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Andrea Wulf to resurrect Alexander von Humboldt in Glen Ellen

Wulf on Humboldt

Andrea Wulf will speak on “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World” at Quarryhill Botanical Garden, at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 13. It will be the last in this year’s Peter A. Raven Lecture Series; previous speakers have included Jared Diamond and John Harte.

Tickets are $35 for Quarryhill members, and $45 general. More information and tickets available at www.quarryhill.org.

Note: The lecture scheduled for Friday, Oct. 13, at Quarryhill’s amphitheater with Andrea Wulf, author of the recent biography of Alexander von Humbolt, has been cancelled.

“I’ve hardly been at home,” said Andrea Wulf, when the Index-Tribune reached her last week. “I’ve done talks on this book in Colombia, US, Netherlands, Germany, Spain... I’ve just come back from Mexico and Germany.”

She’s at home now, in London, between legs of her grand tour of garden clubs, museums and universities in the wake of her 2015 book, “The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science.”

The book might be called a runaway success: it is now published in 24 countries, a television series is being developed in Europe, and a graphic novel is in the works – and who knows, someday a movie (with Michael Fassbender, if Wulf has any say in the matter).

In the midst of this flurry, Wulf will come to Sonoma to speak at Quarryhill Botanical Gardens on Friday, Oct. 13.

Wulf’s books have grown bolder, and wider in scope, since “The Brother Gardeners” in 2008, about the gentlemen naturalists of 18th century England, and “The Founding Gardeners” (2011), on the gardeners, plant hobbyists, and farmers who founded the U.S.A. (Jefferson, Washington, Madison, that lot.)

Following those, “Chasing Venus” (2012) left the garden behind with its account of the global effort to measure the transit of Venus across the sun in 1761, an epochal event that marshalled scientists around the world to calculate the size of the solar system.

But in tackling Humboldt, Wulf is taking on her grandest theme yet – possibly the greatest scientists of the 19th century, a man who influenced Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and even Simón Bolivar – but whose name is now familiar for entirely unrelated reasons.

“Did he have anything to do with the college?” is one common response when presented with the name Humboldt. No, nor with the county known as the hypotenuse of the Emerald Triangle, north of Mendocino and west of Trinity.

“I had heard of Humboldt’s adventures and expeditions as a child,” said the 45-year-old German writer, who now lives and works in London. “Through my previous books I stumbled over Humboldt again and again – he pops up everywhere.”

While people may be familiar with some of the many things that bear Humboldt’s name – it is said that more places, species and schools are named after him than anyone else – Wulf set about to re-educate the modern reader about the naturalist and his enormous influence on peers and followers.

“’The Invention of Nature’ was really my attempt to find Humboldt, to restore him to his rightful place in the pantheon of nature and science, where he belongs as much as Darwin and Isaac Newton,” said Wulf. The book is a dizzying narrative of his travels, interests, insights and adventures that brings the polymath to life – without sacrificing the dramatic elements of those journeys.

Humboldt and his older brother, linguist and diplomat Wilhelm von Humboldt, were born in Berlin, then in the Kingdom of Prussia, in the 1760s. Their father died when they were still young, and they were raised by their ambitious mother who spared no expense in their schooling. He became a mining engineer and close friend of the poet and philosopher Goethe (who is alternately said to have modeled either Dr. Faustus on Humboldt, or the Devil).

Wulf on Humboldt

Andrea Wulf will speak on “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World” at Quarryhill Botanical Garden, at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 13. It will be the last in this year’s Peter A. Raven Lecture Series; previous speakers have included Jared Diamond and John Harte.

Tickets are $35 for Quarryhill members, and $45 general. More information and tickets available at www.quarryhill.org.

Humboldt hit his stride as a naturalist by the time he was 30. Between 1799 and 1804, he traveled extensively in today’s Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico, collecting and cataloging and making measurements with an array of instruments. He traveled without maps, but thanks to his efforts later travelers – including Bolivar, who was to become a friend of his in Paris before Bolivar returned to South America in 1807 – were able to find their way.

As he traveled, Humboldt’s vision expanded beyond the rigid formalism of empirical science; influenced by Goethe and others, he incorporated imagination and inspiration into science, and in so doing created our modern view of the world as a web, interconnected and alive.

“Of course, he did not invent nature, that’s a bit of a playful title,” said Wulf. “But he invents a concept of nature that still very much shapes our thinking today. He describes the earth as a living organism. I think, for me, this is one of the most important things he comes up with.”

When he returned from his South American travels, he threw himself into publishing and popularizing his ideas, pioneering new ways of reaching an audience in doing so. Among these, what computer nerds like Edward Tufte today pompously call “the visual display of quantitative information.”

“I would really call him the founder of infographics,” said Wulf. “Of course he never called it that, but if you look at what he does, he’s really the first to use hard scientific data in such a graphic and visual way.”

Among these visualizations were lines linking like data across the map – now known as isotherms for temperatures, and isobars for barometric pressure. These became a revolutionary way to visualize climate, and form the basis of today’s weather maps in newspapers and on TV, and ultimately tools for unwrapping a deeper understanding of how weather works as a global phenomenon.

Even more innovative were his maps of plants found at different altitudes and latitudes, which showed that a life zone changed the farther toward the poles you travel. He produced a three–foot by two–foot depiction of the Ecuadoran volcano Chimborazo in cross–section, and the species that live upon it (he climbed the mountain in 1802, and made it a point to climb almost every peak he saw). It was a visual representation that nature was connected in ways that had never been perceived before.

“Humboldt is not much known for a major, big discovery. There’s not a theory of evolution attached to him. He didn’t discover a planet or a natural law,” said Wulf. “But he comes up with a concept of nature, a holistic one that still very much shapes our thinking today.”

Case in point: Charles Darwin wrote that without the inspiration of Humboldt, he never would have boarded the Beagle. And the last book Darwin was reading when he died – over 50 years later – was Humboldt’s “Personal Narrative,” about his South American travels.

Humboldt’s final book – a five-volume tome he was still working on at his death in 1859, at the age of 89 – was called “Cosmos,” and it was Humboldt who rescued the word from Greek obscurity and gave it the meaning we have today, the unified field of reality, from microscopic to macroscopic to, well, cosmic. Carl Sagan, eat your heart out.

So why is Humboldt – a giant in the 19th century – so little known today? “His vision of nature has passed into our consciousness as if by osmosis,” writes Wulf in the book’s epilogue. “It is almost as though his ideas have become so manifest that the man behind them has disappeared.”

Clearly, Wulf is on a mission to bring Humboldt’s contributions to light again – “to place him back on the pedestal where he belongs.” The oak-sheltered amphitheater at Quarryhill Botanical Garden is as apt a place as any to applaud that mission, for a writer who began her journey in the botanical gardens of the Old World, and the New.