Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806
By Robert Burgess
Tower Hill staff
Before Jon Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Charles Darwin made their marks on the natural world there was Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). Hundreds of plants, animals, mountains, waterfalls, and towns – and even a California college – are named after him. So why is it that the former men are household names, while the latter, their inspiration, has slipped into near obscurity?
That’s the question posed by Andrea Wulf in her 2015 book “The Invention of Nature.” The book, the Tower Hill Reads selection of 2016, traces Humboldt’s fascinating career as a geographer, botanist, explorer, and perhaps the modern world’s first environmentalist. With Prussian/German roots, his true passion was the wilds of South America, and he even had the ear of Thomas Jefferson.
After learning about Humboldt’s life – for example, he may have been the first to recognize industrial man’s effect on the climate – and his passion for flowers, trees, and all manner of plants, it’s hard for a lover of nature to not trace his or her own story back to Humbolt’s breakthroughs. The next logical step might be bringing his name back into the lexicon of those passionate about plants, the environment, and the fate of the planet.
While the centennial of Humboldt’s birth was celebrated world-wide in 1879, Wulf suggests in the United States the anti-German fever of the first half of the 20th century fueled by the first and second World Wars left Americans less than enthusiastic about celebrating a German hero. Besides those of us who stumble upon his name on a map and perhaps wonder who the site was named for, Humboldt has sadly faded from our collective memory.
Let’s bring it back. If there can be such a thing as National Crayon Day, National High Five Day, and National Selfie Day, why not National Humboldt Day? Let’s celebrate it on his birthday, Sept. 14, each year by sharing our greatest naturalist achievements of the past year. Did you grow your first tomato? Did you volunteer at a river cleanup? Did you plant your 50th tree? Did you help maintain a public woodland trail? Use the hashtag #humboldtbrag so we can all be inspired by the collective actions – big and small – of people seeking to make the world a better place through nature.
These efforts, when added up, make a tremendous difference. For too long they have been overlooked as insignificant or overshadowed by the entertainment, sports, and political world. Humboldt fought doubters in his time too. But he pressed on, relentlessly curious about the natural world and convinced that the more we knew about it, the better we could protect it for future generations. Muir, Thoreau, and Darwin each studied copies of Humboldt’s books for inspiration, as did Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman. So let’s resurrect Humboldt’s legacy by sharing how passion for the environment is a continuous thread throughout history connecting his work to our own as individuals. And because historians tell us Humboldt was a proud and boisterous individual eager to share tales of his travels and discoveries, a talkaholic even, the hashtag #humboldtbrag feels like the perfect way to embrace his memory. So go ahead, tell us about your favorite nature achievement of 2018…