Alexander Von Humboldt was an extraordinary person on many counts. An explorer scientist, travelling the world, measuring everything, collecting, describing, climbing mountains, canoeing into rainforests- and all in search of knowledge and understanding.
Yet he was not just a scientist as we have come to know them today. He felt the world around him as well as studied it. He allowed his imagination to run as well as his analytical brain. And it could be that it was for this reason that he is credited with being one of the first to really appreciate the unity of the natural world. Before Lovelock he was thinking Gaia. Before our modern concern about climate change, he had understood the climatic impact of human beings on the rainforest.
One of the memorable phrases for me in Andrea Wulf’s book entitled ‘The Invention of Nature’ is the comment made by Humboldt about being on top of great mountains and the great vision and imagination that arose at such moments.
This imagination, Humboldt said, soothed the deep wounds that pure ‘reason’ sometimes created.
I know some people who become lost in analysis or in technology. They always have the answer to any technical problem, but it is like their being has shrunk from the richness of authentic humanity into something mechanical. It is inspiring to read of someone like Humboldt who was such a great scientist, but could also look up, appreciate and feel the big picture.