Book Review: Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature

Andrea Wulf, Invention of Nature, science, nature, environment, Alexander Von Humboldt, book review

I thought it was going to be hard to top April’s 2016 science read, Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, but Andrea Wulf managed to do just that with her book, The Invention of Nature, which recounts the life of passionate German explorer and naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt. When I first laid eyes on the book, my first two thoughts was 1) that is a hell gorgeous cover and 2) it’s a really thick book. But have no fear on account of the latter thought – Wulf’s writing captivated and drew me in from the start, and I practically flew through the book, finishing it in record time and savouring every word.

Right away, Wulf paints a portrait of Alexander Von Humboldt as a truly extraordinary character – a real original individual with a relentless, restless, energetic personality, highly intelligent and possessed of a real thirst for knowledge. A real go-getter, you might say. He was a mining inspector, an inventor, a writer, a scientist, an explorer, mountain climber and environmentalist, and was hailed as the Prometheus of his day. Towns and cities all over the world would hold parades for his birthday and countless places in South America bear his name! It’s really quite amazing that in today’s world, hardly anyone knows who Alexander Von Humboldt is and yet he has influenced and shaped so much of our understanding of nature and the world.

The first half of the book is probably my favourite, devoted as it is to Humboldt’s formative years in Germany (particularly his time in the university town of Jena where he met and conversed with and listened to the lectures of some of the greatest minds in Europe), followed by his life-changing expedition to South America. The first half reads almost like a historical travelogue as we follow Humboldt and his expedition partner, Frenchman Aime Bonpland, in their exploration of the continent, braving mountains, hot dusty plains and jungle rivers to collect their specimens and charter previously unexplored territory (or previously unexplored by the Europeans anyway). It’s quite impressive especially when you think about Humboldt and his companions hacking through the jungle and climbing up volcanoes without having the sort of North Face/Kathmandu climbing gear we couldn’t live without these days. Reading about Humboldt’s journeys has set a new spark to the adventure spirit in me and makes me want to visit South America again!

It was in South America that Von Humboldt noticed how aggressive agricultural and logging practices were taking its toll on the land, causing once fertile soil to grow barren, and lakes and rivers to dry up. It was thanks to these observations of his that he became known as the founding father of environmentalism, speaking out often against man’s destructive nature and warning on the dangers of disturbing Earth’s fragile ecological systems. And it didn’t just stop there – Humboldt was also very much against slavery and became a vocal advocate for the indigenous people of South America who were caught in the brutal grip of the Spanish Empire. Finally, it was also in South America that Humboldt conceived of the idea of vegetation zones that we all now learn about in school, after mapping the distribution of plants while climbing Chimborazo, a volcano in Ecuador. All this – and that’s just a small summation of what Humboldt had to offer the world! Really, reading The Invention of Nature left me feeling like a serious underachiever.

The second half of the book follows the remaining years of Humboldt’s life (still active and extremely energetic to the end), and the stories of the various people he has influenced such as Charles Darwin, Simon Bolivar, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and George Perkins Marsh. While the second half is interesting in its own right (and would be an interesting must-read to anyone who was interested in conservation and environmentalism), I would have to say it was the first half of the book that really stimulated my interest and captivated my attention.

In The Invention of Nature, Wulf has delivered a fascinating and inspirational biography of Alexander Von Humboldt, packed with adventure, travel, history and observations on nature. Her meticulous and thorough research process also shines through in this book. In the book, Wulf cites Humboldt’s own painstakingly comprehensive research processes undertaken for the books he wrote and I can easily imagine Wulf was just as intensive, going through reams of old correspondence, books, newspaper clippings and the like to assemble the information she needed for her book. I particularly love her recounting of the correspondence between Alexander Von Humboldt’s brother, Wilhelm, and his wife Caroline, who were both particularly close to Alexander. From all accounts, all three were extremely fond of each other, and Wilhelm and Caroline’s letters lent us a particularly humanising view of the man that so many adored to the point of near worship. (I would have to say that am particularly fond of Caroline – she seems like a lovely, warm and intelligent person, and it would seem she and Wilhelm were very much in love with each other. I would actually like to see a book written about them!)

Invention of Nature was listed as one of the NY Times‘ 10 best books of 2015, and it’s not hard to see why. If you haven’t read this book before, I would definitely recommend adding it to your list of must-read titles!

Now it’s onto June’s science read of 2016!

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