May 6th, 2009

Travels with Alex


On the flight to Brazil I’m taking an old friend. A very old friend. Alexander von Humboldt, who died 150 years ago. I’m somewhere over the Southern Ocean, midway through the diabolical 6415-mile Auckland-to-Buenos Aires leg of my trip, reading his Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. It seems appropriate. Almost exactly 200 years ago, Humboldt explored Latin America and the Caribbean, which are my destinations, too.

Humboldt was the most famous naturalist of his day. He was a polymathic overachiever, the kind of person whose existence makes the rest of us question ours. Whereas I will spend a modest seven weeks among the mangroves, he spent five years in the field, and amassed so much scientific data on so many subjects—geology, botany, climate, astronomy, zoology, magnetism, electricity, not to mention human cultural diversity—that it took him 27 years to write it all up. No wonder he was one of Darwin’s heroes.

Humboldt was one of the first of a new breed of scientific explorers, pursuing knowledge with a heroic disregard for personal comfort and safety. What fascinates me about him is how modern he seems. He believed that to understand the world you had to look at all the individual phenomena the earth has to offer, and discover how they are connected. “I must find out about the unity of nature,” he wrote. That was his driving force, and for this reason he has been called the first ecologist. Anyone who studies ecosystems and how they fit together and function is walking in Humboldt’s footsteps.

What did he have to say about mangroves? I’ve skipped ahead to the last chapter, about Cuba, and found there a dramatic incident which occurs in the mangroves of Batabano Gulf Bay. The sailors on Humboldt’s ship, frustrated at not being able to find any lobsters, start slaughtering nesting seabirds. Blood streams from the trees, and the ground is littered with dying birds. But here’s the line that struck me like a thunderbolt: “When we arrived on the scene it was strangely silent, as if saying ‘Man has passed this way.’” Two hundred years on and the mangroves continue to fall silent—those that are left—for humankind still passes this way.


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