What's New @MizzouGeog? 9.14.20

Good morning, geographers!

This Monday’s morning email is a little different from what I normally cover, but there is good reason for it. September 14th is the birth date of polymath and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who was born 251 years ago today in Berlin, Germany. Humboldt combined extensive travel and fieldwork with systematic empirical measurement, intensive naturalistic description, and scientific reasoning to produce some of the earliest theories of environmental processes and human-environment interaction in the modern European era. His sprawling, multivolume work, Kosmos sought to explain the underlying natural laws of the entire universe. Given the scope of this work, perhaps it should come as no surprise that he died while working on volume 5.

Humboldt embodies both the spirit and science of geography. Here’s a good example: on his famous expedition to the Americas (1799-1804), he and his team climbed the Chimborazo volcano, reaching an elevation of 19,286 feet, about one thousand feet from the summit. If that’s all Humboldt did, he would simply be an explorer. Instead, Humboldt, whose shoes had basically disintegrated by that time, and fighting frostbite and gale-force winds, stopped at regular intervals to make meticulous measurements and observations—all to the chagrin of his traveling companions, who wanted nothing more than to get off the mountain! Those observations, though, provided the critical data Humboldt needed to test his theory of altitudinal zonation, or the regular banding by elevation of distinct ecosystems in mountainous regions. A version of this theory is still taught in world regional, physical geography, and biogeography classrooms today.

Humboldt was way ahead of his time in other ways as well. He was the first person to document the effects of human-induced climate change—twice, and in different parts of the world (Venezuela and Russia). As part of the Romantic movement, he saw no necessary distinction between the arts and science—the two informed one another, as the artwork that appears in his work amply demonstrates. He was the first to propose that South America and Africa had once been part of the same continent.

For these reasons and more, Humboldt is the unofficial patron saint of MU Geography. I encourage you to take a few minutes this week to learn more about this prototypical geographer. In particular, check out Humboldt’s account of his ascent of Chimborazo in his Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, available for free download. For the more adventurous, get Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, which you can also borrow from our own Jesse H. Wheeler Library. Learn more about Humboldt and discover—or rediscover—just what geography is all about.