The Invention of Nature

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“Humboldt talked of ‘mankind’s mischief…which disturbs nature’s order’. There were moments in this life when he was so pessimistic that he painted a bleak future of humankind’s eventual expansion into space, when humans would spread their lethal mix of vice, greed, violence and ignorance across other planets. The human species could turn even those distant stars barren and leave them ‘ravaged’, Humboldt wrote as early as 1801, just as they were already doing with earth….”

“Maybe now is the moment for us and for the environmental movement to reclaim Alexander von Humboldt as our hero.”   – The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf

I didn’t have the camera or the skills to do justice to the landscape we drove through late one afternoon and into the evening on our cross-country journey. Mile after mile of drilling, fracking, and water pillaging, as far as the eye could see. We found our way into this surreal place unawares, and emerged a few hours later, shaken and sober.

 

Flame:Derrick

 

Living in the Finger Lakes region, I’ve been spoiled: citizens came together to successfully outlaw fracking. Scenes such as these are not unfamiliar to me, though. I grew up in Cleveland and saw heavy industry smokestacks often. But I have never seen anything on this scale before. Hundreds of gas flares marked the landscape as if there were some dire emergency – which I believe there is.

We arrived at our rather desolate, but welcome, motel room and, as timing would have it, that evening I finished reading The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, about a man who, over 200 years ago, predicted that humans would wreak havoc on the environment. 

The Invention of NatureThe German scientist and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt has been largely forgotten, even though he was an international “rock star” of his time, and even though many parks, lakes, mountains, towns, and counties in the US are named after him. Andrea Wulf’s biography, published in 2015, has resurrected his legacy and spirit. Her book won the James Wright Award for Nature Writing, the Royal Geographical Society Ness Award, and many others, and it was named a best book of the year by many newspapers and publications.

It’s a wonderful read, especially if you love well written biographies with themes of history, nature, travel, and adventure.  Here’s how Humboldt’s story opens:

“They were crawling on hands and knees along a high narrow ridge that was in places only two inches wide. The path, if you could call it that, was layered with sand and loose stones that shifted whenever touched. Down to the left was a steep cliff encrusted with ice that glinted when the sun broke through the thick clouds. The view to the right, with a 1,000-foot drop, wasn’t much better. Here the dark, almost perpendicular walls were covered with rocks that protruded like knife blades.

Alexander Humboldt and his three companions moved in single file, slowly inching forward….It was 23 June 1802, and they were climbing Chimborazo, a beautiful dome-shaped inactive volcano in the Andes that rose to almost 21,000 feet, some 100 miles to the south of Quito in today’s Ecuador.”

As a young man, Humboldt spent five years exploring South America and, later in life, about a year traveling through Siberia. For much of the rest of his years, he conducted research and scientific experiments, lectured, taught, and wrote books about his findings. His books were unlike any seen before, with his discoveries about climate and the natural world. Nearly bankrupting himself, he hired botanical illustrators, naturalists, and researchers to assist him in creating magnificent volumes that were much in demand and translated into many languages.

Humboldt is incredibly important because he concluded that nature was a vast, interconnected global force, and that human impact locally could have ramifications globally.

He had the radical notion that nature did not exist to serve humanity. His work and ideas influenced Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and others. I like that Wulf devotes entire chapters to Darwin, Thoreau, Muir and a few others, so we can see how they carried Humboldt’s ideas forward in understanding nature and climate.

“… [John] Muir experienced the natural world in a new way….he now began to see connections. Everything was important in this grand big tangle of life. There existed no unconnected ‘fragment’, [John] Muir thought. Tiny organisms were as much part of this web as humankind. “Why ought man to value himself as more than an infinitely small unit of the one great unit of creation?’ Muir asked. “The cosmos,’ he said, using Humboldt’s term, would be incomplete without man but also without ‘the smallest transmicroscopic creature.’”

I love this description of Humboldt’s privately sponsored lectures, which women were allowed to attend. (At that time, women could not attend university lectures or meetings of scientific societies.)

“By not charging any entry fee, Humboldt democratized science: his packed audiences ranged from the royal family to coachmen, from students to servants, from scholars to bricklayers – and half of those attending were women.

With his gentle voice Humboldt took his audiences on a journey through the heavens and deep sea, across the earth, up the highest mountains and then back to a tiny fleck of moss on a rock. He talked about poetry and astronomy but also about geology and landscape painting. Meteorology, the history of the earth, volcanoes and the distribution of plants were all part of his lectures. He roamed from fossils to the northern lights, and from magnetism to flora, fauna and the migration of the human race. The lectures were a portrait of a vivid kaleidoscope of correlations that spanned the entire universe.”

 

Truck

Humboldt wrote prolifically. His most influential books are:

Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe (Five Volumes)

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the years 1799 – 1804

Views of Nature

Natural gas tanks

 

“The connection between knowledge, art and poetry, between science and emotions – the ‘deeply-seated bond’, as Humboldt called it – is more important than ever before. Humboldt was driven by a sense of wonder for the natural world – a sense of wonder that might help us today realize that we will protect only what we love.”

 

 

Refinery

A refinery

 

Our reward for making it through the landscape in these pictures was a full moon rising.

 

Moonrise

 

Days later in our journey, we passed by Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest in eastern Nevada.

Coming up next, places and images of great beauty and more luscious books, I promise!

 

A Woman in the Polar Night

Polar Night“Meanwhile the world out of doors falls into deepest night. The mountains are no more than white shadows, the sea no more than a black shadow – until that too dissolves away. And then everything is dead.

In this pitch darkness we cannot move far from the hut. I make the smallest possible turns around the hut – all that is left of my walks. When it is not snowing we spend hours outside the hut chopping and sawing wood by the light of the hurricane lamp….

The wind that, rising and falling, lasts for days, is in fact our last link with the reality of the world…”  Christiane Ritter, A Woman in the Polar Night

A Woman in the Polar Night is an astounding memoir by Austrian artist Christiane Ritter who, in 1933, joined her scientist and hunter-trapper husband, Hermann, on the remote island of Spitsbergen 400 miles off the coast of Norway.

If you love memoirs of travel, adventure and, especially, nature, I highly recommend A Woman in the Polar Night. This is an extraordinary book written in poetic, painterly prose by a woman with a fearless spirit who was profoundly moved and changed by her year in the Arctic.

Christiane writes brilliantly about the beauty of Spitsbergen and also its terror. She thrived on Spitsbergen, but during both the darkest and the brightest stretches of her polar immersion she approached the edges of madness. As anyone might.

She writes of a terrifying two weeks spent alone in a fierce snowstorm. The hut was buried completely except for the stovepipe attached to the roof. Christiane’s husband and their companion, Karl, had gone on a hunting trip, and she was left alone with the darkness, snow, and raging wind.

She survived the storm and isolation. But when a full moon finally broke the long darkness, Christiane became moonstruck:

“It is full moon. No European can have any idea of what this means on the smooth frozen surface of the earth. It is as though we were dissolving in moonlight…. One’s entire consciousness is penetrated by the brightness; it is as though we were being drawn into the moon itself…..

Neither the walls of the hut nor the roof of snow can dispel my fancy that I am moonlight myself.”

Fearing Christiane had rar, a strangeness that befalls some who winter in polar regions, Hermann and Karl kept Christiane in the hut, so she wouldn’t succumb to ishavet kaller – meaning “the Arctic calls” – which can drive a person to throw herself into the sea.

“Surrounded by this boundless deadness and rigidity of everything physical, one’s living senses begin slowly to go their own way. More frequently and more brightly as the winter is prolonged, a strange light spreads before the inner eye, a remote and yet familiar vision. It is as though here, in this apartness, we develop a particularly sharp awareness of the mighty laws of the spirit, of the unfathomable gulf between human magnitudes and eternal truth. Outside of time, everything is annihilated. The imprisoned senses circle in the past, in a scene without spatial dimensions, a play in which time stands still.

Often I see the flowers and trees of the distant sun world, but I do not see them as I used to see them. They are glowing with color and piercingly beautiful. Their most secret meaning lives in their growth and their color.”

Dutch Whalers Spitzbergen.jpg

Dutch Whalers near Spitsbergen. By Abraham Storck – Stichting Rijksmuseum het Zuiderzeemuseum. 022296, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5040261

Christiane writes of bear-hunting with Hermann and Karl in a “gigantic wilderness of ice”:

“We are in the middle of the bear kingdom. All my fear of bears has vanished. As in a dream I go on through the splendid strange world.

How quiet it is here. The sun shines on a soundless scene. The magical hues of the soft shadows glow deeply. Everything belongs together here, even the bear tracks in the deep snow, which show with what peace of mind the animals have gone on their way. Everything breathes the same serenity. It is as though a current of the most holy and perfect peace were streaming through all the landscape.

I feel that I am close to the essence of all nature. I can see its paths interlacing and still running alongside each other in accordance with eternal laws. I divine the ultimate salvation before which all human reasoning dissolves into nothing.”

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Ptarmigan was part of Christiane’s Spitsbergen diet. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The memoir’s conclusion is triumphant and sad. Christiane must finally leave the island, forever changed and knowing she will never return. She doesn’t reveal she has an infant daughter at home in Austria until nearly the end of her memoir, a startling bit of information that for me highlighted what an unusual couple the Ritters were.

I was curious about what it was like for Christiane to return to civilization and wished for an epilogue (there is none), but on the other hand I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. On top of having to re-integrate into society, Christiane returned to Austria as Europe neared the onset of World War II.

I found a 1954 edition of Christiane’s memoir at the local library, illustrated with line drawings by the author. You may want to look for the University of Alaska Press edition, published in 2010, which includes a preface with biographical information about the Ritters. It may satisfy some of the inevitable curiosity you’ll have about how the lives of this remarkable couple played out.

Christiane wrote, “You must have gazed on the deadness of all things to grasp their livingness.”

It seems to me her memoir is a remarkable example of someone whose extreme adventure pushed her into completely letting go of her ego and recognizing that we don’t have dominion over nature; we are instead part of nature itself. I think the world would be a much better place if we could all come to know this.

What We're Fighting for NowSo it was especially sad to read the excellent book I picked up next, What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice by Wen Stephenson, which makes clear that humanity hasn’t learned what Christiane Ritter learned. This book is depressing but empowering at the same time.

Stephenson reports that many climate scientists now believe climate catastrophe is inevitable.

He explains the term “climate justice” and how it is different from climate activism and environmentalism. Many have come to realize that climate change is the moral and spiritual issue of our time, inseparable from social justice and equality. The poor and disadvantaged will suffer the most from climate disruptions, as we’ve already seen in places like New Orleans and in countries around the world.

Stephenson lives near Walden Pond in Massachusetts, and he looks at climate justice through the lens of Henry David Thoreau‘s principles of civil disobedience. He likens climate justice to the social justice struggles of abolitionism and civil rights.

Stephenson writes about how he came to leave his career in mainstream journalism to immerse in climate justice, and it’s fascinating to read his interviews with others devoted to the cause as they explain the spiritual and other motives that drive them.

Most are young, some got their start in the Occupy movement, others are evangelicals, Quakers, atheists, community organizers, and grandparents. Many of them have come to believe that the way to survive climate change is to build strong, local communities where people trust and look after each other.

I couldn’t get out of my mind a young woman Stephenson interviewed, Grace Ann Cagle, who said she’d much rather be on a farm having babies than on the front lines of climate justice. Grace took part in the Texas Tar Sands blockade. 

“She’d been up in the trees for about a week, in late September, 2012….Sure enough, TransCanada’s machines came up from the south.

‘They came over the creek….They had a feller buncher – it grabs the trees, cuts them, and throws them. And as they cross the creek, they’re coming like ten feet, twenty feet away from me, practically at the base of my tree – and I thought they were going to kill me….Why would they care about me? And so I jumped onto this traverse rope, and I’m dangling there, wearing all black with a mask on my face, screaming, Go away! Get out of here! They stopped their machines…..I spent like six hours dangling there, in a harness, because I could protect two trees at once….'” 

How sad that, since Christiane Ritter’s time, we’ve come to this.

Read A Woman in the Polar Night to be transported and to understand what we’re losing. Then, if you want to consider what your role might be in the greatest battle of our time, you could follow the memoir with What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice.

 

 

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