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.