The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature - Andrea Wulf
The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf

Who’s Humboldt?

The Invention of Nature is Andrea Wulf’s biography of Prussian scientist-naturalist-ecologist-explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, whose travels in the Americas gave us Humboldt’s Penguin, amongst many, many other things, and whose renown resulted in place names ranging from Mare Humboldtianum on the moon to Humboldt University in Berlin. Most importantly, via the publications,  lectures and correspondence that occupied Humboldt for the majority of his long life, he developed the concept that has been called Humboldtian science – a holistic view of science and nature, climate, the environment and ecology, and by extension encompassing art and society.

During his lifetime he engaged with politicians, revolutionaries, scientists and artists – Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar, Charles Lyell, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – and his writings continued to influence key scientific, cultural and artistic developments of the 19th and 20th century; Darwin, Thoreau and John Muir were all fans, as were George Perkins Marsh and Ernst Haeckel who I’d not heard of before reading this book.

And you’ve never heard of him.

Not directly related to Humboldt, a quotation that I liked appears at page 324

‘Solitude,’ Emerson warned him [Muir], ‘is a sublime mistress, but an intolerable wife,’

Author page: The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt – The Lost Hero of Science

The Tartan Turban – John Keay

The Tartan Turban - John Keay
The Tartan Turban – John Keay

John Keay‘s biography of nineteenth century elusive adventurer Alexander Gardner.

Unlike many of the explorers and spies of The Great Game, Colonel Gardner didn’t leave behind his own polished account of his travels in Central Asia, nor of his years as an officer in the Sikh Empire, from the Empire’s glory years under Maharaja Ranjit Singh and through the familial treachery and turmoil that followed on from Ranjit Singh’s death. Even his younger years are veiled in the mists of time – but safe to say Scotland doesn’t feature (despite the tartan!)

So, there’s plenty of of scope for biographical sleuthing and rehabilitation from the always readable John Keay.

Author webpage: The Tartan Turban: In Search of Alexander Gardner – John Keay

Vanished Kingdoms – Norman Davis

Vanished Kingdoms - Norman Davis
Vanished Kingdoms – Norman Davis

I put this book aside in the middle of Rosenau, the account of the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and the intertwined lineages and lives of Queen Victoria and Prince Albrecht (Albert) of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. A rare event, to abandon a book.

I’d been drawn to this hefty history of lost kingdoms by the earlier chapters – the Britons and the Kingdom of Strathclyde, Tolosa and the Visigoths – and whilst I enjoyed the overall concept and the three part structure of each chapter, as we moved into the early modern period and beyond and the quantity of sources expanded, the wealth of detail this afforded grew too much for me: the later chapters were just too heavy going.

Author’s page (warning: slow to load): Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe – Norman Davis

The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Garrard

The Worst Journey in the World - Apsley Cherry-Garrard
The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Garrard

The Worst Journey in the World has been on my reading list for a long time.

It’s Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of the 1910-13 Nova Terra Expedition to Antarctica, where he was part of a three-man scientific research team that undertook the harrowing Winter Journey to collect the first specimens of Emperor Penguin eggs. This is The Worst Journey in the World of the title.

However the Nova Terra expedition is better known for the explorations undertaken by its leader, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, together with Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates, and Edgar Evans, who succeeded in reaching the South Pole on 17 January 1912, only to find that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it. All five men died on their journey back from the pole.

I had hesitated to embark upon The Worst Journey in the World, fearing that Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s autobiographical  analysis of the expedition would be a heavy going account reflecting the attitudes of Empire and the Edwardian era.

Sara Wheeler‘s introduction to the Vintage Classic edition I read dissolved my concerns, and I found this to be a fascinating and heart breaking read.

I’ve added Sara Wheeler’s biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard – Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard – to my reading list.

Publisher page: The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Garrard