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Empire of Cotton: A Global History
Sven Beckert
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The Invention of Nature

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

The Humboldt Current. Humboldt County (CA and NV). Humboldt State University (CA) and Universidad Humboldt (Venezuela). These and the many other "Humboldt" place names aren't honoring different Humboldts. They are all honoring one--Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt.

And while Americans are not very familiar with Humboldt, in Germany and especially in South America, he is very well known.

So who was Alexander von Humboldt? In the early 19th century he traveled through much of South America studying plants, geology, rivers, animals, and the economic systems in place. He climbed mountains and rafted rivers. He met and corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, knew Goethe, and was long supported by Prussian nobility (even while living in Paris during Bonaparte's reign). He later, at the age of 60, traveled through Russia to the China/Mongolia border and back. He wrote many, many books on natural history, geology, and occasionally on politics.

In this biography, Wulf introduces this man, whom most readers will not be familiar with at all. Even though we know the name "Humboldt" as a place name. Even though we know his ideas—that plants and animals live in zones determined by elevation and latitude; that man's actions can destroy nature (deforestation, over-irrigation); that nature is a web, with all parts acting together. He was the first naturalist to use drawings and diagrams rather than paragraphs of text alone to illustrate ideas. He first used isotherms (those lines that connect same/similar temperatures on maps). And we know well those he influenced with his  books, travels, and ideas: Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, and John Muir. Students of ecology might recognize some others as well: Ernst Haeckel and the artist Frederic Edwin Church.

As Wulf suggests, we know longer know his name because so many of his ideas have become the norm.

A well- and thoroughly researched biography. I have only 2 complaints: on page 55 the word "watershed" is used when "divide" is meant. Twice in one paragraph. As in "All the scientific understanding of the day suggested that the Orinoco and Amazon basins had to be separated by a watershed because the idea of a natural waterway linking two large rivers was against all empirical evidence." Separated by a DIVIDE. The basins mentioned are each a watershed. UGH how does this stuff get through? And, second, rather than footnotes (my favorite) or properly noted endnotes, this books uses those annoying endnote-style notes that are NOT noted in the text. So you don't know when to refer to them. Annoying and frustrating.