Following Mr. Humboldt

A crowd gathered in the plaza of the Modern Art Museum on a warm evening under Medellin’s urban skyline, the silhouettes of Andean hillscapes set against the darkening sky.

Andrea Wulf has travelled from Europe to Latin America, following in the footsteps of one of her heroes, about whom she wrote, ‘The Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt’ – an illustrated book about Humboldt’s five-year expedition.

“For me, this book was not just about the exploration. The importance of the journey was the concept of nature which Humboldt returned with – that earth is an organism, connected, and its influence on contemporaries but also the next generation.” 

Humboldt is often called ‘the Father of Ecology’ and to say he was ahead of his time would be a sizeable understatement: he was the first European thinker to discuss nature as a network, and as a force in itself. 

His work also predicted human-induced climate change, giving fierce warnings about the importance of forests and the dangers of industrial pollution. 

As well as presenting Humboldt’s startlingly prescient ideas, Wulf gave the audience an insight into the life and early inspirations of the man himself, who had an unhappy childhood despite his privileged background and education.

“The outside was his escape from the classroom – he roamed the estate and collected stones and flowers. He saw South American plants in the botanical garden in Berlin – they triggered his love of nature and inspired his journey.”

Humboldt stayed in South America for years, travelling the continent widely. He returned to Europe with a new idea of the continent – magnificent and beautiful - full of respect for the indigenous cultures he encountered there. He was fiercely critical of Spanish colonial rule, from slavery to the treatment of the indigenous populations.

Humboldt returned to Europe with four thousand pages of diary and drawings, and hundreds of maps - some of which are found in the book, which is an illustrated volume.  

“He understood nature using not only his instruments, but also his feelings and his art. He’s not a poet, but he described nature in a very poetic way, bringing together scientific observations with evocative descriptions of landscapes.”

Figures from Charles Darwin to Simon Bolivar were influenced by Humboldt – Bolivar even turned Humboldt’s warnings about deforestation into laws governing forestry. 

Humboldt encouraged European artists to travel to South America to paint the magnificent scenery and bring works back to Europe, in order to make people fall in love with nature by looking at the continent’s landscapes. 

It isn’t hard to imagine how they might have done, sat under the open sky flanked by Colombia’s lush slice of the Andes, its rolling horizons all around us.

There’s a special link to the city of Medellín itself: in 1825, Humboldt sent a large number of instruments to the city in order to help found a minerology school here. That school still stands today.