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The Dawn of Ecology
The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth
Voyage of the Turtle: In Pursuit of the Earth's Last Dinosaur
Windswept: The Story of Wind and Water

The Dawn of Ecology
Two centuries ago Alexander von Humboldt set out to grasp the interconnectedness of nature. In the process he sowed the seeds of today’s environmentalism.

The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism
By Aaron Sachs
Viking, 496 pages, $25.95

Besides the cowboy, the frontiersman, the fur trapper, and the forty-niner, the American 19th century gave rise to another strange and colorful character: the environmental scientist. In a century largely dominated by relentless individualism and the belief that animals and water and land were there for the taking, the first intellectual shoots of the environmental movement were nonetheless beginning to sprout. More than 100 years before the idea of an ecosystem caught on in the popular imagination, many of America’s first naturalists and scientists were laying the groundwork for the new science of ecology, argues Cornell University historian Aaron Sachs in The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism. Their unlikely inspiration: an aristocratic Prussian by the name of Alexander von Humboldt.

All but forgotten today, Humboldt in the early 19th century was a scientific rock star. By the time he returned to Europe in 1804 after years exploring such wild territories as the Orinoco River in Venezuela and the volcanoes of the Andes, he was a continental celebrity, second in fame only to Napoleon. In the Americas, too, Humboldt cast a long shadow—even though he was a “foreign, aristocratic intellectual who visited the United States exactly once,” as Sachs writes. His ideas inspired a generation of quintessentially American naturalists and intellectuals, among them Thoreau, Poe, Emerson, Whitman, and the Hudson River School landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church. The centennial of Humboldt’s birth, in 1869, was “proclaimed across the whole North American continent,” writes Sachs. “It is possible that no other European had as great an impact on the intellectual culture of nineteenth-century America.”

Explorers tend to be remembered as swashbuckling, flag-planting daredevils, but Humboldt was an egghead, a thinker who valued insight above conquest and glory. His lifelong goal was to comprehend how the earth’s natural systems are woven together, to understand the interdependent biological loops that link plants to animals to climate to soil. Humboldt made major contributions to plant ecology, geography, and vulcanology (the study of volcanoes), among other sciences; his crowning glory was probably the massive five-volume work Cosmos, which articulated a grand theory of natural history. Humboldt’s philosophical approach had many of the elements that presaged modern-day environmentalism, including a deep respect for wild places and the belief that human activities may have all kinds of complex and unforeseen consequences.
 
In his writing, Humboldt combined a passionate love of wilderness with an appreciation of the limits of science to reveal and control the mysteries of the natural world. In one passage from Sachs’s book, Humboldt clambers to the top of an Ecuadoran volcano, where he is shaken by constant volcanic tremors and nearly suffocated by fumes. Yet he is giddy with scientific delight, taking measurements all the while, and later writes: “In the New World, man and his productions almost disappear amidst the stupendous display of wild and gigantic nature.”

Sachs’s book then turns to focus on four 19th-century American naturalist-explorers, and delineates the ways in which each was influenced by Humboldt’s character and his enthusiasms. The explorer J.N. Reynolds, who was convinced that a trip to the South Pole would reveal that the earth was hollow, took up Humboldt’s conviction that men should move beyond their boundaries and attempt to know and embrace the world as a whole. Clarence King, the melancholy and eccentric geologist who in 1879 became the first head of the U.S. Geological Survey, tried to fuse scientific and artistic understandings of nature. The naval engineer George Wallace Melville, after a tragic attempt to sail to the North Pole during which much of the crew was killed, developed a respect for the limits of human control over wild nature.

These men were not heroes in the Teddy Roosevelt vein but poetic and conflicted souls—aware of the unpredictable violence of natural forces and worried about the relentless exploitation of the American frontier and of colonial lands. King, for example, loved being lost in wild places yet also tried to profit from mining and ranching. He “understood the environment’s cosmic interrelatedness, its ability to instill a sense of connection and peace; he also understood its sheer, catastrophic power,” writes Sachs.

This ambitious book overreaches at times, and it can be disjointed, as the author tries to trace a set of loosely defined ideas through many different intellectual currents. But the portraits of these early environmentalists are compelling, particularly the surprising depiction of John Muir. For all his achievements, Sachs argues, Muir in his later, influential years came to believe that man had no permanent place in nature. Contrary to Humboldt’s holistic vision of human interdependence with nature, Muir advocated preserving pockets of wilderness that could only be visited—museum pieces in an increasingly urbanized world.

In any case, by the early 20th century environmental protection largely followed the Muir mold: preserving disconnected chunks of parkland without much concern for overall systems. At the same time science became more professionalized and specialized. Humboldt and his integrative approach faded away.

But the 21st century may yet bring a resurgence for Humboldt. In his time it may have seemed an academic exercise to describe the complex interactions between human society and natural systems while cultivating a deep respect for forces we do not fully comprehend. Now it seems essential. The menace of global warming has created an urgent need to understand the relationships between the inorganic and organic cycles that sustain life on earth—the very project that Humboldt championed two centuries ago. As influential as Humboldt was in the American 19th century, he may be more important to us now. We may even soon find ourselves once again celebrating the birthday of this forgotten hero.

Kathleen McGowan is a New York writer.
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Editors’ Choice

The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth
By E.O. Wilson
W.W. Norton and Company, 175 pages, $21.95

Conservative evangelical Christians, one of the country’s most influential political constituencies, are not exactly bosom buddies with environmentalists. Lately, though, a rapprochement of sorts has taken place, as certain evangelical leaders have increasingly embraced environmental advocacy, preferring to call it “creation care.” E.O. Wilson, the legendary biologist, sees an opening. His latest book, shrewdly titled The Creation, is written as an extended letter to a Baptist preacher. And Wilson is smart enough to address in the opening pages the major bugaboos for biblical literalists: “I know that science and environmentalism are linked in the minds of many with evolution, Darwin, and secularism.” If this sounds as if he’s describing that as a bad thing, be assured that the rest of the book is a passionate defense of science in the service of conservation and a lyrical appeal for an evolutionary understanding of the natural world. Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (for The Ants and On Human Nature), is at the top of his literary game in The Creation. He is a poet in a scientist’s skin. His language is economical and deceptively simple, as in the following passage explaining the emergent web of biodiversity: “Each species is a world in itself. It is a unique part of Nature. In the instant of time the species comes to your attention, it is spread before you as an ensemble of its member organisms, distributed in certain patterns over the landscape.” The Creation, for all its evocative brilliance, is unlikely to convert biblical purists. Wilson doesn’t really enter the religious sphere; instead he stays on familiar territory, insisting that “scientific knowledge, humanized and well-taught, is the key to achieving a lasting balance in our lives.” In a recent online exchange with Wilson on Audubon’s website (see Web Exclusives), Richard Cizik, a leader of the evangelical movement, argues that knowledge alone isn’t enough: “The [ecological] crisis we’re in is part of a larger spiritual problem at its heart, and something those of us of faith can and must speak to.” The yawning chasm between the two sides will obviously not be closed overnight.—Keith Kloor
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Voyage of the Turtle: In Pursuit of the Earth’s Last Dinosaur
By Carl Safina
Henry Holt and Company, 400 pages, $27.50

On a balmy night in Trinidad, a huge leatherback turtle lumbers up the beach and carefully digs a hole in the sand. There she drops dozens of rubbery eggs before returning to the sea, leaving her offspring to fend for themselves once they hatch. She swims all over the Atlantic or Pacific ocean, then comes ashore again, often making tracks in the same sand. Sea turtles preceded the age of Tyrannosaurus rex, surviving the vagaries of evolution and the perils of poaching. But they are no match for 21st century fishing gear, warns marine conservationist Carl Safina in his enchanting new book, Voyage of the Turtle: In Pursuit of the Earth’s Last Dinosaur. Describing a turtle ensnared in fishing line, Safina writes, “Its exertions to free itself have enmeshed it beyond hope of its life. Already afoul of fishing gear before it reaches the sea!—what a world we have made.” In Voyage of the Turtle, Safina, author of the acclaimed Song for the Blue Ocean, follows the sea turtles around the world during their migrations, and profiles some of the champions who have dedicated themselves to preserving these animals and their homes. Although sea turtles’ numbers have plummeted in recent decades, Safina says that hope rests on local people protecting nests on local beaches.—Susan Cosier
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Windswept: The Story of Wind and Water
By Marq de Villiers
Walker & Company, 352 pages, $25

When Marq de Villiers was a boy, a gust of wind once almost blew him off a rocky ledge and into the ocean off South Africa. Ever since, wind has terrified and enchanted him. “Wind plays a role in the creation myths of almost all human cultures, and in dozens the winds also govern commerce, procreation, communication, and more,” writes the former editor of Toronto Life magazine as he traces humanity’s relationship with wind back to ancient Greece. Having taught us how to sail and how to fly, winds have “affected history, changing it for better or worse.” He explores how pollution and global warming may be changing this age-old relationship, taking readers on a compelling journey tracking Hurricane Ivan from the Sahara Desert to his doorstep in Nova Scotia.—Melissa Mahony
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