All Nature Breathes

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1759)

I am not a Pantheist. . .or a Theist of any kind. . .but I find enjoyment in these almost spiritual passages in early scientists like Humboldt, Darwin, Muir and others, down to Sagan and Hawking in our day.

Students in the class on Freethinkers I taught last Spring gave me Andrea Wulf’s book on the explorer Alexander von Humboldt (The Invention of Nature).  I highly recommend it.  I knew he was an important naturalist and scientist, one who inspired Darwin, Muir and many more, but Wulf has introduced a central figure in naturalism whose shadow remains extensive. Wulf quotes this amazing description from his Personal Narrative (1814-1829), when he was in South America, that reveals this great student of the cosmos as an intimate participant-observer in Nature:

“How vivid is the impression produced by the calm of nature, at noon, in these burning climates! The beasts of the forests retire to the thickets; the birds hide themselves beneath the foliage of the trees, or in the crevices of the rocks. Yet, amidst this apparent silence, when we lend an attentive ear to the most feeble sounds transmitted through the air, we hear a dull vibration, a continual murmur, a hum of insects, filling, if we may use the expression, all the lower strata of the air. Nothing is better fitted to make man feel the extent and power of organic life. Myriads of insects creep upon the soil, and flutter round the plants parched by the heat of the sun. A confused noise issues from every bush, from the decayed trunks of trees, from the clefts of the rocks, and from the ground undermined by lizards, millepedes, and cecilias. These are so many voices proclaiming to us that all nature breathes; and that, under a thousand different forms, life is diffused throughout the cracked and dusty soil, as well as in the bosom of the waters, and in the air that circulates around us.”

I’ve now added Mr. Humboldt to the Hall of Freethinkers to listen more closely to–as I listen for those “breathing voices” of the natural world.

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