Thursday, February 26, 2009


Alexander von Humboldt


Who wants to learn about history? If you do, keep reading. If you don't, go waste your time elsewhere on the memesphere. I read and write about history. That is all I do. Sometimes I actually read and write about something I really enjoy. A few months ago I wrote a little review about the historical monograph The Humboldt Current by Aaron Sachs, which is about the 18th century explorer-scientist Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt was, in my recently formulated opinion, the father of American environmentalism and was likely a more important early explorer-scientist than Darwin. Ah, did I pique your interest with that one? Obviously my measley review does not do Sachs much justice, so if you like what you read here go pick up the book - it'll knock your socks off. If this sort of shit interests you let me know. Allah knows I have plenty more of it.

“Often, they [American explorers] focused on understanding the interrelationships of peoples and landscapes they encountered in the wild, and they wound up questioning the values of their home civilization—in part, at least, because they were trying to follow in Humboldt’s footsteps.”

Alexander von Humboldt believed an interconnectedness exists between humans and the natural world. In his book, The Humboldt Current, Aaron Sachs examines the life, travels, writings, and theories of the eighteenth century German scientist-explorer in an effort to demonstrate his impact on the way subsequent explorers, scientists, writers, and artists understood the world around them. Primarily focused on four American scientist-explorers - J. N. Reynolds, Clarence King, George Wallace Melville, and John Muir - Sachs argues that Humboldt’s legacy, or ‘current’, ran through each scientist’s respective explorations and was reflected in their perceptions of the world. Additionally, Sachs reveals the relationship between Humboldt’s environmental disposition and twentieth century American environmentalism.

Organized into chapters based on the geographic region explored by each scientist-explorer (Humboldt in the East, Reynolds to the South, King in the West, Melville and Muir to the North) Sachs’s book provides an intellectual inquiry into why Humboldt and Humboldtian exploration slipped away into obscurity during times when politics favored exploitation over scientific discovery; why the resurrections of Humboldt and his legacy are important to historical inquiry; and where Humboldt stands within the discussion of modernity. Additionally, Sachs argues that Reynolds, King, Melville, and Muir each embraced a Humboldtian way of life. Like Humboldt, they each practiced a generalized science, each had tumultuous personal relationships, and each man challenged the existing social hierarchies of their time by placing value on other cultures. Furthermore, Sachs challenges traditional historical perspectives of post-Columbian exploration, which argue that exploitation was a byproduct of exploration. On the contrary, Sachs explains that some explorers believed, and even explained to the public, that the purpose of exploration was to exploit the natural world and its inhabitants. Through an exploration of Sachs’s narrative, this essay will elaborate on Sachs’s goals and also identify the limitations of his approach. Additionally, this essay will describe the obstacles faced by those who attempt to live a Humboldtian lifestyle during times of emptiness and environmental destruction.

In the initial part of the book, Sachs primarily interprets two of Humboldt’s most influential publications, Personal Narrative (1814) and the five tomes that make up his Cosmos (1845-62), in order to investigate the character of the man himself. Sachs relies heavily on these sources because, whether Humboldt destroyed them or they merely vanished over time, no records of the explorer’s personal correspondence exist. In this section, Sachs examines Humboldt’s romanticized theory of natural interconnectedness, which expressed humility toward nature and understood all organic beings to be connected in the natural world. As he believed all things in nature were connected, he also believed that all branches of science should be combined to study nature and that physical emersion in the study was essential. Humboldt felt that a scientist must actively explore the natural world to gain a full understanding of it. Thus, Humboldt was a generalist scientist: he combined ideas of meteorology, geography, geology, and hydrology to formulate many of his theories regarding the connectedness among various climatic systems on the planet.

Sachs points out that Humboldt’s belief in interconnectedness led him to a humble view of humanity’s place in the world. “His vision of resource use depended on free institutions, and on an ethic of prudence, care, respect, and egalitarianism.” Based on those beliefs, Humboldt often denounced colonial ventures that infringed on such principles. However, to garner public and governmental support to practice his science, Humboldt’s explorations were often financially supported by colonial powers for reasons he loathed. As Sachs states, “His science could locate diamonds, but it could also light volcanic fires.” The notion of interconnectedness also brought Humboldt to value indigenous cultures he encountered during explorations. He “believed that every human group, no matter how superficially bizarre or savage, was equally capable of contributing to those arts and sciences, and special contributions, which could not have been developed in any other place by any other group.” Following his consideration for native peoples, Humboldt spoke out against slavery, deeming that “development [should] be shared equally among all social groups - natives and blacks, too.”

During Humboldt’s lifetime, his theory of interconnectedness was the dominant scientific trend until it was eclipsed by Darwin’s theory, which focused on the “struggle for existence.” As soon as Darwin introduced his theory, there was no place for Humboldt in the modern world. Darwin’s theory, unlike Humboldt’s, validated Western imperialism, expansionism, and exploitation. Rather then paying respect to the natural world and native groups based on a universal understanding of interconnectedness, Western imperialists turned to Darwin’s scientific findings of social and natural hierarchies to justify their exploitative ventures. In addition, Humboldt’s legacy faded away because his type of generalized scientific practice was replaced by an increased importance on specific scientific practices. In the late nineteenth century, “fieldwork lost its appeal as laboratories proliferated and microscopes became more powerful.”

As Humboldt’s scientific legacy was shoved to the margins in the wake of Darwinism, Sachs explains that the explorer’s personal life was also marginalized. His favor for homosocial relationships likely attributed to his distance from mainstream society. The absence of female companionship in Humboldt’s life was contrary to social standards of the time. Humboldt never married and, as Sachs infers from a limited amount of source material regarding Humboldt’s personal life, “had a fairly well-known preference of intense bonds with other men.” The homosocial character of Humboldt’s personality likely contributed to his desire to constantly explore and live among nature. In the company of his fellow male explorers, emerged in nature, is where Sachs postulates that Humboldt was the most comfortable. Thus, during the dawn of the modern era, with ramped industrialization, colonialism, and natural resource exploitation Sachs illuminates that Humboldt, as a man who favored homosocial relationships, a generalist scientist, “proto-environmentalist”, and abolitionist, was a social, political, and professional radical during his lifetime. With this first section of the book, Sachs sets the stage to demonstrate Humboldt’s influence on four other explorer-scientists.

The second part of the book focuses on the connection between the life and career of explorer-scientist J.N. Reynolds with that of Humboldt. In this section Sachs draws on various primary sources, as well as interpretations of Reynolds’s publications, to demonstrate how the explorer became increasingly more Humboldtian over time. Reynolds led a conflicted and “thoroughly unsettled life.” In an era of increased professional specialization, Reynolds was a generalist: an editor, writer, self-trained scientist, expedition planner, and explorer. Due to his contemporarily unconventional lifestyle, as well as the fact that he never settled into a domestic heterosexual relationship, Sachs explains that Reynolds was a marginalized member of society just as Humboldt was. Reynolds’s inability to settle into a “normal” life and profession likely contributed to his conflicted character and his constant yearning to explore.

Unlike Humboldt, Reynolds was not independently wealthy and had to work his way up into a career as a scientist and explorer. During the 1820s, after Reynolds put himself through the University of Ohio, he became a student and follower of John Cleaves Symmes. Symmes believed the Earth was hollow and the entrance to its core could be found at either the North or South Pole. Reynolds’s belief in Symmes’ theory was marginal, however he used it to garner federal support for an exploration of its possibility. Though he had powerful friends within the federal bureaucracy, Reynolds’ exploration was put on hold when Andrew Jackson took office in 1829. To offset the financial dependence on the government, Reynolds opened his exploration to commercial fishing and his exploration subsequently set sail for the South Pole a few months later. His trip aboard the Annawan, which ultimately reached Antarctica and quickly turned around to let Reynolds explore southern Chile, is remembered as Reynolds’s only real chance to make any significant contributions to science.

Sachs argues that it was during his southern exploration that Reynolds began to see the world in a truly Humboldtian way. Like Humboldt, Reynolds saw value in pre-Columbian civilizations. During his interaction with the indigenous Araucanians of South America, Reynolds shed his preconceived Victorian notions of native peoples’ existance as “warlike brutes or noble savages” and found value in their society. Sachs posits that Reynolds’s encounter with the Araucanians was essentially Humboldtian: Reynolds came to the conclusion that the indigenous people were more like Victorians then unlike. From this view, Reynolds believed the rapidly expanding United States should incorporate native cultures into the newly forming American landscape, rather then eliminate them from it. Additionally, on his journey to the southern hemisphere, just as Humboldt detested the relationship between exploration and exploitation, Reynolds came to realize the negative impacts commercial ventures aligned with scientific exploration had on the environment. As a reaction to witnessing the full force of commercial whaling and fishing aboard the Annawan, Reynolds came to oppose extensive natural resource extraction and imperialist expansion. Like Humboldt, Reynolds’s world-view was shaped by his experiences, which Sachs argues was reflected in his ability to connect humanity with the natural world.

In the third portion of his book, Sachs demonstrates the relationship between Humboldt and Clearance King. With this topic, the reader begins to notice the dwindling connections Sachs makes between Humboldt and other explorer-scientists who attempted to follow in his footsteps. Like Reynolds and Humboldt, King’s personal and professional character were stricken with conflict. After graduating from the Sheffield School at Yale, self-trained in “science and art, reason and intuition, and analysis and absorption,” King headed into the American frontier in 1863 and never looked back. Once King reached California, he became obsessed with mountaineering and explored nature to uncover universal laws and natural connections. Like Reynolds, who was dependant on outside financial backing to explore the natural world, King sought federal employment to afford a living as scientist-explorer. Thus, King conducted surveys for the California Geological Survey and that employment, along with his later work for the USGS, as Sachs argues, caused a central conflict in King’s life. As a Humboldtian naturalist, King conducted surveys for an agency that existed for the purpose of discovering and exploiting natural resources. This act was in contradiction to the value he placed on the humility of humanity. King, who viewed nature as an experience, opposed industrialization and westward expansion, but participated in its indirect exploitation in order to fulfill his personal desire to live among and draw connections in nature.

As a mirror to the professional conflicts that arose among explorer-scientists who adhered to a Humboldtian lifestyle and belief system, King’s personal life was also full of conflict. Henry Adams, “the representative intellectual of the postbellum period saw King as the man who most fully internalized the tensions of his rapidly expanding society, waging a civil war within his own body, mind, and soul.” King fed off of secretive relationships and, like Humboldt and Reynolds, led a marginalized life outside mainstream society. Never one to settle into a traditional Victorian heterosexual marriage, during the first ten years of King’s western journey, he shared an intimate relationship with his friend Jim Gardiner. Sachs points out that King suffered during his isolation in the wilderness except when he was with Gardiner. Additionally, King shared close personal relationships with other men, including Dick Cotter, Henry Adams, and John Hay. It was in the company of these men that King found solace. Furthermore, during the last ten years of his life, King held a secret marriage with an African American woman named Ada Copeland. Although he had children with Copeland, King only revealed his true identity to her right before he died. King’s life was full of secrets and torment, though as his personal life suffered, he was able to open himself to exploration and gain a deeper understanding of nature.

In the concluding section of the book, Sachs describes the relationships between George Wallace Melville and John Muir to Humboldt. Also, Sachs examines Humboldt’s link to modern environmentalism. Melville, an Admiral and engineer in the U.S. Navy, developed Humboldtian connections during a time when capitalism became overwhelmingly powerful. As married man, his explorations caused him to be away from his family for long periods of time. Melville’s constant absence from his family was the source of conflict between he and his wife. In a rejection of Victorian social codes, the two eventually separated. The most prolonged absence of his career was while Melville was aboard the Jeanette expedition in 1879. The expedition sought to discover a route to the Atlantic through Siberia. Aboard the Jeannette, which became stuck in a North Pole ice flow for nearly two years, Melville witnessed the death of over half his comrades before he finally led a group to the safety of land. On shore, Melville and his shipmates were aided by a group of indigenous Tungus hunters. Sachs argues that Melville’s outlook was not inherently Humboldtian, but with the humility and respect he gives his native rescuers, Humboldtian values appear to be embodied in Melville’s character. From his experience aboard a wrecked ship, and his encounter with the indigenous people of Siberia, Melville came to the conclusion that “even the brightest, best-equipped white Americans could never understand the Arctic landscape well enough to master it.” Even as a conflicted family and military man, Melville came to view humanity’s place in nature with humility.

The final explorer-scientist Sachs describes in relation to Humboldt is John Muir. Rather than focusing on the well-known aspects of Muir’s career as a leader in the conservation movement and founder of the Sierra Club, in this section Sachs describes Muir’s life as an explorer in search of connections within the natural world. Like Melville, Muir was also a married man whose long absences from home took a toll on his family life. A dedicated husband and father, Muir struggled to remain home with his family while his heart longed to explore nature. During Muir’s mountaineering excursions and forays into the natural world, his scientific observations were steeped in Humboldt’s influence. Sachs points out that - similar to Humboldt, Reynolds, King, and Melville - Muir recognized conflicts within nature. “Nature was fantastical, awe-inspiring, breathtakingly magnificent; it was also terrifying, confusing overwhelming, fatal.” In 1881 Muir ventured to Alaska to study glacial activity and search for any surviving members of the Jeannette expedition. Over the course of that expedition, Muir developed a deeply Humboldtian value for native Alaskan cultures. Muir respected the indigenous peoples’ ability to live with nature. Sachs then depicts the sharp turn Muir’s philosophies took in regard to humanity’s place in nature. In the end, for the Muir that founded the Sierra Club, “human beings were merely tourists in the wilderness. Pure nature, in other words, was defined as separate from all that was human.”

For Sachs, Muir is not only the father of modern American environmentalism, but also his initial admiration of and eventual deviation from a Humboldtian outlook represents the overall historical deviation taken by modern American environmentalism. With pressure from industrialization, Muir and the modern environmental movement chose to take the human aspect out of nature all together. Through the conservation of specific pieces of land, unprotected areas are open for virtually unregulated industrial exploitation. Where Humboldt would have chosen an environmentalism that figures in humanity’s involvement with nature, the conservation movement merely focuses on nature itself.

Sachs seeks to inspire his readers to consider the various paths society has taken in the past. Through the evaluation of these four Humboldtians, Sachs implies that there was a more Humboldtian path humanity could have taken, but has made the choice to become a society that embraces industrialization and conquest. Through showing the personal and professional conflicts that have arisen when people have attempted to venture against the grain of modern industrialization, Sachs’s monograph chronicles the lives of Humboldt, Reynolds, King, Melville, and Muir to demonstrate various challenges the modern world has faced in terms of the scholarly, social, and professional lives of common people. The men in Sachs’s case study all envisioned repercussions would result from Western colonialism and humanity’s attempt to control nature. However, their attempts to bring attention to their visions fell to deaf ears due to changes in society. Whether it was the recognition of humanity’s humbleness in nature, a rejection of modern capitalism and imperialism, the practice of generalized science, unacceptable Victorian personal relationships, or a respect for indigenous cultures these men possessed values that contributed to their marginalization by the modernizing force of industrialization.

At various times throughout the narrative, Sachs uses a first-person perspective to give the reader a hint of his own Humboldtian experiences. For instance, while researching and looking for connections along the Humboldt River, Sachs states that his “research had given me new eyes with which to view this landscape.” Like Humboldt, Sachs found what he was looking for by emerging himself in the subject of his research- the wilderness. For some critics, Sachs’s first-person interjections are seen as limitations to his scholarship. Such readers point to Sachs’s insertion of his own voice as amateur and aside the subject. These critics fail, however, to recognize that Sachs has written a piece of post-modern history. Through the use of a credible historical method of intellectual inquiry, Sachs informs his readers that his interpretation of the past is inherently subjective. He attempts to ask questions that he believes are historically important and that he believes are meaningful to contemporary society. As his monograph includes an important view of the past, it also provides an alternative way that humanity can think about the future.

Sachs’s study is important because it provides historical connections among science, art, literature, exploration, and environmentalism. It shows how a person can express romantic feelings for nature while, at the same time, that person can be stricken with internal turmoil. Additionally, painting a conflicted picture of such romantic explorer-scientists reveals a uniquely human quality of the men, which is the opposite of how explorers have traditionally been portrayed. Chroniclers of government supported post-Columbian European explorers often portray their subjects as liberators of foreign lands and native populations. These storytellers believe that exploitation was an unintended consequence of exploration. Sachs, however, has demonstrated that even though Humboldt and his disciples depended on the capitalist system to obtain financial backing for their explorations, they often spoke out against the exploitation of natural and cultural resources that came along with exploration. Finally, Sachs has revealed the Humboldtian path to environmentalism that was forgotten about as American industrialization grew at an exponential rate during the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For the sake of the planet, he asks his readers to revive Humboldt’s theory of interconnectedness and live as humble inhabitants within nature.

4 comments:

Alex said...

This dude's got a sweet name!

David said...

The battery on my Blackberry puked before I could read all of it.

Josh said...

Sorry about the length yall!! And, also about the formatting - Word to Blogger does not allow for the best transmogulationishstuff.

Aaron said...

We debated this one at Jimmy Johns for hours the other night. Did really sell a lot of sandwiches though.

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