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A New and Forgotten Hero for Birders

Sunday, October 23, 2016 6:09
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A review by Frank Izaguirre

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

by Andrea Wulf

Knopf, 2015

497 pages, $17–softcover

Birders love heroes. From John James Audubon and his criss-crossings of early America to Kenn Kaufman and his shoestring big year and to Phoebe Snetsinger and her quest to see 8,000 species, stories of larger-than-life personalities are an established part of birding lore. Between our own journeys to new birds and new places, we imagine ourselves alongside these heroes of our world, seeing what they saw and feeling their joy and hardships.

There is one individual whose exploits and contributions to nature study are every bit as superlative, but he is not in the birding hero hall of fame. Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World gives birders the chance to consider one of the greatest scientists, explorers, and thinkers in the history of nature study.

Wulf, INvention of Nature

Wulf begins with the premise that Alexander von Humboldt is “largely forgotten in the English-speaking world” outside of academia. Her goal is twofold: (1) to bring Humboldt back into the popular consciousness, and (2) to demonstrate that Humboldt invented the modern-day concept of nature. A work of startling scope, The Invention of Nature covers Humboldt’s entire adventure-filled life, with frequent forays into his influence on his many important contemporaries, several of whom were his friends or correspondents. Among this Who’s Who of famous friends we can count Goethe, Jefferson, Cuvier, Lamarck, Bolívar, and Volta. He also corresponded with Madison, Darwin, and many, many more. In his day, just about everyone not only knew about Humboldt, they adored him—with the exception of another rather famous personality of the time, Napoleon, who apparently hated Humboldt and attempted to kick him out of France.

We learn of Humboldt’s less savory personality traits as well. Humboldt’s contemporaries “feared his sharp tongue so much that they did not want to leave a party before Humboldt departed, worried that once they had gone they would be the object of his snide comments.” It was also difficult to get in a word when talking to Humboldt, or, rather, when listening to him.

The Invention of Nature yields much in terms of peripheral learning, partly because the scope of Wulf’s research is staggering. I learned a lot about Goethe, Humboldt’s close friend, for instance, and about Jefferson, whom Humboldt met after his adventures in the Amazon and Andes. There is even an interesting description of Washington, D.C., in the first decade of the nineteenth century.

Wulf takes the liberty of describing some of the more dramatic historical episodes to unfold during Humboldt’s life, from Napoleon’s conquests and ultimate downfall to Simón Bolívar’s liberation of Venezuela. Although these tangents occasionally veer away from the biographical narrative, they impart a strong sense of how the world was changing in Humboldt’s time. The Invention of Nature is a long and winding journey, much like Humboldt’s own life.

Wulf has succeeded extremely well in the first part of her mission, to reacquaint the world with one of the most interesting scientists and intellectuals of his or any generation. In its attempt to prove that Humboldt invented the modern concept of nature, however, I think the book is less successful. For one thing, nature is an amorphous term at best; a little more precision in defining the concept might have helped. In addition, the claim arises only sporadically throughout the book. The most interesting and most in-depth treatment of Wulf’s hypothesis comes in her discussion of Humboldt’s Naturgemälde, a stylized map of Mount Chimborazo showing the distribution of plants and animals and their relation to climate and altitude in the Andes; the map is an early—and eloquent—attempt to present an environment as a single seamless whole.

Considering that birds are rarely explicitly mentioned, birders might be wondering why they would want to read this book. See Wulf’s comments, for starters, on Humboldt’s writing: “Humboldt created a completely new genre—a book that combined lively prose and rich landscape descriptions with scientific observation.” Sound like any bird book you know? Perhaps all of them?

There’s more. As Wulf points out, Humboldt “was a scientist who did not just want to make sense of the natural world intellectually but also wanted to experience nature viscerally.” These are values we take for granted in the birding community today. But if not for Alexander von Humboldt, the way birders see the outdoors as a place to simultaneously quantify the world around us and experience its pleasures might be quite different. According to Wulf, Humboldt was the first to craft the kind of life that is the template many birders strive for today: We travel as broadly as we can in search of interesting natural places, for as long as our bodies and spirits can carry us.

The Invention of Nature has one of the loveliest cover designs I’ve ever seen, featuring gorgeous illustrations of a Roseate Spoonbill, electric eel, jaguar, and Andean Condor, representing Humboldt’s grand journey through the Orinoco, Amazon, and Andes.

In a promotional video, Wulf claims that if she could invite just one historical figure to a dinner party, she would without hesitation pick Humboldt. Her book has convinced me of the soundness of her preference: Humboldt is indeed one of the most compelling individuals any of us could ever imagine traveling alongside. The Invention of Nature is perhaps the closest we can come to making that a reality—and we don’t even have to worry about leaving the party early.

Frank Izaguirre

– Frank Izaguirre is a nature writer and birder living in Morgantown, West Virginia, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature. As a scholar, he has a special interest in early natural history narratives, especially from the Neotropics. His favorite birds are tanagers, warblers, and moths.

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