I’m sharing thoughts on reading The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf, one of the New York Times’ 10 best books of 2017.
Who is Alexander von Humboldt? The New York Times review of the book explains:
Alexander von Humboldt was the pre-eminent scientist of his time. Contemporaries spoke of him as second in fame only to Napoleon. All over the Americas and the English-speaking world, towns and rivers are still named after him, along with mountain ranges, bays, waterfalls, 300 plants and more than 100 animals. There is a Humboldt glacier, a Humboldt asteroid, a Humboldt hog-nosed skunk. Off the coast of Peru and Chile, the giant Humboldt squid swims in the Humboldt Current, and even on the moon there is an area called Mare Humboldtianum. Darwin called him the “greatest scientific traveler who ever lived.”
Huge in his time but little known today, despite indirect influence on us through Darwin, Thoreau, and Muir, among others.
Today’s is also on Thoreau, this time on getting the value of travel without travel. I’m a fan of travel, but I consider how my actions affect others. When I learned a round trip New York-Los Angeles flight polluted about a year’s worth of driving, I had to commit to not flying for at least a year. Next month will make two years.
What felt difficult at first because of family and work became one of the best decisions of my life. I would have reacted like anyone else who considers flying essential but I find experience and observation trumps speculation.
Wulf desribes Thoreau (my emphasis):
What Humboldt had observed across the globe, Thoreau did at home. Everything was interwoven. When the ice-cutters came to the pond in winter in order to prepare and transport the ice to distant destinations, Thoreau thought of those who would consume it far away in the sweltering heat in Charleston or even in Bombay and Calcutta. They will ‘drink at my well’, he wrote, and the pure Walden water would be ‘mingled with the sacred waters of the Ganges’. There was no need to go on an expedition to distant countries. Why not travel at home? Thoreau noted in his journal—it didn’t matter how far one journeyed ‘but how much alive you are’. Be an explorer of ‘your own streams and oceans’, he advised, a Columbus of thoughts, and not one of trade or imperial ambitions.
I ask you, who do you think experienced the world more meaningfully and derived more reward from travel–a typical frequent flyer today or Thoreau?
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