A new book about the great natural historian and explorer of the 19th century.
The Dawn of Ecology
Two centuries ago Alexander von Humboldt set out to grasp the interconnectedness of nature. In the process he sowed the seeds of today’s environmentalism.
By Kathleen McGowan
The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism
By Aaron Sachs
Viking, 496 pages, $25.95
Besides the cowboy, the frontiersman, the fur trapper, and the forty-niner, the American 19th century gave rise to another strange and colorful character: the environmental scientist. In a century largely dominated by relentless individualism and the belief that animals and water and land were there for the taking, the first intellectual shoots of the environmental movement were nonetheless beginning to sprout. More than 100 years before the idea of an ecosystem caught on in the popular imagination, many of America’s first naturalists and scientists were laying the groundwork for the new science of ecology, argues Cornell University historian Aaron Sachs in The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism. Their unlikely inspiration: an aristocratic Prussian by the name of Alexander von Humboldt.
All but forgotten today, Humboldt in the early 19th century was a scientific rock star. By the time he returned to Europe in 1804 after years exploring such wild territories as the Orinoco River in Venezuela and the volcanoes of the Andes, he was a continental celebrity, second in fame only to Napoleon. In the Americas, too, Humboldt cast a long shadow—even though he was a “foreign, aristocratic intellectual who visited the United States exactly once,” as Sachs writes. His ideas inspired a generation of quintessentially American naturalists and intellectuals, among them Thoreau, Poe, Emerson, Whitman, and the Hudson River School landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church. The centennial of Humboldt’s birth, in 1869, was “proclaimed across the whole North American continent,” writes Sachs. “It is possible that no other European had as great an impact on the intellectual culture of nineteenth-century America.”