- Essay on the Geography of Plants
In 1799, under the protection of the Spanish King Charles IV, Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland left Europe to embark upon one of the most ambitious scientific expeditions ever to take place in Central and South America. During the following five years, the two naturalists traveled across the New World, explored tropical forests, and climbed volcanoes, making many detailed observations and scientific measurements along the way. They collected and described thousands of new botanical specimens that had never been documented by Europeans. The results of this long American journey were published in Paris, in French, shortly after Humboldt’s return to Europe. Two centuries later, the first volume of these chronicles, the Essai sur la géographie des plantes (1807), considered by many to be Humboldt’s most scientifically influential work, is finally available for English-speaking readers. This achievement is thanks to the concerted efforts of editor Stephen T. Jackson, professor of botany and ecology at the University of Wyoming, and translator Sylvie Romanowski, associate professor of French literature at Northwestern University.
This new English edition goes far beyond what normally would be expected in a translation, as it includes a reproduction of the famous plate Tableau physique des Andes et pays voisins, with its iconic profile of the Chimborazo, as well as two enlightening essays that attempt to uncover both the scientific and the aesthetic ideas in Humboldt’s writings. The Essai sur la géographie des plantes is indeed often described as laying the foundation for the natural sciences of the nineteenth century, while at the same time setting the tone for a broad and unified vision of nature that would deeply root into the Romantic depictions of landscapes and their effect on human sensibility. Drawing from the observations and disparate measures he collected during his experience in the Andes, Humboldt defends a view of nature in which physical phenomena can be seen as the expressions, on local and global scales, of universal laws and constant patterns in space. Vegetation composition and form, temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, geologic formation, even the color of the skies and the specific agricultural practices one could observe in a particular area, could be seen as legible variations revealing the existence of these patterns. Combining all these physical and cultural properties and integrating them into one general description of the world is how Humboldt set the course for many of the disciplines we today know under the name of the environmental sciences.
An environmental scientist like Stephen T. Jackson therefore is in a very good position to spell out the debt owed to Humboldt’s contributions to the development of biogeography, climatology, ecology, and evolutionary biology, to name only a few sciences to which he opened the way. In his introductory essay, Jackson summarizes the meaningful outcomes of the South American expedition and sketches the context in which Humboldt’s provocative ideas emerged. The reader who is unfamiliar with the Essay will find in these first pages all she or he needs to know to grasp the momentous accomplishments realized by Humboldt in the Andes and the impact they had in the scientific community of the period. The emphasis that Jackson puts on illustrating how today’s ecologists, biogeographers, and evolutionary biologists can still benefit from reading this classic text [End Page 328] may seem a little surprising to historians and humanists, for whom examination of old sources—even scientific ones—might be more routine. However, by defending the relevance of two-hundred-year-old reflections to the current debates over climate changes and the consequences of humans’ activities on the globe, Jackson offers a substantive argument in favor of an optimistic perspective that Humboldt himself was already voicing in the closing lines of his Essay: “Sustained by previous discoveries, we can go forth into the future, and by foreseeing the consequences of phenomena, we can understand once and for all the laws to which nature subjected itself. In the...