an English translation of the third edition of 1849, published in 2014 by the University of Chicago Press, translated by Mark W. Person and edited by Stephen T. Jackson and Laura Dassow Walls.

Two and a half centuries ago, Humboldt may have been the most famous man on earth. He is best known for a daring and scientifically productive expedition he led into South America, Cuba, and Mexico, which he chronicled in detail in his book Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the Years 1799–1804. Views of Nature also uses that exhibition as a starting point but takes a different approach. Though the book is heavy on scientific content, Views of Nature is really the prototype for what we now call “nature writing,” as later practiced by writers like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. When Humboldt writes about the tropics in this book, his intention is to convey to the reader what it really feels like to be in these exotic natural locales. As a romanticist, he is more concerned with capturing the general impression of the natural environment than the details of temperature readings, altitude measurements, and specific species present. As an obsessive empiricist, however, Humboldt can’t resist including all these minute details. What results is a sort of hybrid format with the primary, somewhat literary narrative supported by extensive scientific endnotes that often exceed the length of the main text itself. Chapter 5: Ideas for a Physiognomy of Plants, for example, is under 15 pages in length but has 72 pages of notes!

In addition to his South American adventures, Humboldt traveled extensively in Europe and also made a voyage across Russia. In addition, he studied the accounts of numerous explorers in other parts of the world. When he describes natural environments in Views of Nature, he constantly compares the scene at hand with other biomes throughout the world. Chapter 1: Concerning the Steppes and Deserts, for example, is a survey of all the world’s flatlands, from the Sahara desert to the Arctic tundra, pointing out universal similarities in climate, terrain, and vegetation while also celebrating the differences that make each habitat unique. Humboldt was the ultimate multidisciplinary generalist who eschewed specialization in favor of unifying multiple fields of study. He writes with expert authority on a shocking number of disciplines: geography, botany, geology, zoology, meteorology, mineralogy, astronomy, electricity and magnetism, anthropology, archaeology, history, linguistics, politics, and ecology, a field he practically invented.

Those who have read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species know the feeling of amazement at how Darwin seems to have read and studied every biological text ever published. That amazement is dwarfed by the staggering realization of Humboldt’s extensive polymathic erudition in all the fields listed above. He not only refers to hundreds of scientific and historical works in his notes but even cites specific page numbers. The same herculean stamina he displayed in his journeys is manifested in his research, writing, and editing. Views of Nature contains an atlas worth of obscure place names, countless Latin designations of plant and animal species, and several archaic units of measurement. I can’t claim to have understood it all, but I enjoyed it immensely. Half the time I felt like I was at Humboldt’s side in the jungles of the Amazon basin; the other half I imagined I was sitting across from the great scholar in his library as he regaled me with his seemingly unlimited knowledge of the world. Views of Nature is truly a wonderful trip inside the mind of this great genius adventurer.

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