Heroic history…

Author:  Andrea Wulf

Invention of Nature cover (184x274)Who’s your biggest hero?   Most people will be able to come up with a few candidates, but it might be more interesting to ask who your hero’s heroes were.  When it comes to hero worship in the history of the natural sciences, there’s one man who stands above all others.  Surprisingly, most American’s have never heard of the Alexander von Humboldt, but he inspired many of the biggest names in the natural world to become heroes themselves.  In The Invention of Nature, biographer Andrea Wulf tells the fascinating story of this great Prussian naturalist.

A self-portrait of the talented man, age 45.

A self-portrait of Humboldt, age 45.

Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir had more than just a penchant for facial hair in common.  Each of them was obsessed with the works of Alexander von Humboldt, an indefatigable explorer who devoted his life to unlocking nature’s many secrets in the first half of the 19th century.  Remarkably prescient, he laid much of the groundwork for the modern fields of conservation biology and biogeography when he wasn’t waxing poetic about the beauty of the natural world or promoting abolition and revolution.

Thoreau at age 39.

Thoreau at age 39.

Presenting a detailed and thoroughly entertaining account of this uniquely eccentric and blazingly popular man’s life – from his adventures in South America and Siberia to the intellectual life in Paris – Wulf successfully argues that Humboldt’s perspective on the natural world has become even more important as human induced climate change and environmental degradation continue to accelerate.  It’s no exaggeration to say that he saw it all coming more than 200 years ago.

Muir at age 37.

Muir at age 37.

To further emphasize the man’s singular impact, Wulf generously includes a half dozen miniature biographies about Humboldt’s intellectual heirs that are engaging and insightful in their own right.  Giants like Darwin, Thoreau and Muir, as well as men like Simón Bolivar, Ernst Haeckel and George Perkins Marsh all carried Humboldt’s ideas and passion with them as they went on to transform the world themselves.

Even if few people know his name anymore, anyone who enjoys spending time in awe-inspiring natural places or appreciates the inherent beauty of the intricate ecological web that covers our planet owes a debt to Alexander von Humboldt.  A wide-ranging chronicle, The Invention of Nature is a moving, informative and captivating tribute to this singularly influential man.  He most certainly was a hero’s hero.

— D. Driftless

Readers Lane reviews of other explorer biographies:

A Sense of the World (James Holman)

The Last Viking (Roald Amundsen)

Alone on the Ice (Douglas Mawson)

Into the Silence (George Mallory)

In the Kingdom of Ice (George Washington DeLong)

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