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A Deluge of Things: Von Humboldt, Leonardo and the Confounding of Nature

Supreme art is a traditional statement of certain heroic and religious truths, passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius, but never abandoned. The revolt of individualism came because the tradition had become degraded, or rather because a spurious copy had been accepted in its stead.

– W.B. Yeats[1]

Who’s the “father” of environmentalism? Now that the human impact on nature is getting more attention than ever, it’s a question worth asking. Is it, for example, the Prussian naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, as his biographer thinks?[2] He was born in 1769, 250 years ago and isn’t big in the English-speaking world despite having more species named after him than anyone else in history. It’s not just species: A river, lake, bay, forest, and mountain ranges bear his name in the U.S. where few now know who he was. It’s different in Germany: Posterity has ensured “Humboldt” is plastered on streets, schools, universities, institutes and shops all over the country. Put “Humboldt” into Google Earth with any German city to see the effect.[3]

Germans laud their famous sons. (They are, of course, almost all sons!) This long predates Hitler-worship,[4] as one of the oddest of European monuments testifies. Called “Walhalla,“ it’s a faux Greek temple, built by Bavarian King Ludwig I in the 1830s to house busts of famous Germans. Humboldt is in there together with his even more famous friend, Goethe. The two are as prominent to Germans as Darwin (who Humboldt met) and Shakespeare are in England. Big daddies just don’t come any bigger. So what did Humboldt actually father and should it matter now?

Alexander von Humboldt by F.G. Weitsch (1806).

Humboldt thought and wrote an enormous amount about nature. He travelled the Americas, through the Orinoco plains, Amazon rainforest and Andes mountains, collecting thousands of plant specimens, dissecting, illustrating and analyzing. His biographer enthuses he, “revolutionized the Western conception of nature by describing it as an interconnected living web.” If this was a revolution, it involved patricide!

In 1802, Humboldt began an elaborate drawing based on the snow-capped Ecuadorean volcano, Chimborazo. Published as a three-foot long, hand-colored engraving a few years later, it famously illustrated how each layer of altitude has its own flora. If the idea of an interconnected living web really was new in the erudite salons of Berlin and Weimar, it would have been commonplace among the illiterate farmers and herders in the Andes who had refined their detailed and nuanced grasp of mountain ecology for generations. This of course enabled them to thrive in some of the highest reaches of the planet. Humboldt could have found similar expertise closer to home, in the European Alps which are (probably) named, not after the mountains themselves, but the open hillside pastures, grazed in summer by cattle, sheep and horses. The altitudinal layers so aptly outlined in Humboldt’s giant sketch aren’t as fixed as he drew them, as he would have known: They flow upwards as the snow melts in spring, painting the valleys with flowers. The blooms climb the slopes as the year progresses, with fall reversing direction as larches gild the Alpine forests, first on the heights then flowing down before the first snow reaches the vales. The web is perpetually reweaving.

Humboldt’s “nature drawing” (1807).

Mountain herders and farmers had, and still have, an extremely sophisticated understanding of how the altitude, gradient and direction of any slope, together with myriad other factors, dictate its “natural” ecology, which has actually been shaped by generations of human intervention. Grazing keeps the grass short which holds snow better reducing avalanches; animal paths create a natural terracing which reduces water runoff; lugging rocks onto fields holds the sun’s warmth and hastens crop germination; there are hundreds of ways in which the apparently “wild” environment has been transformed over thousands of years into a human creation. Some of this lore and expertise has only recently been understood by what we call science, and there are now some projects in the European mountains to reopen these ancient “alp” meadows and return the landscape to the “natural” character it once had: It’s a “rehumanizing” rather than “rewilding.”

Humboldt lived in a time and place where a new god was in the ascendant. Scientists, almost all of them men of northern European ancestry, were peeling back the laws of the universe, naming, categorizing, and supposedly exposing all knowledge and wisdom which would be soon within their grasp, or so they believed (as some still do). Industrialized colonialism, new firearms, and then social Darwinism, gave them the ability and the right – even the obligation – to conquer the world and remake it in their image. The indigenous erudition they came across, like the folklore of European peasants, was written off as mere old wives’ tales and superstition. Of course, the old wives who actually observed how society interacted with the environment were supposedly governed by “emotion” rather than “intellect,” and so went unheard in the thrusting masculinity of the age. Not much has changed today.

Humboldt was a progressive who opposed slavery, but there is no evidence he did not concur with his acolyte, Darwin, about the hierarchy of “races” in which they, themselves, reigned supreme over lesser folk from beyond Europe’s shores. Humboldt was undoubtedly a seeker after truth and endowed with prodigious energy and determination, but he could not possibly have understood that every single landscape he encountered on his travels had been fashioned by humans over millennia. How could he, when only recently has Western science begun to realize that “pristine” Amazonia, to take just one example, is in fact an ancient, indigenous, human creation?

Neither Humboldt nor famous later environmentalists like John Muir or Henry Thoreau who saw him as an ideological father understood the role humans had long played in the shaping of nature. In an extraordinarily paradoxical leap, they agreed both that high-class northern European men were descended from apes, like everyone, but also that the rationality to which they had uniquely ascended had elevated them onto a lofty realm separate from the rest of us. They believed in a real Garden of Eden, and it was “wild nature” here on Earth: Common people must be cast out and kept out, leaving only the enlightened entitled to visit, worship and wonder. So it is today in most of the world’s protected areas. Local people are thrown out and marginalized, even destroyed, by those who claim to be protecting nature from them. If Humboldt is the father of environmentalism, it’s a philosophy in which humankind has been expelled.

Expulsion from Eden by Masaccio et al. (c.1425).

Humboldt’s anniversary coincidentally falls exactly five hundred years after the death of another great European scientist, Leonardo da Vinci. If we want to see Humboldt as father of today’s environmentalism, we might look to Leonardo as a rejected grandfather! The artist’s own explorations into nature were rooted in a wholly different and much older belief. For Leonardo, humankind was one with nature, and perfection was to be found in both, as he suggested in his famous drawing of the Vitruvian Man who precisely conforms to divine and mathematical ratios.

Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man” (c.1490).

Like Humboldt, Leonardo dissected, analyzed, and spent a great deal of time thinking about humans’ role in nature. He grasped the similarities between the anatomies of people and animals. He saw how long hair curled and swirled in a way curiously similar to the flow of water, clouds and wind. He probed reproduction, gender and its ambiguities, and pondered over what precisely changed when animal or plant succumbed to old age and death. How did it all fit? For Leonardo and his age the natural world was not distinct from the human, both were inextricably interconnected, as they are for many indigenous peoples today; both were subject to external forces, invisible to many of us; and – very importantly – both manifested a spectacular beauty. Davi Kopenawa from the Yanomami of Brazil and one of the foremost defenders of Amazonia says simply, “I am nature.”

Half a millennium later, a few of those in the forefront of Western environmental science are now closing the circle and realizing that this is a more accurate vision of how things really are. People fashioned nature well before industrialization, just as humanity is made by nature. The world may be firstly the creation of gods or God, but we have also made it – including much of its beauty.

Nowadays of course many realize that industrialization turned ugly and pollutes on an unprecedented scale which has reached the point of threatening all, nature and humans together. That wasn’t a consideration for Leonardo in his 15th century, or was it?

Leonardo’s deluge of things (c.1506-12).

The world’s most famous artist is often credited with foresight centuries ahead of his time. He drew flying machines, parachutes, submarines, and military tanks which wouldn’t be invented for many generations (though his models would rarely have worked!). But he also produced one tiny sketch, smaller than a postcard, which points to something extraordinary. It likely took him only a few minutes and it’s of a favorite theme – storm clouds – but instead of rain, all manner of human-made objects deluge down to flood the landscape. In his backwards handwriting, the world’s now most expensive artist captioned, “Oh human misery, how many things you must serve for money.” Maybe Leonardo did after all foresee how endless manufactured stuff would compound human misery and end up confounding creation itself.

Notes.

1) Yeats, William Butler. “Estrangement: Extracts from a Diary Kept in 1909.” in Autobiographies: The Collected Works of WB Yeats Volume 3. Simon and Schuster, New York, 2010.

2) Wulf, Andrea. The invention of nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s new world. Knopf, New York, 2015.

3) Admittedly, this number is boosted by his elder brother, diplomat Wilhelm Humboldt, who was also a big deal.

4) The Nazi leader was actually born 500 yards outside Germany in Austria.

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Stephen Corry has worked with Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, since 1972. Twitter: @StephenCorrySvl.

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