Alexander von Humboldt at Chimborazo with botanist Aimé Bonpland. Painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch in 1810.
I write this post as I sit with a strong Ethiopian and a dead German. I was already sick of politics on my drive into midtown Omaha, so I departed from my routine and turned off NPR. My favorite coffee shop is usually quiet, but today it offers no escape. Tables are full and everyone seems loudly obsessed with last night’s debate and the latest round of political punditry. But as I take another sip of Ethiopian and my eyes return to my open book, my long-dead companion makes an observation:
He who seeks spiritual peace amidst the unresolved strife between peoples therefore gladly lowers his gaze to the quiet life of plants and into the inner life of the sacred force of Nature, or, surrendering to the instinctive drive that has glowed for millennia in the breast of humanity, he looks upward with awe to the high celestial bodies, which, in undisturbed harmony, complete their ancient, eternal course.
Alexander von Humboldt wrote this on his 1799 New World expedition, published in Germany as Views of Nature* in 1807. Yet he spoke to me across the continents and centuries: The best way to silence squabbling politicians is to enter the hidden life of nature. I take another sip and he continues:
Thus do the races of men die away. The admirable lore of the different peoples fades away. But with the wilting of each blossom of the spirit, whenever, in the storms of the times, the works of creative art are scattered, so forever will new life sprout forth from the womb of the Earth.
The “inner life” that Humboldt invokes is beyond social discourse, and is, like the journeys of the stars, far older than human ambition. The real story, our story, is to be heard and told in nature’s womb. Alexander then adds this footnote: “Certainly, Nature in every corner of the Earth is but a reflection of the whole.” His message to me was clear. Finish your coffee and find yourself in deep woods and open spaces. The news you need is out there.
Every naturalist is indebted to Humboldt, in word and practice. Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and many other bright lights intentionally followed in his footsteps and were deeply influenced by his scientific method and conclusions. Some writers have gone so far as to claim that Humboldt invented “nature” as a modern concept. Exaggerations aside, Humboldt was an early exponent of nature as a global web of dynamic relationships instead of a collection of isolated species and dead specimens to be studied in museums and herbaria.
It seems obvious to the 21st-century naturalist that nature is best understood as a web of life that includes both organic and inorganic components, but this was a radical view in Humboldt’s day.
It may also seem obvious that nature is best studied and experienced in the field rather than in a museum or classroom, but that was Humboldt’s contribution as well. He belonged to the emerging guild of naturalist-adventurers that gave subsequent generations of naturalists with wanderlust the scientific justification for their expeditions. Such was certainly the case with Charles Darwin and his contemporary British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who had independently formulated a principle of natural selection as a result of his far-flung field work. A generation later, John Muir proclaimed that he wanted to “become a Humboldt” as he began his life-long journey that eventually took him into the Sierra Nevada and to the heart of the American conservation movement.
In a very real sense, to be a North American naturalist is to follow Muir and to “become a Humboldt.” Happily for us, one need not travel to the far ends of the earth to discover nature; it is also a Humboldtian truth that “nature in every corner is but a reflection of the whole.” It matters more how deep than how far.
If Humboldt challenged the naturalists of his day to discover nature in the wild, he challenges us to immerse ourselves, and those we hope to inspire, deeply into the wild places that remain.
* Views of Nature by Alexander von Humboldt, edited by Stephen T. Jackson and Laura Dassow Walls, translated by Mark W. Person.
How do we “become a Humboldt” and help others to do the same? We invite you to join us to explore these questions and to learn about our new naturalist education initiative in partnership with Pottawattamie County Conservation. On Thursday, February 25th we are convening How to Grow a Naturalist: a colloquium and vigorous hike at Hitchcock Nature Center. Click here for more information.