While the influence of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) looms large over the natural sciences, his legacy reaches far beyond the field notebooks of naturalists. Humboldt’s 1799-1804 research expedition to Central and South America with botanist Aimé Bonpland not only set the course for the great scientific surveys of the nineteenth century, but also served as the raw material for his many volumesworks of both scientific rigor and aesthetic beauty that inspired such essayists and artists as Emerson, Goethe, Thoreau, Poe, and Frederic Edwin Church.Views of Nature, or Ansichten der Natur, was Humboldt’s best-known and most influential workand his personal favorite. While the essays that comprise it are themselves remarkable as innovative, early pieces of nature writingthey were cited by Thoreau as a model for his own workthe book’s extensive endnotes incorporate some of Humboldt’s most beautiful prose and mature thinking on vegetation structure, its origins in climate patterns, and its implications for the arts. Written for both a literary and a scientific audience, Views of Nature was translated into English (twice), Spanish, and French in the nineteenth century, and it was read widely in Europe and the Americas. But in contrast to many of Humboldt’s more technical works, Views of Nature has been unavailable in English for more than one hundred years. Largely neglected in the United States during the twentieth century, Humboldt’s contributions to the humanities and the sciences are now undergoing a revival to which this new translation will be a critical contribution.
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About the Author
Stephen T. Jackson is professor emeritus of botany and ecology at the University of Wyoming and the editor of von Humboldt’s Essay on the Geography of Plants. He lives in Tucson, AZ. Laura Dassow Walls is the William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame and the author of several books, including The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America. She lives in Granger, IN. Mark W. Person is associate academic professional lecturer in German in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and director of the language lab at the University of Wyoming. He lives in Laramie, WY.
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Views of Nature
By Alexander von Humboldt, Mark W. Person, Stephen T. Jackson, Laura Dassow Walls
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Concerning the Steppes and Deserts
At the foot of the high granite spine that, in the early days of our planet, defied the incursion of the waters during the formation of the Antillean Gulf, there begins a broad, immeasurable plain. Upon leaving behind the valleys of Caracas and the island-rich Lake Tacarigua, which reflects in its surface the trunks of the pisang trees, leaving behind fields resplendent with the delicate light green of Tahitian sugarcane or the solemn shade of cacao plants, one's gaze toward the South comes to rest upon steppes that, seeming to climb, dwindle into the distant horizon.
From the luxuriant fullness of organic life, the astonished wanderer comes to the barren edge of a sparse and treeless desert. No hill, no cliff rises as an island in this incalculable space. Only broken, stratified slabs two hundred square miles in area, lying here and there, show themselves visibly higher than the parts bordering them. The natives call these phenomena "banks," indicating instinctively through the half-awareness of language the state of things that once were, for these elevations were the shallows, and the steppes themselves the bed, of a great inland sea.
Even now, the disguise of night often calls back these pictures of the past. When the guiding celestial bodies in their rapid rising and setting illuminate the edge of the plain, or when they create a quivering double image of it in the lower layer of the undulating haze, one believes he sees before him the boundless ocean. Like the ocean, the steppe fills the mind with the feeling of infinity, and through this feeling, as if pulling free of sensory impression, with intellectual and spiritual inspiration of a higher order. But while the clear ocean surface in which ripples the graceful, softly foaming wave is a friendly sight, dead and stiff lies the steppe, stretched out like the naked rocky crust of a desolate planet.
In all zones of the globe, Nature offers this phenomenon of immense plains; each has a character of its own, a physiognomy determined by the individuality of its terrain, by its climate, and by its distance above sea level.
One can view as true steppes the heathlands of Northern Europe, which, covered by one single, all-supplanting variety of flora, stretch from the point of Jutland to the outlet of the Scheldt, although smaller and hillier than the Llanos and Pampas of South America or the grassy plains near the Missouri and Coppermine Rivers, on which the shaggy Bison and the small Musk-ox abound.
The plains of the African interior offer a greater and more serious vista. As with the broad expanses of the Pacific Ocean, only recently have attempts to explore them begun. These plains are part of an ocean of sand that in the east separates fertile strips of land from one another, or encompasses them, forming islands, like the deserts below the basalt mountain range of Harutsch, where the ruins of the Ammon Temple in the date-rich Oasis of Siwa mark the noble spot of early human civilization. No dew, no rain moistens these desolate areas to nurture the germination of plant life in the glowing womb of the earth. For everywhere, columns of heated air climb upward, dispelling the vapors and chasing away the fleeing clouds.
Where the desert approaches the Atlantic Ocean, as between Wadi Nun and the White Cape, the moist sea air streams in to fill the emptiness created by these upward winds. Even the mariner who steers for the mouth of the Gambia through a sea covered like a meadow with kelp senses, when the tropical east wind suddenly leaves him, the nearness of the sand, expansive and radiant with heat.
Herds of gazelle and fleet-footed ostrich run about the immeasurable space. Except for the recently discovered groups of water-rich islands in this ocean of sand, upon whose green shores swarm the nomadic Tibbos and Tuaryks, the remainder of the African desert may be viewed as uninhabitable by Man. Indeed, the civilized peoples of bordering regions only periodically dare to enter it. Upon paths that trade traffic has inalterably determined for millennia moves the long caravan from Tafilet to Timbuktu or from Murzuk to Bornu: bold undertakings whose very possibility depends upon the existence of the camel, the Ship of the Desert, as he is called in the old legends of the Eastern world. These African expanses fill an area that surpasses that of the nearby Mediterranean Sea threefold. They lie in part within the tropics themselves, in part near them, and this situation gives rise to the individual character of their nature. But in the eastern half of the Old Continent, this same geognostic phenomenon is more typical of the temperate zone.
Upon the ridge of Central Asia between the Golden Mountains, or Altai, and the Kunlun, from the Chinese Wall to the far side of the Celestial Mountains and around the Aral Sea to the northwest, over a length of several thousand miles, are scattered the largest, if not the highest, steppes in the world. I myself have had the opportunity to see, full thirty years after my South American journey, a part of these: the Kalmykian and the Kyrgyz steppes, which lie between the Don, the Volga, the Caspian Sea, and the Chinese Lake Dsaisang, that is to say, over a stretch of almost 700 geographical miles. The occasionally hilly Asiatic Steppes, interrupted now and again by forests of spruce, have a vegetation that, grouped in different areas, is much more variegated than that of the Llanos and Pampas of Caracas and Buenos Aires. The fairer part of the plain, populated by Asiatic shepherd folk, is adorned with shrubs of abundantly blooming white Rosaceae, with Crown Imperial (Fritillaria), tulips, and Cypripedia. Just as the torrid zone is consistently distinguished by the striving of all vegetation to grow in arborescent form, so too are some steppes of the Asiatic temperate zone characterized by the wondrous heights reached by their blooming herbs: Saussureae and other Synanthereae, leguminous plants, especially a host of various types of Astragalus. When one travels in the low-slung Tartar carriages over the trackless parts of these herb-covered steppes, only by standing upright can one orient oneself and thus see the densely packed forest of plants that bow before the wheels. Some of these Asiatic steppes are grass plains; others are covered with succulent, evergreen articulated alkali plants, many of them gleaming with salts that sprout up like lichens, unevenly covering the clay-rich soil like new-fallen snow.
These Mongolian and Tartar steppes, interrupted by numerous mountain ranges, separate the long-civilized humanity of Tibet and Hindustan from the barbarous peoples of Northern Asia. The existence of these steppes has been of tremendous influence on the changing fate of the human race. They have forced human population southward; they have hindered the intercourse of nations more than the Himalayas, more than the snow-peaked ranges of Srinigar and Gorka, and they have set unchallengeable limits in Northern Asia to the dissemination of milder customs and the creative artistic spirit.
But history must not view the plain of Inner Asia only as an impeding barrier. It has also on numerous occasions brought calamity and devastation across the globe. Shepherd peoples of these steppes—the Mongols, the Getae, the Alani, and the Uysyn—have shaken the world. Over the course of the centuries, whenever early intellectual culture has traveled like revitalizing sunlight from east to west, so too have barbarism and rawness of custom subsequently threatened to creep over Europe like a fog. A brown shepherd tribe (Tukiuish, i.e., Turkic), the Xiongnu, populated the high steppes of the Gobi in leather tents. Long a threat to the might of the Chinese, part of the tribe was forced southward into Inner Asia. These dislodged people spread inexorably as far as the old home of the Finns on the Ural. From there poured forth Huns, Avars, Chasars, and numerous mixed Asiatic races. Hunnish armies first appeared on the Volga, then in Pannonia, then on the Marne and on the banks of the Po: ravaging the cultivated farmlands where, since the time of Antenor, creative humanity had heaped monument upon monument. Thus blew forth from the Mongolian deserts a pestilential breath of wind that choked the tender, long-cultivated blossoms of art in lands south of the Alps.
From the salt steppes of Asia, from the European heathlands, resplendent in summer with red, honey-rich flowers, and from the greenless deserts of Africa, we return to the plains of South America, whose portrait I have already begun to sketch with crude strokes. The interest, however, that such a portrait can provide the viewer is purely an interest in Nature. Here no oasis evokes memories of earlier inhabitants; no chiseled stone, no fruit tree gone wild reminds one of the efforts of bygone races. As though foreign to the fates of humanity, latching only to the present, there lies in this corner of the globe a wild showplace of free animal and plant life.
From the coastal range of Caracas, the steppe extends to the forests of Guyana, and from the snowy peaks of Mérida (on whose slopes salty Lake Urao is an object of religious superstition for the natives), it reaches down to the great delta that the Orinoco forms at its mouth. To the southwest, it stretches like a long, narrow gulf beyond the banks of the Meta and the Vichada to the unseen sources of the Guaviare, and thence to the lonely massif that the Spanish warriors, giving free rein to their active imagination, dubbed the Paramo de la Suma Paz, the beautiful spot, as it were, of eternal peace.
This steppe covers an expanse of 16,000 square geographical miles. Due to ignorance of the geography, it has often been described as extending, uninterrupted and with a consistent breadth, as far as the Strait of Magellan, disregarding the level, forested region of the Amazon River which is bordered north and south respectively by the grassy steppes of Apure and the River Plate. Between the Chiquitos Province and the isthmus of Villabella, the Andes range of Cochabamba and the mountain groups of Brazil extend individual spurs toward one another. A narrow plain joins the hylaea of the Amazon River with the Pampas of Buenos Aires. These latter surpass the area of the Llanos of Venezuela threefold. Indeed, their expanse is so extraordinarily great that they are bordered on the north by palm groves, while their southern reaches are almost covered with eternal ice. The tuyu (Struthio rhea), similar to the cassowary, is unique to these Pampas, as are the colonies of feral dogs that live sociably together in underground burrows, yet often launch bloodthirsty attacks on the very humans for whose defense their ancestors fought.
Like the greatest portions of the Sahara Desert, the Llanos, or the northern plains of South America, lie in the Earth's torrid zone. Nevertheless, each half-year they appear in a different form: first desolate, like the sand ocean of Libya; then as a grassy expanse, like so many of the steppes of Central Asia.
It is a rewarding (if difficult) exercise in general regional geography to compare the natural properties of remote regions to one another and to describe the results of this comparison in concise terms. Many diverse and to some extent still unestablished causes diminish the aridity and warmth of the New Continent.
A great number of conditions provide the flat parts of America with a climate that, in terms of moisture and coolness, contrasts marvelously with that of Africa: the narrowness of the extensively indented mainlands in the northern part of the tropics, where a liquid surface presents to the atmosphere a cooler, ascending current of air; a great latitudinal distance from both ice-capped poles; an open ocean, over which the cooler tropical seawinds blow; flatness of the eastern coasts; currents of cold ocean water from the Antarctic region which, though originally directed from southwest to northeast, strike the coast of Chile below the 35th parallel of south latitude and advance northward along the coast of Peru up to Cabo Parina, turning then suddenly to the west; the number of mountain ranges rich in water sources whose snow-covered peaks aspire to heights above all cloud strata, and upon whose flanks begin descending currents of air; the abundance of rivers of enormous width which, after many windings, always seek the most distant coast; sandless and thus less heat-retaining steppes; the impassable forests that fill the plains at the equator and in the land's interior, where mountains and ocean are farthest apart, protecting the ground from the sun's rays or dispersing heat by the breadth of their leaves and exhaling colossal amounts of water, some of which they have drawn in from outside and some of which originates within them—in these characteristics lies the cause of that luxuriant, succulent flora, that frondosity which is the peculiar characteristic of the New Continent.
If one side of our planet is thus said to be more humid than the other, then the observation of the present state of things is sufficient to solve this problem of inequality. The physical scientist need not wrap the explanation of such natural phenomena in the garb of geologic myths. It is not necessary to assume that the destructive battle of the elements upon the ancient earth was settled at different times in the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, or that America emerged from the chaotic covering of water later than the other parts of the world, as a swampy island, home to alligators and snakes.
Certainly South America, by the shape of its outline and the direction of its coasts, has a conspicuous similarity to the southwest peninsula of the Old Continent. But the inner structure of the land and its location relative to bordering landmasses gives rise in Africa to that astonishing aridity which in immeasurable spaces stands opposed to the development of organic life. By contrast, four-fifths of South America lies beneath the equator, in a hemisphere that, due to greater proportions of water and to many other causes, is cooler and more humid than is our Northern Hemisphere. To the latter hemisphere, however, belongs the greater part of Africa.
The South American steppes, the Llanos, when measured east to west, are only one-third as extensive as the African deserts. The former receive the tropical sea winds; the latter, lying beneath a latitudinal circle with Arabia and Southern Persia, are touched by layers of air that move over hot, radiating continents. Indeed, the honorable and long-unappreciated Father of History, Herodotus, in the true spirit of a broad view of Nature, depicted all the deserts of North Africa, in Yemen, Kerman and Mekran (the Gedrosia of the Greeks), even to Multan in Upper India, as a single connected ocean of sand.
Associated with the effect of hot land breezes in Africa, to the extent that we are familiar with it, is the lack of large rivers, of forests that exhale water vapor and create a cooling effect, and of high mountains. One may find ice year round only on the western portion of the Atlas range, whose narrow spine, when viewed from the side, appeared to ancient travelers along the coast as a single lonely and airy pillar beneath the heavens. The range runs easterly up to the area near Dakul, where, now sunk in rubble, Carthage once lay, commanding the sea. As a chain stretched along the coast, as a Gætulean outer wall, the mountains hold back the cool north winds and with them the mists that rise from the Mediterranean.
Once imagined to soar above the lower limit of the snow are the Mountains of the Moon, Djebel-al-Komr, which were said to form a mountainous parallel between that "African Quito," the high plain of Habesh, and the sources of the Sénégal. Even the cordillera of Lupata, which stretches along the eastern coast of Mozambique and Monomotapa, like the Andes chain on the western coast of Peru, is capped with eternal ice in gold-rich Machinga and Mocanga. But these water-rich ranges lie far distant from the tremendous desert that stretches out from the southern flank of the Atlas and on to the Niger flowing eastward.
Excerpted from Views of Nature by Alexander von Humboldt, Mark W. Person, Stephen T. Jackson, Laura Dassow Walls. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Reclaiming Consilience
Humboldt’s Ansichten der Natur Measurement Units
Views of Nature
Preface to the First Edition
Preface to the Second and Third Editions
1. Concerning the Steppes and Deserts
2. Concerning the Waterfalls of the Orinoco near Atures and Maypures
3. The Nocturnal Wildlife of the Primeval Forest
4. Hypsometric Addenda
5. Ideas for a Physiognomy of Plants
6. Concerning the Structure and Action of Volcanoes in Various Regions of the Earth
7. The Life Force, or The Rhodian Genius
8. The Plateau of Cajamarca, the Old Residential City of the Inca Atahualpa; First Sight of the Pacific from the Ridge of the Andes Chain