American History · biography · european history · history

Humboldt and the Natural World

“As our planet faces irreversible global heating, politicians and scientists are throwing statistics and numbers at us, but few dare to talk about our awe for nature, or the vulnerable beauty of our planet…”

-Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature, quote from “Alexander von Humboldt, an Intrepid Scientist who Re-imagined the Natural World” HistoryExtra magazine Sept 2019 edition

Climate change is an extremely important topic in our present-day world. Greta Thurnberg’s speech at the Climate Action Summit this year has inspired as she became a social media sensation. It has inspired people who may not have been as well informed, including myself.  Yet, did you know the dangers of human induced climate change were recognized by one of the worlds most famous scientists as far back as 1800?

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That scientist was Alexander von Humboldt, who was born on September 14, 1769 in Berlin to an aristocratic Prussian family. By the end of his life, he had become a world superstar. It is crazy to think that a scientist had become the biggest celebrity during the 19th century. In 1869, to celebrate one hundred years since the birth of Humboldt, thousands of people gathered in celebration in multiple cities worldwide. Humboldt has the most species and places named after him. He influenced so many people during his life which included Goethe, Simon Bolivar (the revolutionary who liberated many Latin American countries), Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and the great Charles Darwin. It was Humboldt’s famous, Personal Narrative, that inspired Darwin to go on his famous journey aboard the Beagle. Humboldt was his idol. By the end of Humboldt life, he was receiving over 5,000 letters daily and many came to visit the old man in his small apartment to discuss their scientific theories with him.

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Humboldt published many scientific books throughout his lifetime and was writing up until his death at age 89. He was completing his famous multi-volume work, Kosmos.  He had traveled extensively, noticed the effects of human induced climate change, and he was one of the first scientist to view the world as a “living organism”. This means that every species and every part of nature was all interconnected. This is still the way that scientists understand the world today. Humboldt also emphasized the beauty of nature in his work. He truly loved the natural world and wanted others to appreciate, just for a moment, the pure majesty of it. His most important contribution was to create “popular science”. He brought science to the masses. He wrote for a public audience that was outside of the closed group of university scientists. He allowed the poor and women to attend his lectures, despite not being allowed/able to study at university themselves. During this era, it was believed that the poor should not be educated to avoid false ideas of a life beyond their station. Humboldt thought education was the most important opportunity anyone could have, and all should be allowed to attain it. This was likely the greatest influence that Humboldt made on science, was that is should be accessed by everyone.

As stated before, Humboldt was born into an aristocratic Prussian family. He had an older brother, Wilhelm, who by the end of life would be his closest companion. Despite their privileged background, life was not all easy for Humboldt. His father died when he was nine years old and his mother was very distant. She held high expectations for her sons and provided them with the best education. This meant a very strict education, anything less than perfection was not good enough. Humboldt was a more outdoorsy type than his brother and preferred the hands-on study of the world rather than books. Humboldt always had the itch to travel and see more of the world. The tropics held an allure to him, and he became restless while the years went by. He was fulfilling his mother’s wishes for him to attend university and attain a government position. He found a way to compromise his interests in the natural sciences by obtaining a position with the Prussian Ministry of Mines as a mine inspector at the young age of twenty-two. With this job he would travel to various mines across Eastern Europe, study the soils/rocks, and assisted with making the working conditions better for all miners. This included inventing a type of breathing mask, writing textbooks, and creating a mining school to give the workers a better education and training.

Humboldt’s big opportunity came after his mother’s passing when he was twenty-seven. He was free from the expectations that had held him back previously and was able to resign from his government job. His goal was to finally set out on a travel expedition and begin his scientific work. In the meantime, Humboldt wrote about geology, botany and mining throughout Europe and the Alps. He became involved in intellectual groups that contained intellectuals like the poet Goethe. When he moved to Paris, he met the young French scientist, Aime Bonpland, who shared his enthusiasm for travel. The problem they faced was finding a “sponsor” for their voyage, someone who would issue them a passport to travel across the Atlantic. On May 1799, Carlos IV of Spain allowed them a passport to travel to the colonies in South America if the voyage was funded by them. Humboldt was finally going on the scientific expedition he had always wanted.

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Humboldt and Bonpland would travel on a five-year journey that would take them through Venezuela, down to Lima Peru, through Mexico, and ended in the United States where Humboldt would spend time in discussions with President Thomas Jefferson. Throughout this journey, Humboldt would collect over 60,000 plant, animal, rock, and seed samples (including many new species). He would take meticulous measurements of everything and kept up to date journal entries on his travels. His work during this journey would become internationally recognized, he would lay the foundation for the sciences of physical geography, plant geography and meteorology. His measurements were more advanced than the contemporary tools. His illustrations also became famous and the captions were translated into a variety of languages. After studying volcanoes, Humboldt began to support that theory that the Earth was created through massive volcanic eruption and he discovered the idea of a keystone species (one species than an entire ecosystem depended on). Most importantly, Humboldt wanted to express the connection between all the sciences and all of nature. How everything, organic and inorganic, had a purpose and were all interconnected. He compared everything new to what he had seen in Europe previously and noted the similarities and differences.

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Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador

Humboldt would experience earthquakes and climbed volcanoes such as Pico del Teide, Cotopaxi, and the daunting Chimbarzo. Though he may not have made it all the way up, he claims to have climbed some 5,000m (about 16,000 ft). He also experienced the culture and saw the effects of Spanish colonization first hand. He used his writings to bring attention to the conditions of slaves and indigenous people. He always was a staunch supporter of abolition. Most importantly, he spoke out about how the changes humans had made to the natural world would affect ecosystems forever.

At Lake Valencia in Venezuela, Alexander von Humboldt, first developed his theory of human-induced climate change:

When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in American by the European planters, with an imprudent precipitation, the springs are entirely dried up, or become less abundant. The beds of the rivers, remaining dry during a part of the year, are converted into torrents, whenever great rains fall on the heights. The sward and moss disappearing with the brush-wood from the sides of the mountains, the waters falling in rain and no longer impeded in their course: and instead of slowly augmenting the level of the rivers by progressive filtrations, they furrow during heavy showers the sides of the hills, bear down the loosened soil, and form those sudden inundations, that devastate the country.”

The problems the locals had been having was the water levels were decreasing, the forests undergrowth (mosses, brushwood and root systems) had disappeared and caused soil that could not retain water. The dryness of the land caused difficulties for planters and yielded less crop. As the planters moved to find more land, the forests in their paths were destroyed. The soil would also become dry due to the lack of trees blocking the sun. Humboldt could see the connection between all these things. Deforestation was, and still is, a big issue. Humboldt had seen this when he was in the mining business in Europe. He attempted to even suggest ways on reducing the need for timber during the mining process. Humboldt could already see that deforestation would have terrible consequences for future generations. His contemporaries were not seeing all the ways ecosystems were interconnected. They believed that the timber industry and “taming the wilderness” had a positive impact on the environment.

Humboldt was the beginning of the environmental movement. Humboldt listed three ways humans were affecting climate: deforestation, “ruthless irrigation”, and the “great masses of steam and gas” that were created due to the industrial revolution.

Today, Lake Valencia, is suffering from algal blooms which is caused from the dumping of wastewater from the urban/agricultural land uses. Per the wiki page, almost 60% of the native fish species were killed off between 1960-1990. It is not used as a tourist or recreation area. Humboldt’s predictions did prove to be true.

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After some time spent in Mexico and the United States of America, Humboldt returned home with his scientific haul after five years. He would begin a decades long process of compiling the information gained on his travels, studying the specimens that were brought home and would begin writing the 34 volumes of Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent / Essay on the Geography of Plants. This would be published in multiple languages and would include his own illustrations. It was in these writings he expressed his views of the beauty of nature and its connections. With his writings, Humboldt painted a picture of South America and used a poetic style to transport his readers. To encourage his readers to use their imagination and take in the majesty of nature. He wrote Views of Nature and his Personal Narrative (which inspired the great Charles Darwin) for a popular audience rather than the scientific elite, as he believed that everyone had a right to an education and that it was crucial for a happy society.

Later in life (1827), Humboldt gave free scientific lectures at the university in Berlin. Due to his celebrity status since his return to Europe, hundreds of people showed up and listened intently to his research, theories, and experiences. People showed up to the lectures from the highest classes to the common laborer. I found it interesting that almost half of the attendees were women! Free lectures that were opened to all members of the public was not typical in the scientific community. Again, this shows Humboldt’s dedication to offering opportunities for everyone and not just the elite. He wanted to inspire others and share knowledge.

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Pico Del Tedio, Canary Islands

Humboldt would eventually travel to Siberia as he had the opportunity to inspect the mines and advise the government about the proper mining techniques. Humboldt also used this time as an opportunity to complete his research and come full circle with his theories that the world was interconnected. He would have a chance to view and study the mountains of Central Asia. In particular, he studied the Altai Mountains along the Chinese border. Though almost 70 years old, he impressed his companions with his enthusiasm and energy. After obtaining the data from Asia, Humboldt felt as if he had enough to write his ultimate work, a work that he had begun all the way back in 1799 when he journeyed to South America. For the next 25 years, until his death, Humboldt would be consumed writing Kosmos. He would complete four volumes in his lifetime, and it was translated into nearly all European languages. 20,000 copies were sold in Germany in the first month of release. The fifth volume lay unfinished as Humboldt passed away at 90 years old in 1859. It would later be published posthumously.

 Kosmos was an ambitious work as Humboldt connected everything about our universe together, from the stars in the sky to the volcanoes on the surface, to the molten core of the Earth. He expressed his lifelong theory that all organic and inorganic things were connected. He created a “portrait of nature” and I believe that is what most of the readers truly enjoyed about his works. He took them on a journey, showed them the beauty of nature, and they felt like they were traveling right with him. They were following Humboldt up the rocky slope of the massive Cotopaxi, along the banks of Lake Valencia, and through the tropical jungles of the Amazon.

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Why has Humboldt been forgotten today, despite his celebrity? He was the man who inspired Charles Darwin! Humboldt brought together all the disciplines of science in his works to support his theory of nature’s inter connectivity. As the years went on, science became more specialized and individualized which pushed Humboldt’s vision to the side. There was also the effect of the World Wars on society. An anti-German sentiment swept through many nations, especially the United States, which caused the German-born Humboldt to fall out of style and many of his books were burned. Today, Humboldt may be making a comeback as his theories were advanced for his era and his predictions of climate change are quickly coming true. I hope to live Humboldt’s 160 year old vision of the world and take a step back to really enjoy the beauty of nature.




The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldts New World by Andrea Wulf

Aimé Bonpland; Alexander von Humboldt. Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Year 1799-1804 — Volume 1

“Alexander von Humboldt, an Intrepid Scientist who Re-imagined the Natural World” by Andrea Wulf. HistoryExtra magazine Sept 2019 edition

American History · history

Woodward Avenue: The Backbone of Detroit

Woodward Avenue is one of America’s most iconic roads. The road 27 miles that connects Detroit River to Pontiac, Michigan and was once the main way to connect the suburbs to the main city. What makes it so special?

It is the home for many firsts in America: the first paved road, the first four way stoplight, possibly the first ice cream soda mixed by Sanders, and the first road where a ticket for street racing was written (March 1895). In 1963, thousands marched and listened to Martin Luther King, Jr gave a precursor to his “I have a Dream” speech. It is the home to the famous “Dream Cruise” where thousands of classic cars owners come to cruise, socialize, and show off their vehicles. It is also just an important part of Detroit culture; it is a landmark. The road was also important to the auto industry. The auto industry grew up and expanded on this road. It truly is the spine of Detroit.

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American History · history

Code Word: “Midnight”

“Midnight” was the code word for one of the final stops of the Underground Railroad. By the time the former slaves arrived at “Midnight” they must have been filled with a sense of relief after surviving miles and miles of dangerous travel. Dawn was right around the corner. At this time, the country was teeming slave catchers. After the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, a new popular profession was created. This law gave the slaveholders the ability to seek out and have their runaways returned. The law of 1850 expanded this and allowed the capture of fugitives slaves anywhere in United States held territory. It did not matter if the fugitive was north of the Ohio River border (1787 Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery north of the Ohio River), they could still be caught and returned. If they made it to Midnight (though not danger free) they were just a few miles and a ferry ride from freedom. Have you guessed where this was?

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Gateway to Freedom Monument, Detroit, Michigan

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American History · history

The Declaration of Independence and its Legacy

This week celebrated one of the most important events in American history. Wednesday, July 4, was the anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence and, after spending some of the week in Boston, I find myself full of the Revolutionary spirit! I wanted to create some blog posts this month that highlight some of the key events leading to the break of the American colonies from England.

I came to a realization while traveling in Boston that in current time we don’t truly realize how radical the events of the Revolution were. The rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and having a government that is run by the consent of the people are just what is expected. That did no exist in the world that the Declaration of Independence was born into. The American colonies were there for the benefit of the parent country first and their own needs were secondary. These figures in our history were truly risking their lives for something they did not know would work at all and I admire that. At the time, Britain, and even the world, believed these “upstart colonists” were doomed to fail. Britain was the greatest power in existence and they had the advantage. When the British looked at the colonist they saw untrained and undisciplined farmers while they had a professional army. Some in Parliament even viewed the future Americans as “lazy”. The British also knew that the colonists could not finance a war as they had no navy and no way to manufacture supplies in large quantities.

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American History · biography · history

Victoria Woodhull: First Female Presidential Candidate and Activist

Victoria Claflin was born on September 23, 1838 in Homer, Ohio. She was the seventh of ten children and was closest to her youngest sister, Tennessee. She grew up in a very rural area and her parents were considered “undesirable” in society. Her father was a con man and her mother a religious fanatic. Victoria would learn the valuable trade of fortune telling and how to be a medium through her mother. Victoria had to drop out of school after only three years of elementary school in order to earn income for her poor family. She earned this through fortune telling. The family was exiled from Homer after her father burned down their gristmill to try and cash in on the insurance policy. From this moment on Victoria spent much of her time traveling with her family attempting to earn money. Through her difficult childhood, Victoria learned to be independent and find strength within herself.

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American History · art history · european history · history

Places to See: Ancient Spanish Monastery, Miami, FL

In the 20th century, 11,000 wooden crates were brought across the Atlantic in order to rebuild one of the most beautiful (and oldest) buildings. I visited Miami this weekend and was able to tour this amazing place. I was astounded at the beauty and overall peaceful feeling while in this ancient Spanish Monastery. It is most likely the oldest building in America and I felt I needed to share its history (and my pictures!).

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Currently this church is known as the St. Bernard de Clairvaux Church, but it was originally created in 1133 in Sacramenia, Spain. The construction was completed in 1141 and the Monastery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was built in the Cistercian Romanesque style and was located in a mainly Muslim area of Spain during this period. It would have originally contained some defensive structures (as the Christians and Muslims where at war during this period). This monastery also contains two of the only three known telescopic windows from the medieval period that exist today (pictured below). These are placed above the altar Continue reading “Places to See: Ancient Spanish Monastery, Miami, FL”

American History · art history · history

Documenting History: The Story of the Civil War’s Forgotten Sketch Artists

When you think of Civil War art the first thing that comes to mind is the photography, right? It was groundbreaking as it was a fairly new invention and was able to capture an exact representation of a moment in time. The photograph is so common today that it may actually surprise you that most contemporaries during the Civil War never saw any of these battlefield photographs as the technology did not exist to print and publish them on a wide scale. What the majority of contemporaries did see were beautiful sketches that documented the battles and happenings of the war in illustrated newspapers, such as: Harper’s Weekly, Frank Lesile’s Illustrated News, and the Illustrated London News. They were hired men who were known as the “Specials”; they were on-site pictorial war correspondents who traveled and actually lived amongst the troops (on both sides!). They faced all the same hardships as the traveling troops and were there in the heat of battle in order to do their work. Using pencils and paper they documented the war and the soldier’s life through their sketches in order for the people at home to have a chance to see what was going on. These sketches are some of the most valuable items from the Civil War. Photography was limited as it could not capture movement or the drama of the war, but the sketches could. As the artists sketched what they saw these could be some of the most accurate depictions (with maybe just a hint of embellishing at parts) and created scenes of human interest for the audience back home.

The image of war changed dramatically during the Civil War as the traditional “Heroic” imagery used in the past was changed to depict a more realistic (and more violent) image along with a stronger concentration on the common soldier rather than the commanders. Continue reading “Documenting History: The Story of the Civil War’s Forgotten Sketch Artists”