Needed wisdom from a forgotten source

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The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism

By Aaron Sachs

Viking / 496 pages / $25.95

Counties in three states bear his name, as do an ocean current in the southern Pacific, some two dozen mountain peaks from China to the Sierra and a glacier in Greenland. Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his last significant poem to him, Walt Whitman drew directly upon his writings for Song of Myself. And in 1869, on the centennial of his birth, cities across America shut down to celebrate. But scarcely anyone these days has heard of the explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt. "As far as the twenty-first-century memory . . . is concerned," writes Aaron Sachs in his adoring The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism, "he may as well have gone down with his ship."

That ship, the Concepcion -- bound for Philadelphia from Havana -- sailed through a hurricane-like tempest in the late spring of 1804 to deliver the generous-spirited Humboldt to the United States, where he would talk science and politics at the dinner table of President Thomas Jefferson. He stayed in America only a month, marveling at the young country's "gift of Liberty" even as he abhorred the "abominable law" that defended slavery. His legacy, though, resonates beyond that single, brief visit; strains of Humboldt still run through the best of American environmental and scientific thought.

It was Humboldt who established that variances in climate, influenced not just by latitude but also by ocean currents and wind patterns, dictated which animals would live and what plants would thrive in a certain region. It was Humboldt who first fully recognized the sensitive connections among all ecological systems, the delicate balance of nature that the exploitation of resources necessarily disrupts. And it was Humboldt who taught us, as Sachs puts it, "that we can never know the full ecological impact of our resource use, since all natural forces are so intimately interdependent -- which, in turn, dictates that we tread on the earth as lightly as possible."

Born in the same year as Napoleon Bonaparte in the then-Prussian city of Berlin, Humboldt was groomed for life as a financier; his brother, Wilhelm, was a famous linguist. Both his parents died early, however, and the young Humboldt quickly surrendered to his peripatetic nature. At age 29, self-schooled in meteorology, geology and astronomy, he set out with French botanist AimM-i Bonpland for the Spanish colonies to study, in Humboldt's words, "the Construction of the Globe" and "the influence of the atmosphere and its chemical composition on organic life."

For the next three decades, Humboldt walked the edges of Andean volcanoes, battled swarms of Amazonian bugs, collected ancient plant cures and climbed an icy mountain in Ecuador past 19,000 feet. He revolutionized global exploration, changing forever the way Europeans and Americans viewed the natural world. He compelled a generation of American explorer-naturalists, including John Muir and John Wesley Powell, to encompass in their travel stories not only the geography and the weather but also the details of the human inhabitants they met in the places they found.

Sachs calls these men "Humboldtian" -- describing them as expeditioners who not only gathered specimens and measured the winds, but also shared Humboldt's "concern with social divisions: the deepening gulf between classes," as well as with "the increasing separation between science and art" and the "constant tension surrounding race and ethnicity." Like the famous Sierra mountaineer Clarence King, they believed theoretically in the equality of all men, be they brown, black or white; they decried slavery and denounced the imperialism that often inspired expeditions. But they were also often torn: King acknowledged his reflexive racism toward Native Americans even as he defended their rights to their land. Humboldt himself insisted that European readers of his books recognize what horrors colonialism had wrought, yet his work also furthered colonial interests, mining as well as agriculture, that ruined local lands and bankrupted agrarian economies.

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