Your book tells the story of Prussian scientist, writer and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, born in the 18th century, whose contemporaries called him the “Shakespeare of the Sciences.” But today most people in the United States don’t know his name. How revolutionary was he?
He’s as important as Darwin or Newton. His legacy is still here, and I would argue that many of today’s environmentalists and ecologists and nature writers are still very firmly rooted in his vision of nature. Though many of them have never heard of him, he is still their founding father.
How did you become interested in him?
Weirdly, it started through the American Founding Fathers. I was writing The Founding Gardeners, in which I talk about James Madison as kind of the first American environmentalist. Madison gives this speech in 1818 where he says Americans have to protect their environment, and he sets aside a piece of forest on his plantation, which is really the nation’s first protected forest. I had a whole chapter about Humboldt’s influence on Madison and Thomas Jefferson and totally over-researched it. In the edit, we decided to delete it, and I kept it and said, “I want to write about him.”
Humboldt’s visit to Washington in 1804 came on the heels of a five-year exploration of Latin America, including a pivotal trek up Chimborazo, a volcano in modern-day Ecuador. Did you follow in his footsteps while researching the book?
The great thing is when you write a book about an explorer, you get to travel to pretty amazing places—all in the name of research, of course. I had to see the Orinoco River and the rainforest and the llanos in Venezuela, and I really needed to see the Andes. But Chimborazo, because it was so elemental for Humboldt’s vision of nature, that for me was really the most important.
Why is that?
He has almost an epiphany on Chimborazo. He sees that the vegetation zones are all stacked up on top of each other, that this is really a botanical journey from the equator to the poles going up the mountains. He sees how the vegetation zones change according to altitude, and then he realizes that a lot of the plants he’s seen there, he’s seen elsewhere [on other continents]. So he comes up with this idea that there are these wavy belts of vegetation that go around the globe. That is something completely and utterly new.
That leads to his then-novel idea that a single web of life exists. It was incredibly revolutionary.
Scientists at that time were trying to make sense of nature through classification—through these quite narrow taxonomic units. And then Humboldt comes along, and he begins to look at plants according to, for example, their altitude.
Your book details his influence on several people, including Simón Bolívar, John Muir and even Charles Darwin, who carried Humboldt’s books on his voyage with him around the world.
It’s funny because sometimes people say, “Oh, you’ve written this biography about Humboldt,” but for me The Invention of Nature was always more a biography of an idea rather than just of a person. It’s the biography of how we came really to see nature the way we see it.
What do you think Humboldt would say about the natural world today?
The thing that surprised me most was he predicted harmful human-induced climate change in 1800. That was just like—wow. And in 1832, he talks about the three ways in which humankind is affecting the ecosystem, without saying ecosystem. He said it’s through deforestation, irrigation and through the great masses of steam and gas from the industrial centers. In 1832. You read this and you just think, how did we manage to mess it up so majorly when someone already was talking about this 200 years ago? It’s unbelievable.