Andrea Wulf has produced a magic of absolutely dizzying and dazzling proportions with her flawless and riveting biography of the intrepid Alexander Von Humboldt. She has done a yeoman service by breathing life into a man whose existence – although indispensable to the scientific, social and cultural world – has been largely and unfortunately forgotten. Characterized by back breaking research (Wulf traversed the arduous journeys which Humboldt during the height of his exploratory vein undertook, and even scaled Chimborazo, a currently inactive stratovolcano in the Cordillera Occidental range of the Andes, which at the time Humboldt ascended it, was popularly known as the largest mountain on the Planet), splendid prose and fascinatingly revealing nuggets, “The Invention of Nature”, is Andrea Wulf’s pierce de resistance till date.
For the uninitiated Humboldt was a German naturalist, a polymath and arguably the world’s most inveterate explorer. Unrestricted by the powers of his ever hovering, wandering, traipsing and untrammeled imagination, Humboldt was the very epitome of restlessness and walking form of curiosity. No subject on Earth was beyond the reach of his inquisitiveness and he was a proven slave to knowledge. However what made Humboldt one of the most enduring and indelible figures to have traversed the Planet was his unquenchable love for and of Nature. His relationship with Mother Nature was not only symbiotic but a mythical osmosis whose reciprocal exchange of respect and reverence startled humankind before bestowing upon Humboldt heaps of encomiums, glories, epithets and recognition.
Wulf’s every line sizzles with life and the reader experiences the entire range of emotions as Humbolt wanders, wiggles, wriggles, wades, wallows and winds his way through dense foliage, sheer cliffs, roiling rivers, barren landscapes, and exquisitely constructed towns and cities. Every measurement made by Humbolt using a myriad variety of instruments such as a cyanometer or a barometer, every note made of a bird chirping or a monkey howling or an alligator lazily basking in sunshine on the banks of a flowing mass of water, every mile of hazardous journey made by him with his trusted aide Aime Bonpland, has the reader in lockstep with this phenomenal adventurer. One is tempted to throw one’s hand up in glee and emit undisguised whoops of achievement as Humboldt discovers the isotherms as one commonly glimpses in every modern Atlas. Similarly the disappointment of not being able to visit India to glimpse the magisterial range of the Himalayas has one fuming against the East India Company whose shenanigans resulted in no approval being accorded to this Man of Nature thereby scarring his heart with an irreconcilable regret.
Wulf also portrays in a revealing fashion the enduring friendships forged by Humboldt with eminent personalities and nature lovers such as Thomas Jefferson and Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. Alexander Von Humboldt also inspired a whole generation of scientists, biologists, poets and writers such as Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Perkins Marsh and John Muir. Alexander Von Humboldt left a legacy behind rich in essence and indestructible in its soul. A man with no vanities whatsoever, he died a poor man and till the very end was loyal to his chosen field of natural science. Although Mother Nature spoke to him, whispered in his ear and spurred him on to heights hitherto considered unattainable, we of a later generation have almost consigned this magnificent persona to the memory of a few resolute academicians.
Andrea Wulf has regally rose to the occasion, taking up the gauntlet and ensuring that such a travesty is not taken to a disaster conclusion. For the Androcene world staggering under the massive tug and pull of globalisation and climate change, needs Humboldt now like never before! For this splendid act, we all need to be indebted to her!