The Invention of Nature

California’s Board of Education has included five environmental principles for the curriculum:

  • People depend on natural systems.
  • People influence natural systems.
  • Natural systems change in ways that people benefit from and can influence.
  • There are no permanent or impermeable boundaries that prevent matter from flowing between systems.
  • Decisions affecting resources and natural systems are complex and involve many factors.

These very basic ideas certainly are important in learning about the environment.

These principles are an updated version of ideas that were expressed in the early 1800s by Alexander von Humboldt (1969–1859), who presented his views of how the forces of nature interact with one another and about the unity of nature.

At the time, Humboldt’s ideas were the leading edge of leading scientists’ understanding of natural systems. He developed these ideas by traveling extensively through South America and Central America, closely observing nature, and, significantly, learning from the wise practices of native populations.

Humboldt was one of the great polymaths of history. He was the earliest geobotanist, studying the geographic distribution of plants (also called phytogeography), but also made important contributions to meteorology, and geology. His greatest contributions are in the area called terrestrial physics, which deals with the dynamic interconnections that comprise natural systems.

A new book by Andrea Wulf describes Humboldt’s momentous journey through life in impressive and readable detail: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Knopf, 2016). The book is organized chronologically, in five parts.

Humboldt shared his extensive knowledge and advanced ideas through extensive publications, correspondence, and public lectures. His major work was Cosmos. Sketch for a Physical Description of the Universe. This five-volume work, was widely read and highly regarded, and added to his reputation as the greatest scientists of his era.

Humboldt conversed with many prominent people of his day and directly or indirectly influenced a long list of scientists, authors, and political leaders, too many to list here.

Today, Humboldt might not be known as well as some other early scientist. Author Andrea Wulf has commented that the truth of Humboldt’s views has become so widely accepted that the man himself has become less visible. Still, many admirers have honored him by attaching his name attached to more places and things than anyone else. These include a northern California county. An impressive list of these recognitions is available in Wikipedia’s entry for Alexander von Humboldt. (See also Wikipedia’s entry, “Humboldtian Science.”)

Andrea Wulf, who has also written about other historically important botanists, has provided a masterful, readable, and valuable account of the “formidable genius” Alexander von Humboldt. The New York Times named The Invention of Nature as one of the best books of 2015 and several additional reviewers recognized its quality, This book presents the fascinating story of a man who explained the natural context in which gardening is done.

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