Clellie Lynch: Armchair exploring with Humboldt and friends

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EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> As winter (such as it is) wanes, by day I watch the chickadees, titmice and jays at the feeder now singing spring songs. By night, I work my way through the natural history books I've accumulated over the past year. Some are old; some, new; all are fascinating.

"The Great Auk" by Allan W. Eckert (Little, Brown and Company, 1963) is a novel whose protagonist is a great auk, one of those enormous flightless, black-and-white seabirds now extinct. Eckert identifies his characters by their position in the convoy: the big leader, the young auk, the strong female, etc.

We follow them on their penultimate migration from the breeding grounds off Iceland to the wintering territory off the Carolina Coast. Be prepared. This is the story of the last of the great auks.

"Better Birding" (Princeton University Press, 2016) is a brand new book by George L. Armistead and Brian L. Sullivan subtitled "Tips, Tools and Concepts for the Field." The book is organized by habitat and is heavily illustrated with comparative photographs.

National Geographic's "Bird Watcher's Bible," edited by Jonathon Alderfer (2015), has a wealth of ordinary and extraordinary detail about birds and birding lavishly illustrated. Interesting top ten lists abound. Both books are rife with birding tips. My tip: spend more time out and about and be more observant!

Name is everywhere

By far the most exciting book this year is "The Invention of Nature, Alexander Von Humboldt's New World" by Andrea Wulf (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015). What an absolutely amazing person, was this 19th-century "environmental visionary"!

His name tags the world over: the Humboldt Current in the Pacific Ocean; Humboldt Glacier in Greenland; Humboldt River in Tasmania, Australia; Humboldt mountain range in New Zealand; Mare humboldtianum on the moon. More than 100 mammals and 300 plants are named after him as well as a plenitude of streets and avenues, towns and counties, schools and colleges on almost every continent.

Humboldt certainly lives on in the worlds of geography and taxonomy, but now in this book we are able to trace his footsteps on his incredible journey to the Americas from 1799 to 1804.

After taking a tip from Darwin and learning Spanish, he sails across the Atlantic, lands in Venezuela, wanders into the humid rainforests, canoes down the Orinoco, hikes up snowy Mount Chimborazo, sails to Mexico, transverses that country, stops off in Cuba before heading up the coast to Washington where he spends time with Thomas Jefferson. What an adventure!

Although trained as a geologist and mineralogist, he became expert in many fields. Humboldt spent years outside and was keenly observant. He measured and recorded what he observed every step of the way stashing reams of notes, papers, drawings and specimens in waterproof trunks.

Humboldt was curious about everything. How could eels produce electricity? He attached a few to his arm and nearly died. Why did certain plants grow only at particular altitudes? He mapped out which plants were found where on Mt. Chimborazo and created a map, perhaps the first that illustrates climactic zones.

He invented "isotherms," mapped lines that connect areas with the same temperature, lines we see on TV weather maps today.

When he recorded what he found whether it was an animal, plant or mineral, Humboldt tried to figure out why that specimen was in that particular place. He was the first scientist to observe a specimen as part of a whole. He insisted that all nature was interconnected. Essentially he defined what an ecosystem was more than 100 years before the word was invented. Using climate and location as definitive descriptors of a specimen was a radical change from the scientists who organized life through taxonomic categories.

Wulf writes, "Humboldt was the first to explain the fundamental functions of the forest for the ecosystem and climate: the trees' ability to store water and to enrich the atmosphere with moisture, their protection of the soil, and their cooling effect. He also talked about the impact of trees on the climate through their release of oxygen. The effects of the human species' intervention were already 'incalculable,' Humboldt insisted, and could become catastrophic if they continued to disturb the world so 'brutally.'"

When he noticed the falling water level in a lake of Valencia, he surmised the drop was caused by man...not only by diverting the streams for irrigation, but also by the felling of the surrounding forests. Were he alive today, could he convince the world at large of man's responsibility for global climate change?

Humboldt was prolific, writing with incredible detail, clarity and explanation: The five-year trip to the Americas runs to 34 volumes. He penned more than 50,000 letters in his lifetime to colleagues and fans alike. "Cosmos, A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe," his last work, is a 5-volume treatise bringing together all he had learned about geography and the natural sciences.

Wide influence

"The Invention of Nature" does not end with his death. Wulf includes chapters describing Humboldt's influence on Darwin, Thoreau, Haeckel, Muir and others. Artists too were enamored of this genius including the Hudson River painter, Frederic Edwin Church, who literally followed in Humboldt's footsteps, stayed at one of his old houses in the Andes and painted spectacular tropical landscapes so wonderfully described by Humboldt.

In his lifetime, he was second only to Napoleon in popularity and fame. The Russians called him the "Shakespeare of the sciences." Darwin claimed that he was the "greatest scientific traveler that ever lived."

One hundred years after his birth, people the world over celebrated his life. Thousands marched in parades in San Francisco and New York, thousands attended celebratory dinners in Chicago and Charleston, hundreds watched fireworks in Melbourne, Mexico City and Moscow. The whole world celebrated for an entire year. Imagine all of this for a scientist!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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