The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf - Advent Botany Day 9

In the Washington Post, Michael Dirda recently listed 22 books that he re-reads. I also have a weirdly catholic list of books that I like to re-visit regularly. Of course, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is on my list. Legendary Dracula actor, Christopher Lee (1922-2015), who played Saruman in the films reportedly re-read them every year.

headline from washington post 2023 november about books to re-read

I’ve noticed that as I get older, fewer titles are making it onto my re-read list. A notable recent addition is Andrea Wulf’s best-selling biography of Alexander von Humboldt. This 2015 book quickly became one of my all-time favourite re-reads. I love The Invention of Nature so much, that I own it in three different formats: hard copy, e-book AND audiobook version, rather like owning an LP, cassette tape, CD and mp4 of your favourite song!

When he died, aged 89 and a half, von Humboldt was one of the most famous people in the world as well as the most influential scientist. He was consulted by Charles Darwin, hung out with Simón Bolívar, and conferred with Joseph Banks. But, by the early 1900s, von Humboldt had largely declined into obscurity in the anglophone world, save for the obligatory box about him in undergraduate text books.

box about Humboldt in Raven Biology of Plants

From Raven's Biology of Plants 8th edition

frontispiece of Cosmos by von Humbold 1847

Copy of Cosmos 2nd ed in York University's Clara Thomas Archives

Andrea Wulf visited lots of archives, sifting through von Humboldt’s letters, journals, books, and the many accounts about him, to breathe life back into the memory of this energetic, tenacious scientist. Von Humboldt trained as a mining engineer, travelled the world making observations and collecting numerous samples, corresponded with an extraordinary number of people, and often ran low on research funds. In the New York Review of Books, Nathaniel Rich writes “At times The Invention of Nature reads like pulp explorer fiction, a genre at least partially inspired by Humboldt’s own travelogues.”

dawn bazely with the statue of John Muir at the Muir homestead in california

With John Muir's statue at the Muir Homestead in California

Wulf reminds us that von Humboldt shaped an enormous number of the concepts that are fundamental to ecology and biogeography today, from gradients to biomes, to the importance of instrumentation for measuring the environment. As well, von Humboldt recognized the importance of Indigenous knowledge over two hundred years ago and had an interest in arts and poetry – Goethe was a close friend! I really can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s an engaging read from cover to cover but is also the kind of book where you can dip into just one of the sections to revisit Von Humboldt’s influence on, say, John Muir, who became central to the creation of the US National Park system.

But don’t believe me. The Invention of Nature was well received when it came out in 2015, garnering many positive reviews. Here are a few: