the shakespeare of the sciences

The scientist Alexander von Humboldt was born in 1769, the same year as Napoleon, and was almost as famous in his day. The historian and writer Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature, about the explorer, has followed this with a non-fiction graphic book, The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, whom she refers to as "the father of environmentalism". He was writing and talking about deforestation, monoculture and climate change 250 years ago, yet he has largely been forgotten (until these books were published). 

Wulf spent a year's residency at the British Library – part of her prize for winning the Eccles Centre Writer's Award in 2013 – researching the first book and then, when more material became available, embarked on the current title. 

The son of a Prussian aristocrat, von Humboldt set off at age 29 to explore South America, encountering indigenous tribes and exotic wildlife, always recording in words and drawings his discoveries. Darwin annotated his writings and took them with him on the Beagle. At a celebration of his work and legacy in Quito, Ecuador, recently, the German president called him "the father of ecology".

"His life reads like an adventure story," said Wulf, who had the pleasure of reading diaries that came to light n 2014 – "He had the worst handwriting" – and working with an illustrator to create The Adventures... The original source includes hundreds of tables, because he was obsessed with measurements, and the task of one indigenous member of his team was to carry the hallowed barometer used to determine the height of mountains. 

Inca ruins, active volcanoes, endangered forests are all documented in the notebooks – as well as two and half columns of indigenous languages in the countries he visited.

In 1804 he returned to Europe and turned his findings into opulent works and improved maps."He understood nature artistically as well as scientifically," said Wulf, "and was the first to connect science and art". He could see that humans were destroying the environment, and even used the words "raping nature". 

In reminding us of von Humboldt's warning that we are destroying the Earth – "Man must return to nature what they have taken from it" –  Wulf ended her talk with impassioned support for the young school strikers whom she admires because they are not afraid to be emotional about what matters to them, and their action is a plea to protect "the vulnerable beauty of our planet".

A plea we dismiss at our peril.

Picture by Matthew Harry

The Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer's Award was launched today; submissions are invited until 16 September 2019, for the chance to win £20K and a year's residency at the British Library with research support. The award marks a new partnership between Hay Festival and the Eccles Centre for American Studies, based at the British Library.

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