Book Review: Andrea Wulf – The Invention of Nature: The Legacy of Alexander Von Humboldt

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Alexander Von Humboldt, the German naturalist living in the 18th and early 19th century is one of modern science founding pillars, if not straight ahead its founding pillar as author Andrea Wulf makes the case for. However, even though he’s supposed to have more geographic features named after him than anyone else on the world map, his contributions can easily be overlooked 3 centuries later. Preceding Darwin, Alexander is one of the first explorers of the New World, and also the first scientist to attempt climbing the world’s highest peaks. Coming from a wealthy family, he was able to spend pretty much his whole adult life traveling the world and collecting data as a means to understand nature and the world.

On this majestic book, Andrea Wulf attempts to chronologically expose Humboldt’s life, travels, and contributions to knowledge. This endeavor is enriched by chapters completely dedicated to how Humboldt’s life tangentially influenced on some of the greatest figures of his time, including political men like Napoleon, different German kaisers, and South American liberator Simón Bolivar; literary figures like Goethe, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and science and environmental figures like Ernst Haeckel, John Muir and even Charles Darwin himself.

 

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One of the most memorable of Humboldt’s traveling accounts is his narration of horses struck to death by electric eels.

 

Reading about the so-called “Greatest Man since the Deluge” is essential to understanding the foundation of modern science, a science based on data, facts, and well-studied inferences. His own books may be hard to find and even harder to properly read and digest 300 years after being written. Therefore, this book serves as a perfect synthesis and introduction to his work. Even though at times the book may seem a little overlong if you’re not particularly interested in the subject, Andrea Wulf’s writing is compelling enough to remind you of her own description of Humboldt’s work: filled with information but with beauty into them.

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The Invention of Nature won the Royal Society’s Science Book Award of 2016.

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O. Henry in Honduras

I guess I could almost beg for someone to send me a comment asking me “why on earth I don’t blog more often?” Well, I’m just saying because you might know that commenting keeps a blogger alive. Anyways, since I’m only receiving less than 6 views per day, then I might as well write whenever I feel like doing so.

As you might have noticed, the thematics of this blog are extremely miscellaneous. There are sincerely way too many things to talk about, and I’ll try that when I do write about something, that that something has some quality to it. Take for example today’s post; a post I really wish will have some kind of impact in somebody out there.

As usual, I should start by reminiscing something from the past. The year was either 2004 or 2005, and I was cruising through the seventh grade, and out of our Literature book, we came across a story by William Sydney Porter, better known by his pen name, O. Henry. Nobody seemed to notice or care, and I’m pretty much sure no one remembers, that on the small introductory author biography, it was mentioned how O. Henry had come to hide from the American law in the Central American country of Honduras.

I am a Honduran, around 7 or 8 million people are, and it just surprises that not even the people who are into literature have ever stopped to wonder why nobody here knows anything about O. Henry, one of the finest short story writers of the English language. It’s even more curious, because during the 6 months that Henry spent hiding in Trujillo, in the Atlantic Coast of our country, he managed to write a book of short stories, inspired by living in this “magically realistic” place, all while coining the term “banana republic”, which would come to tag third world countries strongly dependent on agrarian economy.

The book is called Cabbages and Kings, and it was written after O. Henry’s escapade from the Texan law. Before coming to Honduras, William worked at a bank, where apparaently he had deviated some money into his own account, a crime legally referred as embezzlement. His father-in-law bailed him out, and while he was going to trial, in a rushed decision, he opted to flee first to New Orleans and later to Trujillo, a lost place, in a lost country, my Honduras. O. Henry spent six months living in Trujillo, where he was expecting his wife and daugther to eventually join him, however, her wife fell very ill of tuberculosis and had to go back to Texas, and give himself in to the law. His wife died, and O. Henry was sentenced to five years in prison. Fortunately for him, since he was a licensed pharmacist, he spent his prison stay on his own wing and didn’t have to visit the prisoner’s side. He was released two years earlier due to good behaviour. He then returned to his daughter, who was told his father had been away on business. He remarried and live through his most productive writing period, however his increased drinking ended up giving him liver cirrhosis and killing him at the age of 47.

As you might see, O. Henry’s life isn’t neccesarily heroically, it’s actually filled with questionable behaviour, but many great artists have lead a similar life. Bottom line, what I really want to dig into with this entry, is the fact that those six months O. Henry spent living in Honduras, are widely unknown, and who but a Honduran should investigate about it? I tried to track some info down before writing this article, and I could only find a Jstor article, written by some American, more than 50 years ago. And that’s the main reason of this article. i really wish to inspire out there, someone who’s studying Literature, to travel to Trujillo and try to trace the scraps of O. Henry’s stay in the city. As I’m reading Cabbages and Kings, which I had to download from the internet, since not even the University library keeps a copy of it, I come across numerous colorous characters which inhabit the port of Coralio, in the country of Anchuria. President Miraflores, his mistress, the locals and the americans. I’m not trying to say that every single event and character in his stories has an equivalent in 1900s Trujillo, but it must surely be interesting to read about the sources of inspiration.

Of course, I enjoy literature as a hobby, and as a book enthusiast, and a Honduran, I would really like for this investigation to be made. Of course, as a biologist, this seems out of my work field, but I at least hope this encourages someone else out there. I for my part, can only offer, making another of those possibly unfulfilled projects, my willingnness to actually translate the book to Spanish language, something I believe no one has actually tried, publish it, and eventually make it a high school staple, because really, when one of the prominent figures in short stories writes a book about your country, the least the country’s people can do, is be aware of its existence.