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The philosophical study of nature rises above the requirements of mere delineation, and does not consist in the sterile accumulation of isolated facts. The active and inquiring spirit of man may therefore be occasionally permitted to escape from the present into the domain of the past, to conjecture that which cannot yet be clearly determined, and thus to revel amid the ancient and ever-recurring myths of geology… Baron Alexander von Humboldt


In the nineteenth century the so-called nature writers like Thoreau were not much more than a bunch of navel gazers and unfortunately the Rousseauean child-of-nature clap trap infected much of what they – and their successors – did. At the same time there were serious problems with the settlement of the country – problems that contributed significantly to the sectional differences that led to the Civil War. Land being over planted or attempts to cultivate land that was unsuitable for use and the continuous problems with water supply and management are only two of the primary issues. Another sort of naturalist would look at these problems and just as de Tocqueville may have given us a more objective look at our democracy another foreigner, Humbolt, may have given us a more objective look at our ecology. His science is far from perfect – as is our science today – but his thoughts are perceptive and he is worth reading about.

Black Canyon, Humboldt Mountains.

Black Canyon, Humboldt Mountains.

The Humboldt current : nineteenth-century exploration and the roots of American environmentalism New York: Viking, 2006 Aaron Sachs Scientific expeditions History 19th century, Humboldt, Alexander von, 1769-1859 Hardcover. First edition and printing. xii, 496 p.: ill., maps; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 447-472) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

The naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) achieved unparalleled fame in his own time. Today, his enormous legacy to American thought is virtually unknown.  In The Humboldt Current, Aaron Sachs seeks to reverse this obscurity by tracing Humboldt’s pervasive influence on American history, specifically looking at the lives and careers of four explorers: J. N. Reynolds, the founder of the 1838–1842 U.S. Exploring Expedition; Clarence King, the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey; George Wallace Melville, chief engineer on the disastrous 1879 Jeannette expedition to the North Pole; and John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club.

In Sachs’s view, all four of these men were alienated Romantics who used Humboldt’s notion of “unity in diversity” as a way of critiquing their increasingly industrialized society. Moreover, as Sachs argues, their examples laid the groundwork for an ecological tradition even more radical than the one that has come down to us today. Sachs’s treatment of Humboldt’s legacy includes discussions of the writers and artists most in his debt: Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Melville, Poe, and Frederic Church. The Humboldt Current is a colorful, superbly written and carefully researched work that offers a fundamental reinterpretation of nineteenth century American history.

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, in 1903

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, in 1903


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