The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism

Review of The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism, by Aaron Sachs (Viking Books, 2006)

Humboldt, Nevada. Humboldt, Iowa. Humboldt County, California. The Humboldt River. All these places, and undoubtedly more besides, were named to honor a German naturalist who made exactly one brief visit to the United States early in the nineteenth century, but whose adventures and accomplishments were so much admired they made him an international celebrity.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was surely among the greatest naturalists of his era. His expeditions to remote – remote, at least, from Europe – corners of the world, including South America and Siberia, resulted in a number of highly influential books. Yet despite his enormous reputation on both sides of the Atlantic during the nineteenth century, von Humboldt has faded from our imagination. Most people have some passing familiarity with Darwin; one suspects that many students at the California State University, Humboldt don't know much about the man for whom their alma mater is named.

One of the largest marine upwellings in the world, running north along the western coast of South America, also bears Humboldt's name. By one estimate, 20% of the world's fish catch comes from the extraordinary ecosystem called The Humboldt Current and it gives this book its title.

This current of cold ocean water, however, isn't what interests Cornell University historian Aaron Sachs. For Sachs, Humboldt should not command our attention because of any particular discovery, or because he developed a rigorously documented scientific theory. Rather, Humboldt's importance lies in having given expression to an important environmental ethos, for having given voice to a sensibility. What von Humboldt saw wherever he explored was "the chain of connection" between all things. As he himself put it: "In considering the study of physical phenomena. . . , we find its noblest and most important result to be a knowledge of the chain of connection, by which all natural forces are linked together, and made mutually dependent on each other." (p. 12)

That line comes from von Humboldt's two-volume work Cosmos and Sachs reminds us that von Humboldt brought the word "cosmos" into common usage with the publication of that work. The science of ecology is generally said to begin with the German scientist Ernst Haeckel in the 1860s. Sachs argues, however, that von Humboldt observed and described those interconnections between all natural things including human beings as early as 1799 and that we ought to see von Humboldt as the founding figure of ecological thinking. Von Humboldt, for example, recognized that the falling water-level in a South American lake was undoubtedly the result of "the destruction of forests, the clearing of plains and the cultivation of indigo." (p. 77) Such observations and inductions turned von Humboldt from an explorer into a conservationist.

Alexander von Humboldt dies on p. 105 of this book, roughly a third of the way through. From there, Sachs explores the careers of four nineteenth century American scientists and follows a current of thought whose origin he traces back to the ideas articulated in von Humboldt's work: J. N. Reynolds, Clarence King, George Wallace Melville and John Muir.

Of the three, Reynolds is probably the least well-known, except perhaps to fans of Herman Melville who know Reynolds as the author of the 1839 tale: "Mocha Dick; or, The White Whale of the Pacific." Reynolds participated in one grand expedition to the Antarctic and organized another, though shifts in political winds meant that he was left ashore when the Great United States Exploring Expedition set sail in 1838. Melville too was a polar explorer, though of a later generation and of the other pole. Twice in the 1870s Melville was involved in exploring trips to the Arctic and both trips were attended by hardships and death of the sort that novelist Andrea Barrett has written about so wonderfully in her book The Voyage of the Narwhal. The portrait of Melville painted by Thomas Eakins, and discussed here by Sachs, reveals a man haunted by what he had endured.

Henry Adams, the nineteenth century's most remarkable autobiographer, regarded his friend Clarence King as the greatest figure of his generation. In the post-Civil War era he made important contributions to geology and explored sections of the Sierra Nevada region. On the strength of that work, Congress appointed him as the first director of the newly established US Geologic Survey, though he held the position for less than two years. John Muir also fell in love with the Sierras and founded the Sierra Club. For that, and for his fight to save the Hetch Hetchy valley, the story of which has long since passed into legend, he remains the patron saint of the modern environmental movement.

Sachs ties these figures together by pointing to their shared Humboldtian thinking, though what defines that thinking is a bit fuzzy around the edges here. For all of them, Sachs points to the de-centering that comes with exploration, physical hardship, the eager embrace of the unfamiliar, and the humbling that comes from glimpsing the human place in the cosmos. For Reynolds and for King, for example, the Humboldtian ethos was translated into "humility" (see pp. 149 & 247). For Muir, Sachs finds Humboldt's influence in the former's ability to see and appreciate the relationship native Eskimos had with their environment (pp. 328-329).

In searching, as the subtitle states, for the "roots of American environmentalism," Sachs gives Muir perhaps the most interesting treatment. Sachs points out that after 1881, when Muir wrote about his trip to the Arctic where he saw those Eskimos, Muir rarely wrote again about Native people. As his career went on, Muir more and more wrote people out of the environment, seeing them only as destructive intrusions on the pristine wilderness. In this sense, Muir set up the opposition between human beings and the natural world that largely defines our environmental debate today. Picking up on the work of historians like William Cronon, Sachs points out that this is simply a false dichotomy; worse, it has enabled us to set aside specific places which we preserve and revere while simultaneously ignoring the way our daily lives intersect with, have on impact on, and in turn depend on the environment. How many visitors, for example, fail to see the irony of driving an SUV to get to Yosemite?

Sachs has taken the nineteenth century historian Francis Parkman at his word when Parkman wrote that writing history should rely "less on books than on such personal experiences as should, in some sense, identify [the historian] with his theme." Sachs interjects himself often in this book, weaving between the history and his own physical and intellectual wanderings. He sees himself as a Humboldtian explorer and in this book he invites us to come join him on the journey.