I think this is why I stopped reading books to concentrate on writing (in theory anyway). A habit I got from my Dad – a cartographer by profession, rest his soul – was a fascination for browsing maps and atlases, old and new, from a very young age, and still to this day at every opportunity. Not just physical atlases, but Google Maps is a regular rabbit-hole for me. Any place reference in any text or news story – yes, even crimes and disasters – I tend to put it into Google Maps and browse around. I’ve been everywhere man – over and above the fact I am fortunately pretty well travelled in reality anyway. [Probably also why I have a topological / architectural view of anything I need to understand generally – but I already digress from my digression.]
Well, I mentioned I was reading Andrea Wulf’s Adventures of (Alexander von) Humboldt, the inventor of nature. Fascinating enough as a story and as a catalogue of people, ideas and historical events as I mentioned already. But the geography is inescapable, partly because it’s obviously the story of an 18th/19th C explorer of the natural world, and partly because of Humboldt’s use of his “Naturgemälde” paintings of geographical / topological views to capture the essence of nature in the world. Ecotopology maybe a word I need to coin?
As well as the Americas an important part of world geography that Humboldt explored was Russia, across Siberia as far west as the Altai mountains bordering Mongolia. That initially rang a bell for me about another book I’d read – which shall remain nameless for now, part of my Mother’s “U3A” Russian literature and culture course (*) – about a 20th C traveller amid the forests and rivers (and religion) of same region – the lower altitudes of the Altai. But it’s an even more tangled rabbit-hole. Wulf’s book has some modern low-detail maps in the front, to represent Humboldt’s travels. As my comment below that post – mentions, I was embarrassed that I didn’t already know how influential Humboldt had been on Darwin, and it turns out one of the points of Humboldt’s first hand experience that intrigued Darwin enough to follow-up and pursue – after he’d met him but couldn’t get a word in edgeways – was the eco-geography relationships either side of the “Obi” river in that region.
Well Obi is an alternate spelling of the “Ob” the major river that runs south to north right across the desolate wastes of
Nebraska Siberia from it’s source in those Altai mountains to the Kara Sea of the Arctic Ocean – a subject that Hofstadter has used. But that’s another digression.
The rabbit-hole I went down was browsing Google Maps to “map” the points highlighted by Wulf on her maps of Humboldt’s 1829 itinerary. Useless facts which I now have at my fingertips include:
- West from St Petersburg and Moscow, he went via Nizhny Novgorod (a place I have visited myself, and the home of Maxim Gorky)
- West of Yekaterinburg (and Miass on his return East) where he travelled without his official government hosts, the only named towns (in 1829) were Tobolsk and Bernaul. The latter is on the Ob, but after he’d already crossed it a little further north – the point of interest to Darwin – which looks almost exactly the location of modern day Novosibirsk?
- His last point before turning back was Baty (Barak Batyr) just SW of Ust-Kamenogorsk – both on / close to the Irtysh river, since dammed in the 20th C – and as far as he got into the foothills of the Altai late summer, when there was no chance of getting higher as autumn and winter approached.
- Returning via Omsk, leaving the Irtysh to cut across the Kazakh steppes to Miass and then on to Orenburg on the Ural river then crossing to the Volga to reach Astrakhan on the northern Caspian shores (no mention of Volgograd, and no sign of Chelyabinsk either, close to both Yekaterinburg and Miass).
Was it worth it?
Andrea Wulf’s “The Invention of Nature – The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science” – is just too interesting to read and review right now. Back onto the shelves of the library of (half) unread books.
(*) The un-named book was Jens Mühling “A Journey Into Russia” (2012) and it also has a map in the front – sadly with all the detail in the glued crack between two pages (!). The key word here is “Taiga” – which just means natural “boreal” (northern) forest, but particularly here between the Steppes and the (Altai) Mountains. Much more cultural & religious focus than the physical geography, even further east beyond the Yenesei river towards Irkutsk. (For map enthusiasts the Lena river is fascinating. Relatively minor river in this southern Siberia region, arising in swampy land west of Lake Baikal, but not connected to that lake like the other larger local rivers, and yet like the Ob a mighty river flowing all the way south to north into the arctic.) Recommended story.
Anyway, I did finish Wulf before passing it on.
Here’s the full table of contents:
Part I. Departure : emerging ideas. Beginnings ; Imagination and nature : Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Humboldt ; In search of a destination
Part II. Arrival : collecting ideas. South America ; The llanos and the Orinoco ; Across the Andes ; Chimborazo ; Politics and nature : Thomas Jefferson and Humboldt
Part III. Return : sorting Ideas. Europe ; Berlin ; Paris ; Revolutions and nature : Simón Bolívar and Humboldt ; London ; Going in circles : maladie centrifuge
Part IV. Influence : spreading ideas. Return to Berlin ; Russia ; Evolution and nature : Charles Darwin and Humboldt ; Humboldt’s Cosmos ; Poetry, science and nature : Henry David Thoreau and Humboldt
Part V. New worlds : evolving ideas. The greatest man since the deluge ; Man and nature : George Perkins Marsh and Humboldt ; Art, ecology and nature : Ernst Haeckel and Humboldt ; Preservation and nature : John Muir and Humboldt.
Loved the sections on Emerson and Thoreau and on Humboldt’s Cosmos. Sadly Part V Man and Nature, on Marsh, Haeckel and Muir and the Epilogue were just a bit too 21st C “green activist” politically motivated for me.
Humboldt obviously very important and influential and no mystery why “modern” western science has (wrongly) chosen to to forget him – too holistic and transcendentally enlightened for the reductionist rationalist fashion. More grist to my mill.