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Humboldt Namesakes Galore: Natural Historian Who Influenced Darwin, Thoreau

Nov 01, 2015 10:14 PM EST

Humboldt County, California garners plenty of cultural references today--mostly to supposedly high-caliber cannibis. But for most people, Humboldt is just a name; there's no ready memory of its namesake, Alexander Humboldt, one of the most famous natural historians of the 1800s. Not only did that person climb mountains and avidly explore the world, he was a thinker and inquirer who supplied the idea that all of nature is interconnected. For this reason, Charles Darwin had copies of Humboldt's books with him on the Beagle expedition ship. Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Germany's Goethe cited his influence. Indeed,"Though today almost forgotten outside academia -- at least in the English-speaking world -- Alexander von Humboldt's ideas still shape our thinking," wrote Andrea Wulf in her book The Invention of Nature: Alexander Humboldt's New World (Knopf 2015).

Wulf makes a convincing case that Humboldt was interesting and a huge sensation. In 1869, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, there were festivals in Europe, Africa, Australia and the Americas. At a huge party in Moscow, Humboldt was called "The Shakespeare of sciences." The U.S. had the highest number and the largest parties in his honor. At one of those in Boston, Ralph Waldo Emerson said that Humboldt was "one of those wonders of the world." The Humboldt Glacier in Greenland, Humboldt Current along the coast of Chile and Peru, Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California, and a long list of natural features on various continents were named for him.

Along with thinking deeply about how nature was linked, Humboldt had made some pretty monumental journeys across areas that were not well-known to Europeans until then: From 1799-1804, his team explored the Americas, including climbing Chimborazo, a peak of nearly 21,000 feet in the Andes that was thought to be the world's tallest mountain. In 1829, his team journeyed across the wide expanse of Russia.

Wulf's book is packed with fascinating details about this early natural historian and scientist. In order to research Humboldt's trail, Wulf journeyed to a dilapidated cabin at 12,000 feet in Ecuador where he spent one night in 1802, traveled to California and Berlin for archives, and slept in the rainforest in Venezuela. She ended up stranded in New York during Hurricane Sandy, while trying to access books at the New York Public Library, and later walked around Thoreau's Walden Pond to see part of Humboldt's influence. The resulting book is, in part, "a quest to understand why we think as we do today about the natural world," notes Wulf in the book's prologue.

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