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 Seabird’s Cry – Adam Nicolson

The Seabird's Cry - Adam NicolsonWhilst I am not a fan of getting up close and personal with birds, over the years I’ve become more interested in the spotter side of things. Weekends in Walton and Pembrokeshire whetted my appetite for learning more about the birds I see on visits to these coasts.

Adam Nicolson’s book is brilliant. It’s a series of detailed dives into the fascinating world of ten different sea birds, some familiar – gulls, cormorants, Manx shearwaters and puffins (thanks Steffi!), albatross (thanks Sue!); other less so – razorbills and fulmars. Each relativity short and very readable chapter covers that bird’s biology and evolution, history and scientific study, society and relationships, lives and travels. Above all, their travels are astounding.

Recommended, even for the reluctant avian nature lover.

Publisher page: The Seabird’s Cry – Adam Nicolson

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

The Peregrine – J. A. Baker

The Peregrine - J. A. Baker
The Peregrine – J. A. Baker

One Essex winter (or was it ten?), John Alec Baker carefully, methodically, calmly, found and followed the peregrine falcons that made the Chelmsford countryside their home for six months of the year.

Wonderful writing.

“A cock blackbird, yellow-billed, stared with bulging crocus eye, like a small mad puritan with a banana in his mouth.”

(And I am a bit squeamish about birds and dead things.)

This is the book that convinced me I needed to add Nature writing as a new genre category to SparklyTrainers. It’ll be broad, covering wildlife and the countryside.

Publisher page: The Peregrine – J. A. Baker

(Sort-of)Author’s page: J A Baker & The Peregrine – a website about the author, his writing and his Essex environment.

Reviews and related writing

Essex rediscovered: ghosts and falcons on a rural ride – Carol Donaldson, The Guardian, 28 January 2018

Violent spring: The nature book that predicted the future – Robert Macfarlane, The Guardian, 15 April 2017

A precise and poetic paean to the peregrine – Charles Moore, The Telegraph, 24 May 2010


Landmarks – Robert Macfarlane

Landmarks - Robert MacfarlaneSuperb writing on language, landscape and living on the land.

Lots of new words to use (well, to try and remember); lots of new books to read…

Looking forward to fuddling next time at Forty Acres, and to the accuracy of describing my Dolpo Expedition river crossing photos as “Crunching across the frozen mud and skim-ice to wade through the waters of the upper Barbung Khola”.

“Other places” isn’t really the right category/genre for this but it’s the closest I’ve got (other than “Too tricky to categorise” – so I’m going to tick that too….)

Publisher page: Landmarks – Robert Macfarlane