the diligent dilettante

61pb33hgx3l-_aa300_I know most of the men encased in bronze that populate Central Park. Alexander Von Humboldt, who resides on my corner has remained a mystery. Humboldt is the subject of Andrea Wulf‘s  new book: The Invention of Nature:  Alexander Von Humboldt, The Lost Hero of Science.  Wulf’s book attempts to place Humboldt in a contemporary context: ecologist, environmentalist, predictor of climate change and inspiration to scientists and poets alike.


Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer for the New Yorker Magazine is my ideal of a great nonfiction writer. Her article in The New Yorker Magazine Humboldt’s Gift:  He was once the most celebrated naturalist in the world.  What happened to him? is a fantastic piece and  the reason, I went to hear Spencer Finch talk about his new Public Art Fund Project, Lost Man Creek (see my post,,  instead of listening to Andrea Wulf.  orinoco-1870

According to Kolbert, Humboldt referred to the house he grew up in (Tegel Castle) as a “castle of boredom”. As soon as he could, he left home and never looked back. He traveled to Ecuador in 1802 to climb Chimborazo, sailed with Captain Cook to Tahiti, arrived in Paris during the revolution, and spent five years in South America.  In addition, he was a best-selling author and popular lecturer.
9780226054735Why has he been forgotten? Kolbert:  “But Humboldt was, by the time of his death, at the age of eighty-nine, already an anachronism – a generalist in a period of increasing specialization and a Romantic in the Victorian era.” from Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece in The New Yorker Magazine.
Not long before his death Humboldt wrote “My life has been useful to science less through the little I have contributed myself than through my efforts to let others profit of the advantages of my position.”
…and “I like to think that, while I was at fault to tackle from intellectual curiosity too great a variety of scientific interests, I have left on my route some trace of my passing.”  – both quotes from Elizabeth Kolberts piece in The New Yorker Magazine.
I empathize with Humboldt.  I often feel scattered, attracted by too many things and unfocused by too many interests.




Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in The New Yorker entitled, Humboldt’s Gift:  he was once the most celebrated naturalist in the world.  What happened to him?





The Invention of Nature
Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World

Andrea Wulf

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