I've just finished a terrific book by Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt's New World.
Wulf does a phenomenal job of I've described to friends as "Humboldting, Humboldt," which is to suggest she does a wonderful job of contextualizing the famed naturalist within a broader and bigger picture. Weaving together figures from all over the world, she explores the way the Humboldt's worldview developed in various political climates. Certainly in many ways he does appear to be a bit anachronistic, his way of viewing the world is so thoroughly modern.
The overall structure of the book works well and I liked the way she grouped different sections of his travels together. Humboldt's relationship with Goethe was a stark reminder that I need to revisit works I have not touched since undergrad (more than a decade ago). Want I love most about Goethe is the way he was able to show Humboldt the beauty of poetry when combined with science.
Wulf quotes Darwin in the last paragraph of Origin of Species to demonstrate the influence of Humboldt by comparing it with a passage from Personal Narrative :
"The beasts of the forest retire to the thickets; the birds hide themselves beneath foliage of the trees, or in the crevices of rocks. Yet, amid this apparent silence, when we lend an attentive ear to the most feeble sounds transmitted by the air, we hear a dull vibration, a continual murmur, a hum of insects, that fill, if we may use the expression, all the lower strata of the air. Nothing is better fitted to make man feel the extent and power of organic life. Myriads of insects creep upon the soil, and flutter round the plants parched by the ardor of the Sun. A confused noise issues from every bush, from the decayed trunks of trees, from the clefts of the rock, and from the ground undermined by the lizards, millipedes, and cecilias. There are so many voices proclaiming to us, that all nature breathes; and that, under a thousand different forms, life is diffused throughout the cracked and dusty soil, as well as in the bosom of the waters, and in the air that circulates around us."
With our return to Iceland coming up in the not so distant future, I feel like I'm going to see the country I love so much with a new Humboldtian perspective, fresh eyes. I am eager to work on my writing while we're there and to take the time to really reflect on the beauty that is this little pile of dust we travel upon around the universe.