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The Invention of Nature
Cover of The Invention of Nature
The Invention of Nature
Alexander von Humboldt's New World
Borrow Borrow
The acclaimed author of Founding Gardeners reveals the forgotten life of Alexander von Humboldt, the visionary German naturalist whose ideas changed the way we see the natural world—and in the process created modern environmentalism.

NATIONAL BEST SELLER

One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year

Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, The James Wright Award for Nature Writing, the Costa Biography Award, the Royal Geographic Society's Ness Award, the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award

Finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, the Kirkus Prize Prize for Nonfiction, the Independent Bookshop Week Book Award


A Best Book of the Year: The New York Times, The Atlantic, The EconomistNatureJezebelKirkus ReviewsPublishers...
The acclaimed author of Founding Gardeners reveals the forgotten life of Alexander von Humboldt, the visionary German naturalist whose ideas changed the way we see the natural world—and in the process created modern environmentalism.

NATIONAL BEST SELLER

One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year

Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, The James Wright Award for Nature Writing, the Costa Biography Award, the Royal Geographic Society's Ness Award, the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award

Finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, the Kirkus Prize Prize for Nonfiction, the Independent Bookshop Week Book Award


A Best Book of the Year: The New York Times, The Atlantic, The EconomistNatureJezebelKirkus ReviewsPublishers...
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  • Chapter One Five months after his arrival, Humboldt finally left Quito on 9 June 1802. He still intended to travel to Lima, even though Captain Baudin wouldn't be there. From Lima Humboldt hoped to find passage to Mexico, which he also wanted to explore. First, though, he was going to climb Chimborazo – the crown of his obsession. This majestic inactive volcano – a 'monstrous colossus' as Humboldt described it – was about one hundred miles to the south-west of Quito and rose to almost 21,000 feet.[7]7

    As Humboldt, Bonpland, Montúfar and José rode towards the volcano, they passed thick tropical vegetation. In the valleys they admired daturas with their large trumpet-shaped orange blossoms and bright red fuchsias with their almost unreal-looking sculptural petals. Then, as the men slowly ascended, these voluptuous blooms were replaced by open grass plains where herds of small llama-like vicuñas grazed. Then Chimborazo appeared on the horizon, standing alone on a high plateau, like a majestic dome. For several days as they approached, the mountain stood out against the vibrant blue of the sky with no cloud smudging its imposing outline. Whenever they stopped, an excited Humboldt took out his telescope. He saw a blanket of snow on the slopes and the landscape around Chimborazo appeared barren and desolate. Thousands of boulders and rocks covered the ground, as far as he could see. It was an otherworldly scenery. By now Humboldt had climbed so many volcanoes that he was the most experienced mountaineer in the world but Chimborazo was a daunting prospect even to him. But what appeared unreachable, Humboldt later explained, 'exerts a mysterious pull'.

    On 22 June they arrived at the foot of the volcano where they spent a fitful night in a small village. Early the next morning, Humboldt's team began the ascent together with a group of local porters. They crossed the grassy plains and slopes on mules until they reached an altitude of 13,500 feet. As the rocks became steeper, they left the animals behind and continued on foot. The weather was turning against them. It had snowed during the night and the air was cold. Unlike the previous days, the summit of Chimborazo was shrouded in fog. Once in a while the fog lifted, granting them a brief yet tantalizing glimpse of the peak. It would be a long day.

    At 15,600 feet their porters refused to go on. Humboldt, Bonpland, Montúfar and José divided the instruments between them and continued on their own. The fog held Chimborazo's summit in its embrace. Soon they were crawling on all fours along a high ridge that narrowed to a dangerous two inches with steep cliffs falling away to their left and right – fittingly the Spanish called this ridge the cuchilla, or 'knife edge'. Humboldt looked determinedly ahead. It didn't help that the cold had numbed their hands and feet, nor that the foot that he had injured during a previous climb had become infected. Every step was leaden at this height. Nauseous and dizzy with altitude sickness, their eyes bloodshot and their gums bleeding, they suffered from a constant vertigo which, Humboldt later admitted, 'was very dangerous, given the situation we were in'. On Pichincha Humboldt's altitude sickness had been so severe that he had fainted. Here on the cuchilla, it could be fatal.

    Despite these difficulties, Humboldt still had the energy to set up his instruments every few hundred feet as they ascended. The icy wind had chilled the brass instruments and handling the delicate screws and levers with half-frozen hands was almost impossible. He plunged his thermometer into the ground, read the barometer and collected air...
About the Author-
  • ANDREA WULF was born in India and moved to Germany as a child. She lives in London, where she trained as a design historian at the Royal College of Art. She is the author of Chasing Venus, Founding Gardeners, and The Brother Gardeners, which was long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize and awarded the American Horticultural Society Book Award. She has written for The New York Times, the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. She appears regularly on radio and TV, and in 2014 copresented British Gardens in Time, a four-part series on BBC television.

    www.andreawulf.com

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from July 20, 2015
    Wulf (Chasing Venus) makes an impassioned case for the reinstatement of the boundlessly energetic, perpetually curious, prolific polymath von Humboldt (1769–1859) as a key figure in the history of science. She marshals as evidence evocative descriptions of his expeditions—measuring instruments in hand—through the most brutal terrains of South America and Russia; delightful stories of his inspired interactions with other contemporary luminaries, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, and Simon Bolívar; and demonstrations of his personal and intellectual influence on later seekers of truth in nature such as Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and Ernst Haeckel. But the greatest single idea Wulf credits von Humboldt with establishing is the interconnectedness of nature—the animated, interactive forces of life he described as a “living whole” that bound organisms in a “net-like intricate fabric”—rather than the mechanistic, taxonomic schema of his predecessors, from von Humboldt’s early explanation of plant life in the Andes through his Naturgemälde to his encyclopedic work, Cosmos. Wulf also works hard to show that von Humboldt was a good person by modern standards, featuring his progressive, humanitarian ideas against oppression and slavery. Wulf’s stories of wilderness adventure and academic exchange flow easily, and her affection for von Humboldt is contagious. Maps & illus.

  • Kirkus

    July 15, 2015
    Engrossing biography of "a visionary, a thinker far ahead of his time," who "revolutionized the way we see the natural world." For most of his life, explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a household name. Never just a simple collector or adventurer, he poured out his ideas in lectures, conversations, and books that made him the public face of science during his era. In this fine account of an unbelievably energetic life, British commentator and historian Wulf (Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens, 2012, etc.) emphasizes that his insights marked the end of the universal view (at least among scientists) of animals as soulless automatons and the belief that humans were lords of the Earth. He ushered in the modern era of natural science, including-although he usually gets little credit-environmentalism. Humboldt, writes the author "saw the earth as a great living organism where everything was connected, conceiving a bold new vision of nature that still affects how we understand the world." The son of a wealthy Prussian aristocrat, he used his money to finance his iconic, grueling 1799-1804 expedition through the jungles and mountains of Latin America, ending with a long visit to President Thomas Jefferson, a lifelong correspondent. He eventually returned to Europe, wrote of his experiences in 34 bestselling volumes, and continued to travel, lecture, write, and excite artists, poets, scholars, and scientists for the remainder of a very long life. Wulf pauses regularly for chapters on other great men who acknowledged Humboldt's immense influence, including Goethe, Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Humboldt was the Einstein of the 19th century but far more widely read, and Wulf successfully combines a biography with an intoxicating history of his times.

    COPYRIGHT(2015) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from November 15, 2015

    This masterly written and important biography covers a brilliant explorer, writer, naturalist, and thinker--in short, an accomplished polymath--who is underappreciated today. The writings of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who is considered the first ecologist, combine science and poetry and touch on the harms of colonialism. The scientist pioneered the synthesizing of myriad observations on the natural world (his most extensive explorations were in South America, Russia, and western Europe) and espoused the importance of the interrelationships of disparate sciences, with early descriptions of phenomena that would not become accepted for many decades: continental drift and humankind's influence on climate are but two examples. Wulf (author of the well-received Chasing Venus, Founding Gardeners, and The Brother Gardeners) has performed exhaustive research for her compelling and readable story of a man who was no less than a rock star in his day. The author documents von Humboldt's deep influence on any number of luminaries, including Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Wolfgang van Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Jules Verne, Simon Bolivar, and many others, making her claim for Humboldt as "the most extraordinary scientist of his age" totally convincing. VERDICT Stimulating reading for those interested in general history, natural history, exploration, science, and philosophy.--Henry T. Armistead, formerly with Free Lib. of Philadelphia

    Copyright 2015 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from September 15, 2015
    Born to a wealthy Prussian family in 1769, young Alexander von Humboldt dreamed of expeditions to far-away lands. But he was kept on a short leash by his widowed mother while he studied science, worked as a mining inspector, and met prominent thinkers, becoming especially close to Goethe. Finally, in 1799, Humboldt was able to sail to South America, where he and his crew traveled arduous distances at great risk, charting rivers, climbing mountains, and collecting thousands of specimens, groundbreaking endeavors Humboldt chronicled in brimming journals. A polymath with frenetic energy and epic curiosity, Humboldt practiced disciplined empiricism while also thinking imaginatively and holistically, ultimately forging a radical new understanding of nature as one vast web, a reality we still haven't fully grasped. Humboldt shared his findings in lyrical and galvanizing works that became best-sellers that influenced Charles Darwin and Henry David Thoreau, among countless others. Wulf (Founding Gardeners, 2011), a historian with an invaluable environmental perspective, presents with zest and eloquence the full story of Humboldt's adventurous life and extraordinary achievements, from making science accessible and popular to his early warnings about how deforestation, monoculture agriculture, and industrialization would engender disastrous climate change. Humboldt, Wulf convincingly argues in this enthralling, elucidating biography, was a genuine visionary, whose insights we need now more than ever.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2015, American Library Association.)

  • Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of The Signature of All Things and Big Magic "Andrea Wulf is a writer of rare sensibilities and passionate fascinations. I always trust her to take me on unforgettable journeys through amazing histories of botanical exploration and scientific unfolding. Her work is wonderful, her language sublime, her intelligence unflagging."
  • Richard Holmes, author of Coleridge and The Age of Wonder "The Invention of Nature is a big, magnificent, adventurous book--so vividly written and daringly researched--a geographical pilgrimage and an intellectual epic! With brilliant, surprising, and thought-provoking connections to Simón Bolívar, Charles Darwin, William Herschel, Charles Lyell, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry David Thoreau, and George Perkins Marsh. The book is a major achievement."
  • The New York Times Book Review, Top 10 Books of the Year "Alexander von Humboldt may have been the preeminent scientist of his era, second in fame only to Napoleon, but outside his native Germany his reputation has faded. Wulf does much to revive our appreciation of this ecological visionary through her lively, impressively researched account of his travels and exploits, reminding us of the lasting influence of his primary insight: that the Earth is a single, interconnected organism, one that can be catastrophically damaged by our own destructive actions."
  • Nathaniel Rich, New York Review of Books "Andrea Wulf reclaims Humboldt from the obscurity that has enveloped him. . . . [She] is as enthusiastic as her subject. . . . Vivid and exciting. . . . Wulf's pulsating account brings this dazzling figure back into a dazzling, much-deserved focus." --Matthew Price, The Boston Globe "[Makes an] urgent argument for Humboldt's relevance. The Humboldt in these pages is bracingly contemporary; he acts and speaks in the way that a polyglot intellectual from the year 2015 might, were he transported two centuries into the past and set out to enlighten the world's benighted scientists and political rulers. . . . At times The Invention of Nature reads like pulp explorer fiction, a genre at least partially inspired by Humboldt's own travelogues. . . . It is impossible to read The Invention of Nature without contracting Humboldt fever. Wulf makes Humboldtians of us all."
  • Christopher Hart, The Sunday Times (London) "A magnificent work of resurrection, beautifully researched, elegantly written, a thrilling intellectual odyssey."
  • Simon Winder, The Guardian (London), Best Books of the Year "The most complete portrait of one of the world's most complete naturalists." --Mark Cocker, The Spectator (UK) "From Russia to the jungles of South America to the Himalayas, an intrepid explorer's travels make for exhilarating reading. . . . Wulf imbues Humboldt's adventures . . . with something of the spirit of Tintin, relishing the jungles, mountains and dangerous animals at every turn. . . . A superior celebration of an adorable figure."
  • The Economist, Best Books of the Year "A superb biography. Andrea Wulf makes an inspired case for Alexander von Humboldt to be considered the greatest scientist of the 19th century. . . . Wulf is especially good, [on the ways that] his ideas enjoyed an afterlife. . . . Ecologists today, Ms. Wulf argues, are Humboldtians at heart. With the immense challenge of grasping the global consequences of climate change, Humboldt's interdisciplinary approach is more relevant than ever."
  • Joy lo Dico, The Independe "Marvelous. . . . On one level, [The Invention of Nature] is a rollicking adventure story. . . . Yet it is also a fascinating history of ideas." --Sarah Darwin, Financial Times"This book sets out to restore Humboldt to his rightful place in the pantheon of natural scientists. In the process, Wulf does a great deal more. This meticulously researched work--part biography, part cabinet of curiosities--takes us on an exhilarating armchair voyage through some of the world's least hospitable regions, from the steaming Amazon basin to the ice-fringed peaks of Kazakhstan." --Giles Milton, Mail on Sunday (London) "In its mission to rescue Humboldt's reputation from the crevasse he and many other German writers and scientists fell into after the Second World War, it succeeds."
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