The man who invented nature—a postmodern parable

Ecocide: “the extensive damage to…ecosystem(s) of a given territory…to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.”

A recent hike among the petroglyphs in Shavano Valley near Montrose, Colorado, was a reminder of the power of nature to sustain life and inspire art. It was also a reminder of something else, namely the tendency of us “moderns” to focus on the conquest of nature as evidence of our superiority over primitive and pre-modern peoples, not to mention all other creatures on the Planet.
The experience in Shavano Valley came at a time I happened to be reading Andrea Wulf’s acclaimed book, “The Invention of Nature,” which, according to the cover flap, “reveals the forgotten life of Alexander von Humboldt.” Having heard the German author give a talk about von Humboldt (1769-1839), I was curious to learn about this “visionary German naturalist whose ideas,” we are led to believe, “changed the way we see the natural world—and in the process created modern environmentalism.”
Even allowing for the hard-sell hype we’ve come to expect from the mass-marketing product pushers, that’s an extravagant claim. Clearly, von Humboldt did not invent Nature.
It turns out that the author is not a Wulf in sheep’s clothing. In her telling, von Humboldt’s invention was not nature itself but rather the key to understanding nature. Whether true or false, at least this clarification brings von Humboldt back down to earth—literally.
According to Wulf, von Humboldt was the first to recognize the complex interrelationships of all processes and life forms in nature. The book details his amazing fact-finding, specimen-collecting, sketchbook-filling adventures in far-flung places nobody in Europe or the United States at the time knew anything about: New Granada—what today is Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador; New Spain—Mexico; and Russia (most notably, Siberia).
Von Humboldt’s daring adventures, contacts with indigenous peoples, brushes with death and discoveries in South America caused him to experience a kind of sensory overload that led him to conceptualize the natural world in a revolutionary new way—new, that is, for him and his contemporaries in Europe and the fledgling United States of America.
It seems that everyone who was anyone—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolívar and Charles Darwin, to name a few—owed a huge debt to von Humboldt’s analytical insights, scientific observations and scholarly writings. He turned out tombs and treatises like a Bavarian butcher makes bratwurst.
If you’re wondering how or why a renowned poet like Goethe owed an intellectual debt to a mad Prussian scientist, it’s because von Humboldt (they were close friends, by the way) saw beauty and balance in nature. In Latin America, he discovered a natural harmony that’s only visible when you step back and see the whole rather than focusing on the parts. Trees versus forests. For him, nature was like a ballet—science and art dancing together—only without the baton-wielding penguin flailing in the orchestra pit.
It’s a fascinating book but I still have a problem with any thesis that holds somebody in the early 1800s invented this understanding of nature. Visit Shavano Valley, for example, and you will see that it’s not true. The Utes had never heard of von Humboldt, but the petroglyphs tell a story about a way of life and a spiritual sense that was grounded in a deep understanding of the natural world, an understanding that modern science and technology, along with commercialization and urbanization, have sadly all but expunged.  
How much of what we “moderns” do in the name of Progress is Planet-sustaining as opposed to Profit-seeking? How is the unexamined proposition that whatever promotes Commerce serves the Common Good different from the worship of false idols?
To my mind, this secular canon is not nearly as close to the Truth as the spiritual insight of the Utes and other Native American peoples who understood that all things in Nature are connected and that to disrupt the Natural Harmony that sustains all life on Earth is an abomination. It’s what environmental scientists mean when they talk about an “ecosystem” or study so-called ecocatastrophes, what most now recognize as an inexorable global process powered by overpopulation, mercantilism, ever-increasing dependence on fossil fuels, the rapacious pursuit of profit and the list goes on—in a word, ecocide.
If you don’t believe von Humboldt or his postmodern heirs whose dire warnings are based on scientific evidence, ask a Ute.

Tom Magstadt writes and cooks in the log cabin of his dreams. He lives on a mountain in Ouray County and frequents Colorado Boy almost enough to qualify as a regular. Visit Tom’s blog at