Ranger and I have our very own book club. We talked this week through “The Invention of Nature — Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.” We agree that von Humboldt’s life is one that challenged the paradigm of colonialism, conquest and exploitation of nature, and his legacy can be traced through Thoreau, Muir, and many others right down to the present environmental movement.
This contemporary of Thomas Jefferson had ideas that changed the way many saw the natural world, and in the process lives in our hearts as much as any of our founding fathers.
Ranger: “Up until that time most people saw the world as a machine, and a pretty menacing one at that. It needed to be subdued and bullied by humans so that life could be improved. What’s that got to do with scrub jays?”
Me: “Well, we’ve been on Merritt Island, and met some scrub jays. They’re endangered, their habitat rapidly being taken by humans…..
…. they may very well disappear from Florida. The development paradigm, which pretty much says that this bird is of no consequence, would believe that habitat is better if it served a housing development. The paradigm that von Humboldt brought was one of admiration for the bird and the protection of the habitat.”
Ranger: “Looks like that habitat is aptly named: scrub. There isn’t much to look at…. lots of sand, occasional pine trees, low bushes. I suspect the jays evolved with that habitat over thousands of years.”
Me: “Right. These birds won’t be adapting to cities any time soon. What a loss that would be.”
Me (continuing): “Von Humboldt said that when habitat is destroyed, as he saw everywhere in America by agriculture and building practices, everything else is impacted. Springs dry up, the rivers change, and in the end humans suffer also. By the way, this guy challenged his friend President Jefferson on the subject of slavery, said colonialism was disastrous, and that missionaries were as bad as Conquistadores. You can see how the paradigms are still at war today, right?
Ranger: “Yes, certainly in Florida, where habitat is destroyed without understanding the consequences, and politicians just talk about creating more jobs and more money. Environmentalists have their work cut out for them here!”
Me: “Merritt Island is pretty much a metaphor for Florida. The bottom half is devoted to Cape Canaveral. It’s guarded by imposing gates. The top half is left as a wildlife refuge, but that gets more and more endangered. Von Humboldt saw how that kind of thing would eventually lead to the collapse of the critters who are there, because they are squeezed into smaller and smaller areas…. and eventually degrade human life as well.”