Concentrated sunshine for the father of environmentalism


Photo courtesy of Andrea Wulf’s Wikipedia page

By Hadley Montgomery

Executive Staff


On October 4, many departments of the school joined together to bring Andrea Wulf to Sewanee’s campus. Wulf is the writer of the New York Time’s best-selling book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World.

Her stop in Sewanee was the first of a tour throughout the United States. Not only did she speak to the University about her book, but she also enjoyed the beautiful outdoors of Sewanee on a hike in the domain.

To the dismay of Wulf, many people today do not know about the great contributions Alexander Von Humboldt made to the natural world; however, in 1869, the centennial of his birth, 25,000 people marched through the Manhattan to celebrate him.

Wulf noted that “there are more places, plants, and animals named after him than any other thing.” In the United States, there are “13 towns and four counties named after him” and the “state of Nevada was almost named after him.”

Von Humboldt was born in 1769 to an aristocratic Prussian family in Berlin. Due to his fascination with the natural world, he left the life of privilege and spent his entire inheritance on a five-year exploration of Latin America.

Throughout his time in the wilderness, he made many discoveries that are now used in modern science. In these studies, he birthed the idea that nature is a wealth of life; earth is an organism where everything belongs together from the smallest insect to the largest tree.

Von Humboldt is many times called “the Shakespeare of the sciences” according to Wulf. Like the University, Von Humboldt found power when the arts and sciences united. He believed that one needed to use imagination to understand nature.

One of Von Humboldt’s many stops on his journey was in Chimborazo Ecuador, 100 miles south of Quito. Wulf notes Von Humboldt’s amazement that “the journey from Quito to Chimborazo was like a botanical journey from the equator to the poles.”

This part of the trip was monumental because it began to clarify his vision of nature, and he realized many of the plants he saw in Ecuador were similar to plants he saw elsewhere in the world. While other scientists were trying to use taxonomic units and hierarchy, Von Humboldt crafted the vision that the world was a global force.

Before going back to Europe in 1804, he made a detour to Washington, D.C. to meet Thomas Jefferson. Von Humboldt spoke in depth with him about Mexico because Jefferson had just acquired the Louisiana Territory.

In August of 1804, he “arrived in Europe with 60,000 specimens, 4,000 pages in his journal, and many sketches and maps,” according to Wulf. Throughout the rest of his life, Von Humboldt continued to pave the way for the modern sciences as a visionary thinker and scientist.

Von Humboldt died before his 90th birthday in 1859. Although his death was more than a hundred years ago, Wulf’s book aims to “find Humboldt and try to restore him a little bit.”

Through her book and talks, Wulf is making “the forgotten father of environmentalism’s” story known to the world. In her closing remarks, Wulf notes, “we are missing a sense of wonder in our environmental debates of today.”

As Von Humboldt would say, go get some “concentrated sunshine,” coffee, and continue to use the sciences and the arts to interpret the world around you, Sewanee.