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Alexander von Humboldt and planet earth’s green mantle

Alexandre von Humboldt et le manteau vert de la planète Terre
Anne Buttimer


Cet article s’ouvre sur un bref aperçu de la carrière intellectuelle de ce pionnier de la géographie moderne que fut Alexandre de Humboldt (1769-1859), les contextes académiques et politiques dans lesquels son œuvre s’est déployée et ses relations avec les auteurs de son temps. Puis est proposé une traduction en anglais de son Essai sur la géographie des plantes (1805), un ouvrage qui peut être considéré comme une illustration exemplaire de sa vision du monde. Enfin, quelques remarques conclusives analysent les composantes « géopoétiques » du discours de Humboldt qui l’ont guidé pour rapprocher les mondes de la connaissance scientifique et humaniste.

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Alexander von Humboldt’s Geography of Plants:Bridging Sciences and Humanities

  • 1 These introductory comments overlap in places with a previously published article (Buttimer, 2001).

1Over two hundred years ago Alexander von Humboldt returned from his trans-Atlantic excursions, laden with a rich collection of specimens and filled with enthusiasm about his discoveries. For several decades thereafter he lectured in various places to both scholarly and public audiences and wrote extensively about his experiences. His monumental endeavour epitomises the challenge of integrating insights from both scientific and humanistic enquiry toward comprehensive insight on humanity and environment. Indeed many of the cognitive and practical challenges broached in his writings have enduring salience today, as scholars acknowledge the urgent need to understand sustainability in humanity’s modes of relating to its terrestrial home1. This translation of his succinct lecture to students of science at University of Paris in 1805 reveals his ingenious mode of combining aesthetics and poetics in the study of humanity and environment.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)

  • 2 Letter to Swiss geographer Pictet dated 3 January 1806.

2Polymath scholar and celebrated patriarch of European geography, Alexander von Humboldt’s career details and published works retain an enduring appeal today (Beck, 1959, Bierman, 1989, Botting, 1973, Kellner, 1963). Privately tutored and exposed to a diverse range of intellectual interests in childhood, three of these continued to evoke passion throughout his lifetime (fig. 1). First was natural history: ’flowers, butterflies, beetles, shells and stones were his favourite playthings’ (Botting,1973, p. 12); he often wandered alone in the woods, collected items and then mounted and classified them in various lists and sequences. Reminiscing later to a friend he wrote: ’The sight of exotic plants, even of dried specimens in a herbarium, fired my imagination and I longed to see the tropical vegetation in southern countries with my own eyes’2.

Figure 1. Alexander von Humboldt self portrait aged 45

Figure 1. Alexander von Humboldt self portrait aged 45

Source: Société de Géographie, Acta Geographica, 1965, p.7, with kind permission

  • 3 Of the account of Cook’s voyages by Johann Reinhold Forster, George’s father, Humboldt wrote: ’He [ (...)

3The germ of geographical exploration, his second major interest, should be ascribed to his meeting in Göttingen with George Forster, companion on Cook’s circumnavigation of the world, and who accompanied him on an excursion to England, travelling by boat on the Rhine3. A third major influence during student years in Berlin, Frankfurt and Göttingen, was the ethos underlying the French Revolution, the ideals of which struck a lasting chord. Throughout his life, too, Alexander enjoyed the affection and support of his brother Wilhelm von Humboldt, celebrated founder of the Humboldtean University in Berlin. It was Wilhelm who also introduced him to Aimé Bonpland, his loyal companion on the trans-Atlantic voyages.

Eighteenth century debates on studies of nature

4Humboldt’s ideas and work are best appreciated when placed in the context of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a time which witnessed starkly contrasting and often conflicting world views and social upheaval throughout Europe. Lively debates were astir over issues of science, medicine, political economy, the arts and literature. As Hanno Beck remarked,

The 18c witnessed tensions between the most prosaic and utilitarian teachings and the lofty heights of Kantian philosophy, tensions between bourgeoisie and nobility, between faith and reason, between external tyrannies and internal freedom, between freemasonry and Rationalismus. (Cited in Beck, 1959, p. 1).

  • 4 Arnold 1996, Livingstone 2000, Robic 2008.

5The tropical world posed new horizons: issues of health and disease, of racial diversity, commercially viable commodities4 and colonial administration. Fresh data from scientific travellers, colonial officials, and trading companies meanwhile were already exciting popular imaginations and political challenges (Glacken 1967). Reports from geographical explorations were discussed in elite and popular circles, and especially in the Court of Weimar. How to understand nature became, in fact, one of the burning questions on scholarly horizons during Alexander von Humboldt’s formative years. Academic opinion oscillated between two contrasting poles. On the one hand were the Encyclopedistes, such as D’Alembert and D’Holbach, who believed in the power of science and scientifically-based technology and politics to bring about a better world. On the other hand there were the “Nature philosophers” such as Schiller, Herder, Hegel and later Emerson and Thoreau, for whom any “explanation” of nature which ignored spiritual and aesthetic dimensions of reality was abhorrent (fig.2). The prospect of applied mechanics in human affairs evoked particularly hostile reactions in Germany and in New England.

Figure 2. Some of Humboldt’s contemporaries

Figure 2. Some of Humboldt’s contemporaries

Source: Prepared by Anne Buttimer. Previously published in Buttimer, 2001, p.106.

6Both Humboldt and Goethe (1749-1832) advocated more direct observation of nature than either of these approaches allowed (Table 1).

Table 1. Career interests of Humboldt and Goethe

GOETHE 1749 - 1832

HUMBOLDT 1769 - 1859









Geology, mineralogy,



Os intermaxillare; botany, zoology



Metamorphose der Pflanzen; Colours



...Basalte der Rhein



Beiträge der Optik



Visit to Goethe



Muskel + Nerv.



Astro observations

1799 -1804


American Voyages



Physics+ chemistry



Nouveau Continent



Ansichten der Natur






Cloud formations






Physical geography



Studies on the rainbow



Work on Kosmos






Kosmos I-IV



Kleinere Schriften


Kosmos V + Index

7While Humboldt championed objectivity and rigour in measurement and eventual generalization of results, Goethe emphasized a careful attuning to the observation process itself, and the inevitable subjectivity in human perception and understanding.

8Correspondence between these two scholars reveals much about the sciences and humanities of their day. Both acknowledged the cardinal importance of direct sensory experience of nature, the intimate connections between reason and emotion, poetics and aesthetics in the conduct of science (Goethe 1952, 1971, 1988).

9It was in the salon that scholars from diverse fields assembled in the late eighteenth century to debate, to read and to write. It was in such a context that Humboldt made the acquaintance of Goethe and Schiller. On 18 June 1795 Goethe wrote to Humboldt: ’Do tell me about your experiences and be sure of my vital interest. Your observations start from the Element and mine from the Gestalt, so we should hasten to meet each other in the middle’. Both Goethe and Humboldt sought ways to transcend the antipathies between the sciences and the humanities and there was a strong bond of mutual respect and admiration between them (Bruhns 1872, Barry 1998). ’I’ve spent a most fruitful time with Humboldt’, Goethe wrote to Schiller on 26 April 1797:

His presence here has roused my interest in natural history from its slumber. I regard him as unique - I’ve never known anyone who combines such a wide variety of interests...what he can still do for science is incalculable (Cited in Scurla, 1959, p. 91-92).

10Schiller, however, did not share Goethe’s positive opinion. Writing to Körner, 6 August 1797:

A small-minded restless vanity inspires his entire work... He shows a shallowness of intellect that is most unfortunate... shamelessly applying naked analytical reason to measure nature: nature which is venerable, forever inscrutable... Alexander impresses many, and wins most times in comparison with his brother, because he has a mouth (Maul) and usually makes an impression (Cited in Borch, 1948, p. 97).

11A mouth indeed, particularly in French, the language he preferred, a fact which was highly appreciated in Paris, the place where he particularly liked to work. ’What a charming and tireless conversationalist is M. de Humboldt!’, one of his correspondents remarked, ’A man of the world who knows everything and expresses it without a smile, while his audience bursts into laughter - those mischievous eyes which have explored all secrets of natural history and all the products of earth, have also plumbed the depths of the human heart and found there many weaknesses, and many follies’ (Perpillou, 1965, p. 2).

12’Humboldt demonstrated many features of the eighteenth century’ Minguet wrote, ’universalism, encyclopaedism, intellectual curiosity, a taste for natural science, travel, humanitarianism, eclecticism...’ (Minguet, 1969, p. 670). But he demonstrated much more. He inspired literary and artistic interest in nature - particularly in tropical landscapes - throughout the nineteenth century. Much of this, in turn, inspired movements for nature conservation and environmental protection at both sides of the Atlantic (Bunksé, 1981).

Voyages to the Americas (1799-1804)

From my earliest youth I had been possessed by a passionate desire to travel in far-off countries, little visited by Europeans ... Having grown up in a country lacking direct contact with the two Indies and settled later in mountainous country far from the sea-coast and famed mainly for its intensive mining industry, I sensed an ever-growing impulsion towards the sea and extensive journeys ... All that which is far off and only indistinctly discernible captivates the imagination (DU, Cultural Monthly 1970, p. 1).

13Setting out on the trans-Atlantic voyage he wrote to Friesleben, June 1799:

...I shall collect plants and fossils, and make astronomical observations with the best of instruments. Yet this is not the main purpose of my journey. I shall endeavour to discover how nature’s forces act upon one another and in what manner the geographic environment exerts its influence on animals and plants. In short, I must find out about the harmony in nature (Cited in de Terra, 1955, p. 86-87).

14During this journey he amassed volumes of primary data on flora and fauna, geo-magnetism and volcanism (Berghaus, 1849-1851, vol. IV), oceanic currents (Berghaus, 1849-1851, vol. II, No 3 and 8), archaeological treasures and cultural features (Berghaus, 1849-1851, vol. V). Notes taken during these expeditions provided raw material for all his subsequent lectures and writing were gathered during his journeys in the Americas (1799-1804) (fig. 3):

Figure 3. American Voyages (1799-1804)

Figure 3. American Voyages (1799-1804)

Source: Map drawn by Stephen Hannon, University College Dublin, Department of Geography

15His aim was therefore not simply the accumulation of “insulated facts” (Humboldt, Personal narrative…, 1851, p. x), he wanted to understand the interconnections among diverse orders of reality. ’The great problem of the physical description of the globe’, he later wrote, ’is the determination of the form of these types [of stony strata, plants and animals], the laws of their relations with each other, and the eternal ties which link the phenomena of life, and those of inanimate nature’ (Humboldt, Personal narrative…, 1851, p. xi). ’The goals for which I strove’, he already revealed in Ansichten der Natur, ’were to depict nature in its prime traits, to find proof of the interworking of (natural) forces, and to achieve a sense of enjoyment which the immediate view gives to sensitive man...’ (cited in Fischer et al., 1969, p. 63).

16And throughout the voyage, he insisted on such direct experiences of nature. En route across the Atlantic in 1799 with Bonpland he visited Teneriffe, climbing the Pico de Teide and descending into its volcanic crater. ’The sulphurous vapour in the crater burnt holes in our clothes’, he noted, ’while our hands were frozen numb’. A few years later in Mexico he climbed into the crater of Jorullo, a volcano created on 29 September 1759 and still burning, ’The cones all around emitted a dense vapour which made the air unbearably hot’, he reported in Vues des Cordillères. When the Cotopaxi volcano erupted on 4 January 1803, he and Bonpland travelled up the Rio Guayaquil to Bebahoyo on 6 February in order to examine the phenomenon at close range (Beck and Schoenwaldt, 1999, p. 29). Direct sensory contact with nature was an essential prelude for accurate scientific analyses. ’Nature must be experienced via the senses’, he later wrote to Goethe, ’those who only observe and reach abstractions can spend a lifetime classifying plants and animals in the hot tropics and believe that they can describe nature, but they will never get close to it’ (Cited in Geiger, 1909, p. 304).

17Humboldt felt quite “at home” in the Tropics. On 21 February 1801 he wrote to Willdenow from Havana:

After having to sleep for four months in forests, surrounded by crocodiles, anacondas and jaguars who attack the canoes... Despite the incessant alternations between dampness, heat and mountain cold, my health and my mood have clearly improved since I left Spain. The tropical world is my element, I have never been so consistently healthy as I have been during the last two years (Cited in Biermann, 1989, p. 175).

18Humboldt’s American expeditions were revolutionary. Previous explorers had reported on exotic phenomena but Humboldt now added accurate measurements, scientific explanations, and results presented in a variety of graphic, tabular and cartographic modes. In fact, his work has since been regarded as pioneering example of “Humboldtean Science”, a term which refers to a wave of early nineteenth century research in fields ranging from ’astronomy and the physics of the earth and the biology of the earth all viewed from a geographical standpoint, with the goal of discovering quantitative mathematical connections and interrelationships’ (Dettelbach, 1996, Cannon, 1978, p. 77). According to Cannon, four of its essential elements were:

  • A new insistence on accuracy of all instruments and all observations;

  • A new mental sophistication, expressed as contempt for easy theories of the past, or as taking lightly the theoretical mechanisms and entities of the past;

  • A new set of conceptual tools: isomaps, graphs, theory of errors; and

  • Application of these tools not to laboratory isolates but to the immense variety of real phenomena, so as to produce laws dealing with the very complex interrelationships of the physical, the biological, and even the human.

19There was certainly an impressive supply of instruments along, the most sophisticated available in his day. This became quite oppressive at times: ’Our progress was often retarded by the necessity of dragging after us, during expeditions of five or six months, twelve, fifteen, and sometimes more than twenty loaded mules, exchanging these animals every eight or ten days and superintending the Indians who were employed in driving the numerous caravans’ (Humboldt, 1851, p. xii). Among the most famous of his achievements was the ascent of Mount Chimborazo (6310 m) on 23 June 1802 together with Bonpland and Montufar. He climbed, with a wounded foot, wearing only simple walking shoes and dragging all their instruments through thick fog, stopping short at about 900 m from the peak because of an impassable ravine. Their barometer recorded a height of nearly 19 286 feet, a world record at the time (Humboldt 1838). Humboldt was proud to note that measurements could be made with the magnetic needle at a height which was 1100 metres higher than the top of Mont Blanc. ’All my life I imagined that, of all mortals, I was the one who had risen highest in the world’ (Botting, 1973, p.153). It was disillusioning later to find that recorded Himalayan heights exceeded those of Chimborazo. Actually, if measured from the centre of the earth, Chimborazo juts out further than Everest (fig.4)

Figure 4. Chimborazo from the Earth’s Centre

Figure 4. Chimborazo from the Earth’s Centre

Because the earth is flattened at the poles, Chimborazo, which is located close to the Equator, extends more than 1 km out from the centre of the earth than Mount Everest, even if measured from sea-level is more than 2 km higher. This figure exaggerates the vertical scale by a factor of 50 near the surface of the earth.

Source: Sketch by Bertram Broberg. Previously published in Buttimer, 2001, p.114

20The energy and enthusiasm displayed by Humboldt and Bonpland on these American voyages were rewarded with a truly impressive scientific harvest. They surveyed and mapped, listed and classified, sketched and wrote about a vast range of phenomena; not only on the flora, fauna, physiognomy and geophysics of the New World landscapes, but also on their social and economic geography. Individual volcanoes were presented in terms of volcanic fields; botanical phenomena in terms of altitudinal as well as spatial zonation; human livelihoods in terms of economic base and cultural norms (Humboldt 1814c).

21Humboldt mapped the flows of gold from one continent to another, sketched alternative potential routes for the Panama Canal to link Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (fig. 5); interpreted the hieroglyphs and theorized about the world views and value systems of Maya and Inca, and did not hesitate to question conventional theories about mountains and river systems.

Figure 5. Alternative locations for the construction for the Panama Canal

Figure 5. Alternative locations for the construction for the Panama Canal

Sketched by Alexander von Humboldt

Source: Humboldt A. von, 1811, Essai politique sur le royaume de la nouvelle Espagne

22Travel into the interior of New World space was often, of course, only possible by water. And indeed many of Humboldt’s most notable discoveries were made on canoe trips along South American rivers. He noticed, for example, the dramatic differences between tropical black and white water rivers. In dry seasons when they were separated by their low water level, the black water rivers were almost free of insects, their banks infertile, and only small fish survived in the waters. But the area around the white water rivers (Orinoco, Rio Blanco, Rio Magdalena) was swarming with hostile insects, their banks were rich in vegetation, and all kinds of life forms were found in the water. The reason, he suggested, might lie in the chemical composition of the water. Today in fact it is known that the black water is almost entirely lacking in oxygen, hostile to insects, with pH values of 4.3 to 6, which cause an acid reaction that kills bacteria. The pH values of the white water rivers are 7.0 to 8.5 (Beck and Bonacker, 1969, p. 21-22).

23One significant part of the American voyage was the confirmation of the existence of the Casiquiare Canal linking the Orinoco and the Rio Negro, tributary to the Amazon. In 1744 the Jesuit priest Manuel Roman had actually travelled on this canal, but when this was reported by La Condamine to the French Academy, it was met with disbelief. ’This long supposed connection between the Orinoco and the Amazon is a monstrous error in geography’, Philippe Buache noted in 1798, ’To rectify the ideas entertained to this point, it is only necessary to observe the direction of the great chain of mountains which separates the water’ (Cited in Humboldt,1816a, p. 538). Humboldt and Bonpland travelled up the Casiquiare from the Rio Negro and found the place where it enters the Orinoco, mapping this for posterity.

24Later Humboldt could mock the “armchair” geographers who had refused to entertain any alternative hypotheses to the conventional ones:

It is ... by a false application of the principles of hydrography that geographers, from the depths of their offices (cabinets), have sought to determine the direction of mountain chains in countries where they think they know the exact course of the rivers. They imagined that two large hydrographic basins could only be separated by high lands, or that a large river could not change direction except through obstruction by a mountain chain. (Cited in Beck and Bonacker, 1969, p. xliv)

Humboldtean Science and Goethe’s Way of Science

25While his avowed purpose was that of “scientific traveller”, Humboldt was constantly aware of the humanistic approaches to nature study which he had gleaned through his dialogue with Goethe (Buttimer, 2001). Unlike conventional “natural science” approaches which sought objectivity and verifiable generalizations in scientific knowledge, Goethe’s “Way of Science” tried to transcend the rift between subject and object, placing emphasis on the knower and processes of discovery (Seamon and Zajonc, 1996). ’...Man knows himself only to the extent that he knows the world’, Goethe had written, ’he becomes aware of himself only within the world, and aware of the world only within himself. Every object, well contemplated, opens up a new organ in us’ (Trunz, 1981, vol. XIII, p. 38).

26Essential features of “Goethe’s Way of Science” were:

  • Study of Nature beyond the tensions between Encyclopedisme and Natur-philosophie);

  • “Delicate empiricism”: observation - reflection - association;

  • Transcending the split of subject and object via experiment, trusting human senses rather than instruments;

  • Metamorphosis as essential feature of life, emerging from tensions between opposing tendencies (Light-dark, Diastole-Systole, Inhalation-exhalation;

  • The idea of core microcosm for all living phenomena Urphänomen (e.g. the leaf):

  • Cause and effect inseparable,

  • Nature study as Bildung, leading to metamorphosis of the scientist;

  • World as expression of one universal idea (Seamon and Zajonc, 1996; Buttimer, 2001).

27Humboldt must have meditated long on the lessons learned from these meetings with Goethe and his colleagues while exploring the Tropics. ’Nature’, he wrote later in the first volume of Cosmos, ’is animated by the breath of life’ (Humboldt, Cosmos, 1848, p. 20). In a letter to Caroline von Wolzogen, Berlin, 14.5.1806, he wrote:

In the Amazon forests, as on the peaks of the Andes, I had the feeling that the same life infiltrates stones, plants and animals, as well as the swelling breast of humankind, as if animated by a single spirit from pole to pole. Everywhere I felt strongly how powerfully those relationships forged at Jena influence me now, and - thanks to Goethe’s perspectives on Nature - I have acquired virtually new organs of perception (Cited in Biermann, 1989, p. 180).

28Analytically, Humboldt took study of “nature” out of the laboratory into the landscape. While each element demanded specialised analytical attention in order to establish its own specific rules of order and organization, the most important challenge was that of integrating all these knowledges. And wherein might lie secrets of such integration? Throughout his voyages, and especially while recounting the story of his voyages, it was Goethe’s Way which afforded solutions. The most succinct expression of these convictions, and in fact a microcosm of his entire oeuvre, is found in his work on the geography of plants. One of the very first products of the American observations, and allegedly the basis for Cosmos, Naturgemalde der Tropenwelt: Geographie der Pflanzen in den Tropen-Landern, ein Naturgemalder der Anden, published in Tubingen, 1807 was dedicated to Goethe (Biermann, 1989, p. 116). Goethe was thrilled. In a letter dated 3 April 1807 (Geiger, 1909, p. 299-300):

I have read through the volume several times with great attention and I have begun, even without the promised cross-sectional diagram, to imagine a landscape myself where, at a scale of 4000 toises (approx. 8 000 m) to a page, the heights of the European and American mountains are sketched side by side; the snowlines and the vegetation are also sketched. I enclose a copy of this sketch, partly for fun, partly seriously, and I ask you to make corrections on it with feather pen and with colours if you like, and also to make some notes on the page and return it to me as soon as possible.

Figure 6. Sketch of Old and New World Vegetation by Goethe

Figure 6. Sketch of Old and New World Vegetation by Goethe

[Tableau comparatif des altitudes de l’Ancien et du Nouveau Monde, Dessin de Goethe dédié à Humboldt]

Source: A. de Humboldt (1807) Essai… p. 134. Image courtesy of “Société des Lettres, sciences et arts ’La Haute-Auvergne’; Archives départementales du Cantal, 28 J, 1 Ai 186”

29There was some delay in response from Humboldt. Later, however, when the eventual map showing the global distribution of vegetation types was finalised, it was accompanied by succinct diagrams which model altitudinal variations in plant distribution and a wide range of other patterns. In his celebrated Géographie des plantes équinoxiales. Tableau physique des Andes et pays voisins, he summarised lessons on the interconnectedness of terrestrial phenomena. One central mountain, presumably modelled on Chimborazo, with two others – perhaps Cotopaxi and Pichincha - nearby show the altitudinal zonation of vegetation forms (fig.7).

Figure 7: Geography of plants in tropical lands. A tableau of the Andes and neighbouring regions

Figure 7: Geography of plants in tropical lands. A tableau of the Andes and neighbouring regions

Source : A. de Humboldt, Essai sur la géographie des plantes (1805), Vème partie

30This is framed with parallel columns marked off by altitude, containing other relevant information on air temperature, chemical composition of the atmosphere, lower limits of snow in various latitudes, zones inhabited by various animals, zonal locations of cultivated crops, visibility from sea level, measures of intensity of solar radiation, the degrees at which water boils at different elevations, electrical phenomena, and an extensive description of rock types, their structures and bed-inclinations which (although quite independent of climate) may be relevant for plant growth (Table 2).

Physical tableau of the Andes and neighbouring regions

31This Tableau was intended to evoke awareness of connections between particular and general, and raise questions about linkages among different orders of reality.

Table 2. Geo-physical Tableau of Equinoctial Regions

Vertical Columns showing altitudinal variations in:


Vegetation forms


Typical animals


Geological structures


Typical agricultural crops


Temperatures - maxima and minima -


Lower limits of perpetual snow


Chemical composition of air (oxygen, hydrogen, carbon)


Electrical phenomena


Decline in gravitational force


Barometic pressure


Intensity of blueness in the sky


Horizontal refraction of light


Visibility of mountains from the sea


Temperature at which water boils

32’This tableau summarises all the research which I have conducted in the course of this excursion to the Tropics’, Humboldt later wrote. ’I dare to think that this will be of interest not only to the “physicien”; I believe that, for all viewers, it will evoke a sense of multiple associations...’

In these immense chains of cause and effect, nothing can be regarded in isolation. The overall equilibrium which exists throughout major perturbations is the result of an infinite range of mechanical forces and chemical reactions all of which balance each other. While each series of facts needs to be studied separately in order to discover its own rules of order, the general study of nature demands that all knowledge about transformations of matter be then combined (cited in Sorre, 1959, p. 15).

33The Essai resonates to not only the grandest claims of “Humboldtean Science” but also to some of the central features of “Goethe’s Way of Science”. The Tableau physique des Andes et pays voisins epitomises “Humboldtean Science” while the entire Essai sur la géographie des plantes, together with other records of correspondence and journals, resonate to “Goethe’s Way”. His graphic language evokes moments of insight, the instant “worth a thousand, bearing all within itself”, those moments of intuitive perception, when the universal is seen within the particular, the whole that is present in the part, as fragments to the hologram. Metamorphosis, so central to Goethe’s scientific method, was taken-for-granted in Humboldt’s world view, recognisable not only in plant morphology, but in the global spread and regional constellations of vegetation forms. Beyond all scientific ambitions, too, Humboldt daringly insisted on the value of nature study as Bildung, and the geography of plants as a basis for philosophical reflection.

Alexander von Humboldt: An Essay on the Geography of Plants5


34Abroad from Europe for five years, traversing countries rarely visited by naturalists, I should have hastened to publish a short account of my journey to the tropics and the many phenomena which I studied one after the other. I might even have hoped that this would evoke widespread public interest: indeed many have already shown a marked interest in not only my own personal well-being but also in the success of the expedition itself. But before speaking about myself and the obstacles I had to overcome on these journeys, I should rather draw scholarly attention to the major natural phenomena encountered in these regions. This essay offers an overall view of observations which are treated in greater detail in other works, currently under preparation for public readership.

35Here I bring together all the physical phenomena which are observable on both the surface of the globe and in its surrounding atmosphere. The physical scientist who is already aware of the current state of science, especially in meteorology, will not be too surprised to see such a large range of topics treated in so few pages. If I had spent more time on drafting this essay, it would even be shorter; a tableau should contain only those major physical features and results which are certain and amenable to precise quantitative measure.

36Since my early youth I have conceived the idea of this work. Already in 1790 I sent a first outline of a Geography of plants to M. Georges Forster, famous companion of Cook and one with whom I had close ties of friendship and gratitude. Subsequent studies in several branches of physical science have helped me to gain a wider understanding of these initial ideas. My voyage to the tropics supplied me with precious materials for a physical history of the globe. And it was there, in full view of these marvellous phenomena which I wanted to describe, at the foot of Chimborazo, on the South Pacific shores, that I wrote most of this text. I thought I should maintain the title An Essay on the Geography of Plants because any less modest title might have revealed its imperfections and rendered it less worthy of the indulgence of the general public.

37But it is especially on stylistic grounds that I plead for such indulgence, for some time now I’ve had to speak in languages that are even less my own than is French. I therefore could not hope to express myself with the same purity of style that could be expected for a book written in my own language.

38The tableau presented here is based on observations made by me and by M. Bonpland. Working together for six years, being kinked with the closest of friendships, sharing the pains of travel in hitherto uncultivated lands, we agreed that both of our names would be associated with whatever results would ensue from our expeditions.

39While working on these results since my return from Philadelphia, I’ve frequently consulted some famous colleagues who have honoured me with their generous advice. The greatly renowned M. Laplace has gratified me through his interest in not only the materials I brought with me, but also in those offered since my return to Europe. His genius illumines and enlivens, as it were, everything about him so that his generosity has become as valuable to me as it has to all young people who approach him.

40While gladly paying him the tribute of my admiration and gratitude, I recognise other, no less sacred duties of friendship. M. Biot has graciously honoured me with his advice in the writing of this essay. He combines the naturalist’s sagacity with impressive geodesic skill, and our interactions have been a rich source of inspiration; despite the burden of many other obligations, he was agreed to calculate all the tables of the horizontal refractions and of light extinction which I added to my tableau.

41I have taken facts related to the history of fruit trees from M. Sickler’s book, which contain the rare blend of scientific erudition and profound philosophical reflection.

42M. Decandolle has supplied me with interesting data relating to the geography of plants on the high Alps; M. Ramond supplied materials on the flora of the Pyrenees; I’ve also availed of other information from the classical writings of Wildenow. It was important to compare equinoctial vegetation with that found in Europe. M. Delambre agreed to enhance my tableau with several hitherto unpublished altitudinal measures. A good number of my barometric observations were calculated by M. Prony, following the Laplace formula, but taking account of the influence of gravity. This respected scholar has kindly agreed to check with his own eyes over 400 of my own measures of altitude.

  • 6 Géographie moderne de Pinkerton, trad. par Walkenaer ; tome 6, page 174-177.

43Right now I’m working on a report about the astronomical observations which I made during the expedition, a great number of which were submitted for checking by the Bureau des Longitudes. Before this was done, It would have been imprudent to publish the maps which I sketched on the continental interior, or even in the narration of my journey earlier; since the location and actual altitude of the sites influence everything in those regions which I traversed. I dare to take pride in the fact that I am especially hopeful that those longitudinal observations made while navigating the Orinoco, the Casiquiare and the Rio Negro will be of interest to all those involved in the geography of South America. Despite Father Caulin’s detailed description of the Casiquiare, modern geographers still raised doubts about the connection between the Orinoco and the Amazon river. From my work in the field, on the actual site itself, I did not expect such a bitter response6 to my discovery that river courses and mountain directions were quite different from those indicated in the La Cruz map; but this is the fate of travellers: they displease others when they reveal facts that are contrary to taken-for-granted views.

44Once I have finished the volume on astronomy, my other works will follow quickly; and it will be only after I have published the fruits of my later journey that I’ll be able to undertake my next project which should shed new light on meteorology and magnetic phenomena.

45I cannot publish this essay, the very first fruit of my research, without offering my sincere and respectful gratitude to the government which honoured me with its gracious protection throughout these journeys. I lived for five years in the midst of an honest and loyal nation and never encountered in the Spanish colonies any other obstacle to overcome except those presented by the physical environment. The memory of this official benevolence, as well as the expressions of affection and interest shown by all classes of people in both the Americas, will remain forever engraved in my soul.

An essay on the geography of plants (1805)

46As a general rule, botanical science has focussed research on only a small part of its potential domain. Botanists concentrate almost exclusively on identifying new plant species, the study of their external structures, the characters that distinguish them and the correspondences that unify them in classes and families.

47Such botanical knowledge on the formal aspects of living phenomena, of course, provides a primary basis for descriptive natural history. It must be regarded as indispensable for progress in scientific knowledge concerning the medical properties of plants, their cultivation, or their salience in practices of the arts; though it is worth capturing the exclusive attention of many botanists, and even being studied according to philosophical points of views, it is equally important to identify the Geography of plants, a science which has still only a nominal existence but one which constitutes an essential component of the general physical description of the earth.

48This science considers plants in the context of its local associations in different climates. Vast as its own object, this science paints in broad strokes the immense expanses of space which are occupied by plants, from regions of perpetual snow to the depths of the ocean, and even into dark caves of the earth’s interior where cryptogams, as little known as the insects which feed on them, grow.

49The altitudinal limit of vegetation varies, as indeed do the limits of perennial snow, depending on distance from the poles, or on the obliqueness of solar rays. We do not know how far down plants can exist: but some precise observations made on subterranean vegetation in both hemispheres prove that the interior of the earth is animated throughout every corner wherever organic seeds have found a suitable space and appropriate nourishment for them to develop. On those rocky frozen summits which the eye can scarcely distinguish above the clouds there are only mosses and lichenous plants. Similar cryptogams, some atrophied, some coloured, ramify on the roofs of mines and subterranean caves. Thus at these two opposite limits of vegetation, there are creations of similar structure; the physiology of each is equally unknown.

50The geography of plants sorts out plants in terms of not only altitude and climatic zones where they occur; it studies them not only in terms of barometric pressure, temperature, humidity and electrical tension in which they exist; it also makes the distinction, as among animals, between two different ways of life - or, one might say - different behaviours.

51Some grow separately, isolated from others, for example in Europe, Solanum dulcamara, Lychnis dioica, Polygonum bistorta, Anthericum liliago, Cratoegus aria, Weissia paludosa, Polytrichum piliferum, Fucus saccharinus, Clavaria pistillaris, Agaricus procerus; in the tropics there are Theophrasta americana, Lysianthus longifolius, Cinchona and Hevea. Others assemble in societies like ants and bees, covering vast expanses and excluding all heterogeneous plants. Such plants are strawberry plants (Fragaria vesca), bilberry plants (Vaccinium myrtillus), Polygonum aviculare, Cyperus fuscus, Aira canescens, Pinus sylvestris, Sesuvium portulacastrum, Rhizophora mangle, Croton argenteum, Convolvulus brasiliensis,. Brathys juniperina, Escallonia myrtilloides, Bromelia karatas, Sphagnum palustre, Polytrichum commune, Fucus natans, Sphoeria digitata, the lichen Haematomma, Cladonia paschalis,Thelephora hirsuta.

52These associative plants are more common in temperate than in tropical zones, where vegetation is less uniform and therefore more picturesque. From the banks of the Orinoco to those of the Amazon and the Ucayale, over expanses of more than five hundreds leagues, the entire surface is covered with thick forests; and if these were not interrupted by rivers, the monkeys - virtually the only inhabitants of these tracts - could leap from northern to southern hemispheres simply by jumping from one branch to another. But these vast forests do not give the same impression of uniformity as the social plants. Each part has a different appearance. In one place, for example, one finds mimosas, Psychotria or melastomes and in another place laurel, Caesalpines, Ficus, Carolinea and Hevea, which interlace their branches: none of these is dominant. But this is not the case in the tropical regions bordering New Mexico and Canada. From the latitudes of the 17th to the 22nd degrees N, the entire country of Anahuac, this entire plateau of 1500 - 3000 m above sea-level, is covered with oak and a variety of fir which is similar to Pinus strobus. On the eastern slopes of the Cordillera, in the valleys of Jalapa, a vast forest of liquidambars can be found: the characteristics of soil, vegetation and climate resemble those of temperate lands; a case which one could not find anywhere else in South America at this latitude.

53The reason for this seems to have much to do with the structure of the American continent. This continent widens out toward the North pole and continues northwards much more than the European continent; this makes the climate of Mexico much cooler than it should be, given its latitude and elevation above sea-level. The vegetation of Canada and of regions located even further north diffuses toward the South and the volcanic mountains of Mexico are covered with the same firs which should theoretically only be found at the headwaters of the Gila and Missouri.

54In Europe, by way of contrast, the catastrophic fracture which opened up the Straits of Gibraltar and shaped the Mediterranean basin, prevented the migration of African plants since then to southern Europe: thus one finds very few of these north of the Pyrenees. But the oaks that crown the heights of the Tenochtitlan valley are of the same species as those which grow at the 45th parallel, and if a painter travelled through the lands located in the tropics to study the character of its vegetation, he would not find here the beauty and diversity of shapes displayed by equinoctial plants. He would find, on the same parallel as Jamaica, forests of oaks, firs, Cupressus disticha and Arbutus madronno; forests which display the features and the monotonous character of the social plants of Canada, Europe and northern Asia.

55It would be fascinating to point out those areas where plants of the same species occur together on botanical maps. They would appear as broad swathes of vegetation whose irresistible extension restrict the human population of states, separating neighbouring nations and posing obstacles to communication and trade even more serious than do mountains or oceans. Take the case of heather - that combination of Erica vulgaris, Erica tetralix, the Lichen icmadophila and Haematomma which stretch from the most northerly tip of Jutland, across Holstein and Luneburg, to the 52nd parallel of latitude. From there it extends westwards through the granitic sands of Munster and Breda all the way to the ocean shores.

56For several centuries these plants have held imperial control of the region, sterilising its soils: human efforts to confront this almost indomitable nature have only succeeded in salvaging small patches of land for agriculture. Those arable patches - the only results of activity which are beneficial for mankind - appear like little islands amidst the heath; visitors could imagine them like those Lybian oases whose fresh greenery offer such a contrast to the desert sands.

57Sphagnum palustre, a moss frequently found in marshes of Europe and the tropics, once covered much of German land. This very moss rendered vast territories uninhabitable by those nomadic peoples whose folkways were described by Tacitus. A geological fact encourages this phenomenon. The most ancient peatlands, those which are a mixture of muriate of soda and marine shells originate from ulvae and Fucus, whereas the most recent and the most widespread, on the contrary, arose from Sphagnum and Mnium serpillifolium; their existence thus proves how these cryptogams abounded on the earth in earlier times. By cutting down the forests, agricultural peoples have lowered the humidity of the earth climate; marshes were drained and useful plants diffused gradually over the plains previously occupied by cryptogams which make farming impossible.

58Even though social plants appear to belong primarily to temperate regions, there are situations where they are found also in the tropics. All along the Andean heights, at elevations of 3000 m, one finds Brathis juniperina, Jarava (a genus of grasses akin to Papporophorum), Escallonia myrtilloides, several species of Molina, and especially Tourettia, whose sap provides nutrition for which poor Indians had to wrestle with bears. On lowlands separating the Amazon River from the Chinchipe, one finds Croton argentum, Bougainvillea and Godoya together; just as in the Orinoco savannas one finds the palm tree Mauritia together with sensitive herbaceous plants and Kyllingia. In the kingdom of New Granada, the Bambusa and the Heliconia form uniform swathes, uninterrupted by other plants: but instances of the close association of the same species of plants are fewer and usually less extensive than in temperate climates.

59Geological claims about the original relationships among the continents are based on analogies of coastline structures, on ocean beds, and the identity of animals living there. The geography of plants provides precious data for this research field: it can show, with some degree of certainty, how islands which were once united are now separated; it can document the fact that the separation of Africa from South America occurred before the development of organized life forms. This science can also determine which plants are common to east Asia and to the coasts of Mexico and California; whether there are plants which live in all zones and at all elevations above sea-level. The geography of plants can therefore enable one to confidently retrace earth history: this is the field which can state if, after the initial retreat of the waters that the rocks filled with sea-shells proves to have been abundant and turbulent, the earth’s surface was covered simultaneously with vegetation of various kinds, or whether, as some traditional accounts claim, the earth, now at rest, produced plants in just one region from which they were later transported via ocean currents to more distant lands?

60This very science can explore whether, among the immense variety of observable plants, certain primary forms could be discerned and whether species diversity could be ascribed to a degeneration which, over time, made permanent varieties which were initially accidental.

61Daring to draw general conclusions from observations made in both hemispheres, the germs of cryptogams would seem to me to be the only ones which develop naturally in all climates. Diacranum scoparium, Polytrichum commune, Verrucaria sanguinea and the Verrucaria limitata of Scopoli occur in all latitudes, in Europe as at the equator, and not only on high mountain chains, but also at sea level, wherever there is shade and humidity.

62On the banks of the Magdalena, between Honda and Egyptiaca, on a plain where the temperature almost always remains between 28 and 30 degrees centigrade, underneath Macrocnenum and Ochronoma trunks, mosses form lawns, which are just as beautiful and green as those in Norway. Others explorers have asserted that cryptogams are rare in the tropics, but this may be because they have only visited the dry coastlines or small islands of cultivation, without going sufficiently far into the interior parts of continents. Lichenous plants of the same species can be found at all latitudes: their form seems as independent of influences of climate as of the nature of underlying rock on which they dwell.

63We still do not know of any other phanerogamous plants whose organic structures are so adaptable to all regions and at all altitudes on the globe. Claims that Alcine media, Fragaria vesca, and Solanium nigrum have this advantage which only humans and a few accompanying mammals have, are vain. North American strawberries are different from those of Europe. M. Bonpland and I believed to have found some of the later on the Andean Cordilleras, travelling from Magdalena to Cauca valleys across the snows of Quindiu. The solitude of these forests of styrax, tree-high passiflores and wax palm trees, the absence of any crop cultivation or other evidence nearby and other circumstances, all dispel any suspicion that this strawberry plant was brought here by humans or by birds; but if we had had the opportunity to observe this plant in bloom, we might have found it different from Fragaria vesca, just as Fragaria elatior differs only slightly from Fragaria virginiana: at any rate, over the five years of our observations of vegetation on both hemispheres, we did not collect any European plant which has been spontaneously produced on South American soil. One must confidently believe that plants such as Alsine media, Solanum nigrum, Sonchus aleraceus, Apium graveolens and Portulaca oleracea, are plants which, indeed like peoples of the Caucasian race, are found widely in northern regions of the Old Continent. But we still know so little about products of the earth’s interior that we should refrain from all general conclusions; otherwise we risk committing the same error that some geologists make when they construct the entire globe following the model given by the hills which surround them.

64To really sort out the big question of plant migrations, plant geography descends into the interior of the globe: there it can observe ancient petrified monuments which nature has left in fossil wood and charcoal strata that are the graves of our planet’s first vegetation. This science can find petrified fruits of India, palm trees, bracken, scitaminales and tropical bamboo, buried in the frozen ground of the north; it can explore the issue of whether these equinoctial products, as well as the bones of elephants, tapirs, crocodiles and didelphis which have recently been found in Europe, could have been carried to these temperate zones by currents in a submerged world, or whether these climates already themselves once nourished palm trees, tapir, crocodiles and bamboo? One is more inclined to accept the latter opinion, when one considers the local circumstances surrounding petrifications in India. But can one accept such great changes in atmospheric temperature without a recourse to an assumption of astral displacement or to a change in the earth’s axis, which the current state of our astronomical knowledge makes unlikely? If the most striking geological evidence today shows that the earth’s crust was once in a liquid state; if the formation and stratification of rocks tell us that the formation of mountains and crystallization of domes did not occur simultaneously throughout the earth; one can conceive that the transition from liquid to solid form must have released an enormous amount of heat, thus increasing regional temperatures way above those due to solar heat. But could such increases in local temperature have endured sufficiently long as would explain these phenomena?

65Changes observed in stellar luminosity have led one to suspect that analogous variations may have occurred at the centre of our earth system. Could an increase in solar radiation at certain periods have spread tropical warmth to polar regions? Are these variations which would render Lapland habitable for equatorial plants, elephants, tapirs periodic? Or are they due to some passing perturbations in our planetary system?

66These are debates which the geography of plants shares with geology. Shedding light on the very primitive history of our planet, it opens a richly interesting field for the imagination.

67Plants, like animals, can be irritated through their fibres and excited by certain stimuli, but they differ in terms of mobility. Most animals do not leave their mothers until they reach adulthood. Plants, on the other hand, once anchored in the earth after their development, can move only while still contained in the egg whose structure facilitates mobility. But the migration of plant seeds is due to not only wind, oceanic currents and birds; humans especially play a major role.

68Once moving from nomadic to settled ways of life, man gathers around it various animals and plants for clothing and nutrition. This transition from nomadism to agriculture comes quite late for northern peoples. In the equinoctial regions between the Orinoco and the Amazon, the density of forests prevents the native from living solely on hunting; he is obligated to raise a few plants, some Jatropha, banana, and Solanum, for subsistence. Fishing, the fruit of palm, trees, and some small cultivated lands (if the assemblage of such a small number of plants could be called cultivation), these are the sources of nutrition for South American Indians. The state of primitive people is everywhere modified by conditions of climate and soil. These are the only sources of differences which distinguish early Greeks and Bedouin herders, and distinguish these from Indians in Canada.

69A few plants, gardened and cultivated from the most ancient time, accompanied mankind from one end of the globe to the other. Thus in Europe, the vine followed the Greeks, the wheat the Romans, and the cotton the Arabs. In America the Tultecs brought maize with them; potatoes and quinoa are found everywhere traversed by inhabitants of the ancient Condinamarca. These plants have obviously migrated, but their origin is as little known as that of different human races found all over the earth in remote times, as recorded in traditional accounts. South and east of the Caspian Sea, in ancient Colchis, on the banks of the Oxus, and especially in the province of Kurdistan where perpetual snow covers mountain tops at 3000 m., the land is covered with lemon trees, pomegranate, cherry, pear and all those same fruit trees we plant in our gardens. We do not know if this is their original land or whether, once cultivated there, they later became wild, thereby proving their very ancient culture in these regions. These fertile lands situated between the Euphrates and the Indus, between the Pont Euxin and the Persian Gulf, have furnished Europe with its most precious products. Persia sent us walnut and peach trees; Armenia, the apricot tree; Asia Minor provided the cherry and chestnut trees; Syria the fig, pear, pomegranate, olive, plum and blackberry trees. Romans, at the time of Cato, still had no knowledge of cherries, peaches or blackberries.

70Hesiod and Homer did refer to olive cultivation in Greece and on the islands of its archipelago. The olive tree did not exist in Italy, Spain or Africa during the reign of Tarquinius. Under the consulate of Appius Claudius, olive oil was still quite rare in Rome; but by the time of Pliny olive growing had already spread to France and Spain. The vine we cultivate today doesn’t belong to Europe: it seems to grow wild on the shores of the Caspian Sea, in Armenia and Caramania. From Asia it diffused to Greece and from there to Sicily. Phoceans transported it to southern France, and the Romans planted it on the banks of the Rhine. The wild varieties of Vitis found in North America that gave its name (Vinland) to the first part of the new continent discovered by the Europeans is very different from our Vitis vinifera.

71A fruit-laden cherry tree adorned the triumph of Lucullus: this was the first time this tree was ever seen in Italy. The dictator had removed it from the province of Pontus on the occasion of his victory over Mithridates. In less than a century the cherry tree was already common in France, Germany and England. Man thus deliberately alters the earth’s surface, assembling around him plants from remote climates. In European colonies of the East and West Indies, one small cultivated plot could contain Arabian coffee, Chinese sugar cane, African indigo, and a motley bunch of other plants from both hemispheres. This great variety becomes even more fascinating because it evokes one to imagine a series of events which triggered the diffusion of the human race over the entire surface of the globe, and the appropriation of all its resources.

72Thus man has traversed, restlessly and laboriously, the earth’s various regions and has thereby forced certain plants to grow in all climates and at all elevations; but this imperial domination over organized beings has not really modified their primeval nature. The potato, which is grown at 3600m (1936 toises) altitude in Chile, has exactly the same flower as the one introduced to the plains of Siberia. The barley which fed Achilles horses was surely the same as the barley sown today. The plants and animals that currently inhabit the earth do not seem to have changed their nature since earliest times. The ibis, hidden in Egyptian catacombs - this bird dating from the time of the Pyramids - is identical to the one which feeds on the Nile banks today; this identity proves that the enormous quantity of animal fossils which are found within the earth do not belong to varieties of currently existing species but to quite a different order of things than ours, remotely beyond the reach of knowledge of our traditions.

73Favoring newly introduced crops by cultivating them, man has made these to dominate over indigenous species. But this preponderance which renders European landscapes so monotonous and frustrating for botanical field excursions, is typical only of those regions where civilisation aimed at perfection and consequently favoured population growth. In equatorial regions, population is too weak to tame the plants that hide soil from view and leaves nothing free except the ocean and rivers. Nature here seems so wild and majestic that efforts at cultivation vanish.

74The question of the original homeland of these plants which mankind has found most useful and which have followed him through time immemorial is a mystery almost as impenetrable as that of the native places of domesticated animals. We do not know the original source of the grasses that provide the main nutrition for Mongolian and Caucasian races; we do not know where cereals, wheat, oats, barley and rye were spontaneously developed. Rye, it seems does not appear to have been grown even by the Romans. There were claims that barley was found to grow wild on the banks of the Samara in Tartary, Triticum spelta in Armenia, rye in Crete, wheat in Bachiros in Asia; but these claims remain unconfirmed. It would be easy to consider species as natural to those places, but in fact they could have actually escaped from human use and regained their original freedom. Birds eating cereal grains can easily scatter them throughout the woods. The plants which provide the natural wealth of all tropical peoples – the banana tree, Carica papaya, Jatropha manihot and maize - have never been found in a wild state. I have seen some of these plants on the banks of the Casiquiare and the Rio Negro; but the natives here, who are melancholy and suspicious, cultivate only tiny plots of ground in very isolated locations and then abandon them soon afterwards, and the plants left behind thus seem to have become natural to the soil where they grow. The potato, this beneficial plant on which a large part of the population of Europe’s most sterile countries rely, shared the same features as the banana tree, maize and wheat. In my own field research I have never heard that travellers have ever found this growing in a wild state either in the Peruvian Cordillera or in the kingdom of New Granada where this plant is cultivated with Chenopodium quinoa.

75Such are the considerations regarding agriculture and related topics which vary by latitude, by the origins and needs of people. The influence of nutrients that can be more or less stimulating on the energy and character of passion, navigation history and battles disputing the products of the plant realm; these are topics which link the geography of plants to the political and moral history of man.

76These relationships should suffice to illustrate the potential scope of this science which I have tried to sketch here. But the person who is sensitive to the beauties of nature finds here also an explication of the influence which nature can exert on the tastes and imaginations of people. He will enjoy examining what it is that one calls vegetation character, and the variety of sensations which stirs in the soul of the person who contemplates it. These considerations are even more important to the extent that they touch very closely on how the imitative arts and descriptive poetry can influence us. The simple aspect of nature, the sight of fields and woodland, yields a pleasure which is essentially different from the impression received from studying the particular structure of an organized being. In the latter case, it is the detail which interests us and excites our curiosity; in the former, it is the whole, the overall mass, which stirs our imagination. How different are the impressions of a vast prairie surrounded by few groups of trees from those of a dark thick forest of oaks and firs? What a striking contrast between the forests of the temperate zone and those of the equator, where the naked and slender palm tree trunks rise above the flowering mahogany trees, and arrange themselves in majestic porticos? What is the moral cause of these sensations? Are they produced by nature, by the size of the arrangements, by the outline of shapes, or by the bearing of the plants? How does this bearing, the more or less wealthy and cheerful nature, influence the habits and particularly the sensitivities of people? What constitutes the character of tropical vegetation? What physiognomic features distinguish African plants from those of the New World? What formal analogies could link the alpine vegetation of the Andes with those of the higher reaches of the Pyrenees? Here are questions which have not stirred much attention to date, and which undoubtedly merit the attention of the physical scientist.

77In the variety of plants which carpet our planet, some general forms could be distinguished and most of the others could be grouped around these. I’ll just mention fifteen of these whose features could be most interesting for landscape painters: (1) the scitaminales form (Musa, Heliconia, Strelitzia); (2) the one of palms; (3) the tree ferns; (4) the form of Arum, Pothos, and Draconium; (5) the one of firs (Taxus, Pinus); (6) all folia acerosa; (7) the tamarind form (Mimosa, Gleditsia, Porlieria); (8) the Malvaceae form (Sterculia, Hibiscus, Ochroma, Cavanillesia); (8) the one of lianas (Vitis, Paullinia); (10) the one of orchids (Epidendrum, Seratis, Paullinia); (11) the one of prickly pears (Cactus); (12) the casuarinas form, Equisetum; (13) the grasses form; (14) the one of mosses; and (15) the one of lichens.

78These physiognomic categories have practically nothing in common with those which botanists have made to date on the basis of other very different criteria. Here we are only concerned with the general physiognomic contours of vegetation and with the analogous impressions evoked in the contemplative observer of nature, whereas descriptive botany groups plants according to affinities of the smallest and most essential parts of their reproduction. It would indeed be an enterprise worthy of a distinguished artist to study the physiognomy of these groups of plants which I have listed, not in the greenhouse or botanical text books, but in nature itself. How interesting a subject of a painting would be the ancient trunk of a palm tree which balances its elegant leaves above a group of banana trees and Heliconia! What a picturesque contrast could be displayed with a tree-fern surrounded by Mexican oaks!

79It is the absolute beauty of forms, the harmony and contrast which emerges from their assemblage which constitutes the character of nature in a particular region. Some forms, indeed the most beautiful ones (the scitaminales, the palm trees, and bamboos), are completely absent from temperate zones; others, such as trees with pinnat compound leaves, are quite rare and less elegant. Arborescent species are rare, smaller, less endowed with pleasing flowers. Thus the frequency of social plants, as mentioned earlier, and agriculture itself, makes the ground more monotonous. In the tropics, by way of contrast, nature delighted in assembling all these forms. At first glance it seems to lack pines; but in the Andes of Quindiu, in the temperate forests of Oxa and Mexico, there are cypress, firs and juniper.

80Plant shapes near the equator are in general more majestic, more impressive; the gloss on their leaves is more brilliant, the parenchyma texture is looser and more succulent. The tallest trees are always adorned with flowers which are more beautiful, larger and more odorous, than those of the herbaceous plants found in temperate zones. The singed bark of their ancient trunks offers a more pleasant contrast to the greenery of the lianas, the pothos and especially the orchids, whose flowers mimic the form and plumage of the birds who suck their nectar. However, the tropics never display the same extent of greenery which characterises river banks of the northern countries; hardly ever does one get that sweet feeling of springtime which awakens plant growth. Nature, benign toward all creatures, reserved its particular gifts for each region. A covering of more or less limp fibres, plant colours more or less vivid, depending on the chemical mix of their elements and the stimulating strength of solar rays: these are among the reasons which give vegetation, in each zone on the planet, its particular character. The high altitude of lands close to the Equator displays a peculiar spectacle to tropical people with plants whose forms are similar to those found in Europe.

81Andean valleys are adorned with banana trees and palms; higher up is a tree whose bark is the speediest and the most beneficial reducer of fever. In this temperate altitude where quinquinas, are found and higher up toward that of Escallonia, there are oaks, firs, Berberis, Alnus, Rubus, and a host of genera that are regarded as exclusive to northern countries. Thus the inhabitants of equinoctial regions know all those plant forms which nature has supplied around them: the earth affords for their eyes as varied a spectacle as the azure vault of the sky which does not hide any of its constellations.

82European people do not enjoy a similar advantage. Those plants which languish in greenhouses either for the sake of science or of refined luxury only display shadows of the majestic equinoctial plants; many of these forms remain unknown to them; but the richness and perfection of their languages, the imagination and sensitivity of their poets and painters, give some compensation. It is through the imitative arts that we can retrace the varied spectacle of equinoctial landscapes. In Europe, an individual isolated on an arid coast could gain intellectual pleasure from images of far-away places: if his soul is sensitive to works of art, if his educated spirit is sufficiently broad to embrace the broad concepts of the physical sciences, then from the depths of his solitude, even without ever leaving home, he could appropriate all that the intrepid naturalist has discovered in travelling through the heavens and the oceans, in entering the subterranean caves, or in scaling the snow-covered peaks. It is thus that enlightenment and civilisation can bring the greatest pleasure to us as individuals: they enable us to live in past and present; they assemble around us all that nature has produced in its different climates, and places us in communication with all the people of the earth. Supported by discoveries already made, we can launch ourselves into the future and, anticipating the consequences of phenomena, we can definitively establish, once and for all, the laws to which nature subjected itself. It is in such research that we can find the intellectual delight and moral freedom which fortifies us against the blows of destiny, and which no external power would ever reach.

Reflections : Poesis and Aesthetics in von Humboldt’s Geography

83The 1805 Essai, addressed as it was to students in mathematics and physical sciences, resonated to a far wider audience. Much of the appeal rests on his clever renderings of landscape. For him, landscape evoked cosmic dimensions, embracing not only the geomorphology and geophysics of Planet Earth, but the entire history of its human occupance, traceable especially (though not exclusively) in the geography of plants (Godlewska,1999). The Witz (ingenuity/cleverness) of landscape in Humboldt’s oeuvre, as Franco Farinelli has written, was its legitimacy as object of both natural science and humanities in early nineteenth century scholarly circles (Farinelli, 1999, See fig.8).

Figure 8. Landscape as focus for both scientific and humanistic study. Gas volcanoes of Turbaco in Colombia

Figure 8. Landscape as focus for both scientific and humanistic study. Gas volcanoes of Turbaco in Colombia

Source: A. de Humboldt, 1810, Vue des Cordillères…, table 41.

84Noteworthy indeed was his appeal to artists as essential helpers in representations of regional character. ’It is the absolute beauty of forms’, he noted, ’the harmony and contrast which emerges from their assemblage which constitutes the character of nature in a particular region’ (Humboldt, An Essay..., 2012 (1805)). Many indeed responded to his challenge (Bunksé, 1981, Edwards, 1999, Debarbieux, 2007). The American Frederic E. Church and others began to base their sketches on accurate scientific data provided in Humboldt’s work.

85Masterpieces such as “The Heart of the Andes” and “Cotopaxi” projected that same attempt to portray unity in tropical diversity which Humboldt endeavoured to express in words and maps (Bunksé, 1981) In the latter half of the nineteenth century, this new genre of landscape painting evoked public awareness of nature and led eventually to the establishment of America’s first National Parks of Yellowstone and Yosemite (Novak, 1995, Edwards, 1999, Debarbieux, 2008).

86The enduring appeal of Alexander von Humboldt’s work owes much to the role of poesis and aesthetics in the evolution of his science. It was especially in the Essai sur la géographie des plantes that Humboldt achieved the unique feat of integrating two otherwise contrasting approaches to the study of nature, i.e., Humboldtean Science and Goethe’s Way. This major rhetorical achievement rested on not only demonstrated expertise in both “science” and “humanities”, but also on clever choices of discursive strategy.

87Among such strategies one could identify at least five. First, there is a sensitivity to scale and ingenious uses of the comparative method; secondly, there is sensitivity to temporality, rhythm, dynamism and change in all aspects of physical and human worlds; thirdly, there is sensitivity to social worlds, harangues against Euro-centrism and slavery, appreciating the integrity of human civilizations; fourthly, his awareness of reflexivity in the ways scholars have described “nature” and “others”, and fifthly, his visual language and succinct graphic representations of landscapes and life-ways are intended to illustrate the importance of aesthetics in the journey toward understanding. In all of these respects, his most important legacy consists not only in his voluminous faits accomplis, but also in the aesthetics and poetics of his discourse, i.e., invitations to creativity evoked among artists, scientists and writers in the humanities.

Scale and comparative method

88In all of his enquiries into bio-physical features of the earth, Humboldt constantly refers to comparisons and contrasts between Old World and New, frequently demolishing previous theories regarding the age of the earth, the size and elevation of the continents, the lower limits of the snowline in different parts of the earth, and most especially the flora and fauna which carpet its surface. As narrator of scientific travel he frequently pauses to remind readers of the stances from which phenomena were being viewed. This was already noted in the descriptions of Teneriffe, but it was especially pronounced in the account of their ascent to Chimborazo:

The plain of Tapia [seen on the foreground of Pl XVI of his Vues des Cordillères] which I have sketched the group of Chimborazo and Carguaiazo, has an absolute elevation of 2891 metres; it is only a sixth less elevated than the top of Etna. The summit of Chimborazo does not therefore surpass the height of this plain more than 3640 metres, which is 84 metres less than the height of the top of Mount Blanc above the priory of Chamonix; for the difference between Chimborazo and Mt Blanc is nearly equal to that which is observed between the elevation of the plain of Tapia and the bottom of the valley of Chamonix. The top of the Peak of Teneriffe, compared with the level of the town of Oratava, is still more elevated than Chimborazo and Mt Blanc above Riobamba and Chamonix. (Humboldt, 1814b, p. 34-35).

89Chief among his innovations as physicien were not only the maps of geomagnetic fields and magnetic declinations, but also the firm establishment of vulcanism as one major cause underlying the formation of mountain chains. While offering detailed descriptions of particular volcanoes and volcanic events, he also established major “volcanic fields” in both Old and New Worlds (Berghaus, 1849-1851, see especially vol.III, plate 7). Geographically-speaking, it was not just the locations of phenomena which mattered; more significant, in fact, was their distribution in multi-dimensional space and time.

90Certainly the most important demonstration of Humboldtean perspectives lay in the use of “isolines” - tracing points of equal intensity in given distributions - among which his global map of isotherms became the most famous (Humboldt, 1813, Rupke, 2000). The global map of isotherms later became the background frame within which a range of other distributions were displayed in the Berghauser Physikalicher Atlas (fig.9).

Figure 9. Isotherms as background for global mapping

Figure 9. Isotherms as background for global mapping

Source: H. Berghaus, 1849, Physikalischer Atlas, vol. I, plate No.1

91These global maps served as frameworks for displaying the geographies of plants and animals, agriculture and other livelihoods, as well as patterns of health and disease.


92A second major feature of Humboldt’s work is a vivid awareness of temporality in earth phenomena. Nothing was regarded as static on planet earth: all phenomena were in process of evolution, however diverse were their temporal rhythms. Many of his original sketches became the models for maps later published in the Berhaus Atlas, a work initially designed to accompany the multi-volume summary Cosmos. Humboldt recorded seasonal variations in oceanic currents in Atlantic and Pacific and their association with global commercial traffic (Berghaus, Physikalischer Atlas, vol. II (1850), plate 6 and vol III, plate No.3). He sketched fluctuating water levels in major European rivers (Berghaus, vol. II (1850), plate No 14); and seasonal variations in temperature with their associated implications for plant and animal life (Berghaus, vol. IV (1851), plate 5 and vol V (1851) plate No.8). He also noted differences between slowly changing geomorphological processes and the sudden – often catastrophic - geological events.

93Among those who have explicitly acknowledged the influence of his work are Lyell and Darwin. Lyell, schooled in the descriptive and local-area based geology practiced in Britain at the time, not only found Humboldt’s “catastrophism” a refreshing alternative to Neptunist theories; he also found the links between geology and biology, as intimated in Humboldt’s Essai sur la géographie des plantes, to be quite liberating. Fossilised tropical plants had been discovered north of the Arctic Circle - could this possibly be explained by migrations? Lyell continued to research the intersection zones of geology and biology, using the isothermal lines as basis for his own investigations into climate change. Darwin, too, was inspired by the Essai, and even more by the Personal narrative to the equinoctial regions of America. The Dragon Tree of Teneriffe lured him to the tropics (Armstrong, 1999). Arriving in Rio de Janiero in 1832, Darwin wrote to Henslow, ’I formerly admired Humboldt, I now almost adore him; he alone gives any notion of the feelings which are raised in the mind on first entering the Tropics (Darwin to Henslow, May 18 1832).

94The Essai also speculated on climate change, ’perturbations of our planetary system’ and on records of plant domestication and sedentary agriculture’. Plants have certainly migrated, he affirmed, ’but their origin is as little known as the origin of different human races as far back as recorded history’. Agricultural activities vary not only by latitude, he noted; plant nutrients vary also in their effects on human passions. The history of navigation and wars are replete with evidence of contests over dominance of the ’vegetable kingdom’:’... the geography of plants is linked to the political and moral history of humanity’ (Humboldt, An Essay..., 2012 (1905))

Sociality and cultural integrity

95A third major feature of Humboldt’s work was his apparent fascination with sociality, as essential feature of living beings - of plants, animals and humans (Berghaus op.cit. vol.VII, Plate No.4). All living forms, in Humboldt’s world view, belonged to one of two broad types: social or individual. And this he illustrated in contrasts of diversified and uniform vegetation between northern and southern hemispheres, as well as between tropical and temperate lands. The image of monkeys transcending the two hemispheres simply by leaping from branch to branch is surely evocative.

96Humboldt uncovered treasures of indigenous South American civilizations, their languages, art, ways of life, belief systems and political structures (fig.10)

Figure 10 - An Andean couple

Figure 10 - An Andean couple

Source: A. de Humboldt, Vue des Cordillères…, 1810, plate 52

97He freely criticised the Euro-centrism of conventional histories:

I have dwelt more at length on such as could throw light on the analogies existing between the inhabitants of the two hemispheres; and we shall be surprised to find, towards the end of the fifteenth century, in a world we call new, those ancient institutions, those religious notions, and that style of building, which seem in Asia to indicate the very dawn of civilization... (Humboldt, 1814b, p. 2)

98’Nothing is more difficult’, he warned, ’than a comparison between nations who have followed different roads in their progress towards social perfection. The Mexicans and Peruvians must not be judged according to the principles laid down in the history of those nations which are the unceasing objects of our studies’. As enthusiast about the great promises of French and American Revolutions, he found slavery to be intolerable. He spared no irony on white plantation owners and their treatment of servants; the livelihood of cargueros an enigma (Vues de Cordillères, 1814, p 65, See fig.11)

Figure 11 Cargueros on the arduous Quindiu Pass between Bogota and Quito

Figure 11 Cargueros on the arduous Quindiu Pass between Bogota and Quito

Source : A. de Humboldt, Vue des Cordillères…, 1810, planche 5.

99Enlightenment convictions are also evident in his visions for the future - including the prospect of political emancipation from colonial powers.

’The principle of freedom for the individual and the principle of political freedom both derive from the irrevocable conviction that all members of the human race have equality before the law’ (Cosmos, 1848, t.II).


100Humboldt was keenly aware of what is now called reflexivity in science, and offered many a note of caution. Always he cautioned about the hazards of premature syntheses, such as those of which he accused his contemporaries. ’A small number of nations’, he noted, ’far distant from each other, the Etruscans, the Egyptians, the people of Tibet and the Axtecs, exhibit striking analogies in their buildings, their religious institutions, their division of time, their cycles of regeneration, and their mystic notions. It is the duty of the historian to point out these analogies, which are as difficult to explain as the relations that exist between Sanscrit, Persian, Greek, and the languages of German origin; but in attempting to generalize ideas, we should learn to stop at the point where precise data are wanting...’ (Cosmos, 1848, p.10-11).

101In his very first publication Flora subterranea Freibergiensis he referred to Spinoza’s famous warning (Kellner, 1963, p. 93-94):

Thus we see that all theories, destined to explain natural phenomena, are only modes of the imagination, not indicators of natural causes but of the constitution of that imagination.

102Writing to M. A. Pictet, 24 January 1796, he also noted

Of the whole picture presented to us by physics, only the facts are stable and certain. The theories, children of our opinions, are variable like them. They are the meteors of the intellectual world, seldom beneficial and more often harmful for the intellectual progress of mankind.

Visual language

103Humboldt’s renderings of landscape sought to reveal not only the material (ecological) but also the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of humanity’s relationship to the natural world. Landscape became an important tool to evoke understandings of regional character and people’s sense of place - a challenge he offered to artists. His celebrated Tableau summarises lessons on the interconnectedness of terrestrial phenomena. Most impressive illustrations are undoubtedly the altitudinal profiles of mountain landscapes ion “Old” and “New” worlds. The global map of vegetation provided information on not only the spatial extent of various botanical types, but also vignette sketches of altitudinal variations within particular mountain systems at different latitude in the “Old” and “New” worlds (fig. 12a, 12b, 12c, 12d).

Figure 12 Umrisse des Pflanzengeographie (Sketch Outline of the Geography of Plants)

Figure 12 Umrisse des Pflanzengeographie (Sketch Outline of the Geography of Plants)

Source : H. Berghaus, 1851, Physikalischer Atlas, vol.V, plate No.1

Figure 12a. Himalaya

Figure 12a. Himalaya

Source : H. Berghaus, 1851, Physikalischer Atlas..., vol.V, plate No.1

Figure 12b The Andes

Figure 12b The Andes

Source : H Berghaus, 1851, Physikalischer Atlas..., vol.V, plate No.1

Figure 12c. Lapland and the Alps

Figure 12c. Lapland and the Alps

Source : H Berghaus, 1851, Physikalischer Atlas…, vol.V, plate No.1

Figure 12d. Tenerife

Figure 12d. Tenerife

Source : H Berghaus, 1851, Physikalischer Atlas…, vol.V, plate No.1

104And throughout his own work, in oral and written discourse, he held firmly to the educational value of landscape pictures as catalysts of intercultural communication.

105The concluding paragraphs of the Essai sur la géographie des plantes express a conviction which remains relevant two hundred years later (See Section 2):

It is thus that the lights of civilisation can bring the greatest pleasure to us as individuals: they enable us to live in past and present; they assemble around us all that nature has produced in its different climates, and places us in communication with all the people of the earth...Involvement in such research affords that intellectual delight, that moral freedom which fortifies us against the blows of destiny, and against which no external power could prevail.

106At the heart of Humboldt’s oeuvre was a central goal, still central to geography: to understand life unfolding on Planet Earth. This involves more than scientific mastery of various geophysical and biological processes; it involves poetics, aesthetics, emotion and reason in the quest for wiser ways of dwelling.

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Humboldt’s quotations used in this publication come from English translations when existing or at reach. When publications in French or German are used in this paper, quotations have been translated by the author.

Humboldt A. de, 1799, Expériences sur le galvanisme et en général sur l’irritation des fibres musculaires et nerveuses, Paris, chez Fuchs, traduction de l’allemand par J. Jadelot.

Humboldt A. de, 1805, Essai sur la géographie des plantes, accompagné d’un tableau physique des régions équinoxiales, fondé sur les mesures exécutées, depuis le dixième degré de latitude boréale jusqu’au dixième degré de latitude australe, pendant les années 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, et 1903 par A. De Humboldt et A. Bonpland, Paris, Chez Levrault, Schoelle et Cie. Sherborn Fund Fascimile n°1.

Humboldt A. de, 1807, Essai sur la géographie des plantes, accompagné d’un tableau physique des régions équinoxiales, fondé sur les mesures exécutées, depuis le dixième degré de latitude boréale jusqu’au dixième degré de latitude australe, pendant les années 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, et 1903 par A. De Humboldt et A. Bonpland, Paris, Chez Fr Schoelle Librairie, et Tubingue, chez J. G. Cotta, Librairie.

Humboldt A. von, 1808, Ansichten der Natur mit wissenschaftlichen Erläuterungen, Tübingen, Cotta.

Humboldt A. de, 1810, Vues des Cordillères, et monuments des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique, Paris, Schoell.

Humboldt A. de, 1811a, Essai politique sur le royaume de la nouvelle Espagne, F. Didot, Paris, Schoell.

Humboldt A. von, 1811b, Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, Longman, London, translated by John Black from Essai politique sur le royaume de la nouvelle Espagne (1811) F. Didot, Paris, Schoell.

Humboldt A. de, 1813, “Des lignes isothermes et de la distribution de la chaleur sur le globe”, Mémoires de physique et de chimie de la Société d’Arcueil, vol.3, Paris, J. Klostermann fils.

Humboldt A. de, 1814a, Atlas géographique et physique du nouveau continent, Paris, Schoell.

Humboldt A. von, 1814b, Researches concerning the institutions and monuments of the Ancient inhabitants of America with descriptions and views of some of the most striking scenes in the Cordilleras, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, J. Murray and H. Colburn, pp. 35-360, translated by H.M. Williams from Vues des Cordillères… (1810) Paris, Schoell.

Humboldt A. de, 1814c, Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent fait en 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803 et 1804, fait par A. De Humboldt et A. Bonpland, Paris, Maze.

Humboldt A. de, 1816a, Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent, fait en 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803 et 1804, par A. De Humboldt et A. Bonpland, avec un atlas géographique et physique, Paris, A la Librairie Grecque.

Humboldt A. von, 1823, A geognostical essay on the superposition of rocks in both hemispheres, London, Longmans, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, Paternoster Row.

Humboldt A. de, 1838, Notice de deux tentatives d’ascension du Chimborazo, Paris, Pihan de la Forest.

Humboldt A. de, 1843, Asie Centrale: Recherches sur les chaînes de montagnes et la climatologie comparée, Paris, Gide.

Humboldt, A. de, 1847-1859. Cosmos. Essai d’une description physique du monde, Paris, Gide, traduction par H. Faye et Ch. Galusky de Kosmos, Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung (1845), Stuttgart, Cotta.

Humboldt A. von, 1848, Cosmos: A sketch of a physical description of the universe, London, Henry G. Bohn, translated by E.C.Otté from Kosmos, Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung (1845), Stuttgart, Cotta.

Humboldt A. von, 1849, Aspects of nature in different lands and different climates, Philadelphia, Lea and Blanchard, translated by Mrs Sabine (1850) from Ansichten der Natur… (1849) Tübingen, Cotta.

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Humboldt A. von, 1851, Personal narrative of travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America during the years 1799-1804, 3 vols, London and New York, Routledge & Sons Ltd, translated by Thomasina Ross from Voyage aux régions équinoxiales… (1814) Paris, Maze.

Humboldt A. de, 1854: Volcans des Cordillères de Quito et du Mexique, Paris, Gide et J. Baudry.

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1 These introductory comments overlap in places with a previously published article (Buttimer, 2001).

2 Letter to Swiss geographer Pictet dated 3 January 1806.

3 Of the account of Cook’s voyages by Johann Reinhold Forster, George’s father, Humboldt wrote: ’He [J.H. Forster] was the first to describe with charm the varying stages of vegetation, the climatic conditions, the nutrients in relation to the customs of people in different localities...’ Humboldt, 1848, Cosmos, vol I, 72, Cited in Kellner, 1963, p. 14.

4 Arnold 1996, Livingstone 2000, Robic 2008.

5 Text of a reading assigned for a course on mathematics and physical sciences at the Institut National, Paris, (17 Nivôse de l’an 13), entitled Essai sur la géographie des plantes, accompagné d’un tableau physique des régions équinoxiales, fondé sur les mesures exécutées, depuis le dixième degré de latitude boréale jusqu’au dixième degré de latitude australe, pendant les années 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, et 1903 par Al. de Humboldt et A. Bonpland, rédigé par Al. de Humboldt. A Paris: Chez Levrault, Schoelle et Cie. XIII - 1805. Translated by Anne Buttimer with generous editorial comments by Bernard Debarbieux.

6 Géographie moderne de Pinkerton, trad. par Walkenaer ; tome 6, page 174-177.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Alexander von Humboldt self portrait aged 45
Crédits Source: Société de Géographie, Acta Geographica, 1965, p.7, with kind permission
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,7M
Titre Figure 2. Some of Humboldt’s contemporaries
Crédits Source: Prepared by Anne Buttimer. Previously published in Buttimer, 2001, p.106.
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Titre Figure 3. American Voyages (1799-1804)
Crédits Source: Map drawn by Stephen Hannon, University College Dublin, Department of Geography
Fichier image/jpeg, 3,0M
Titre Figure 4. Chimborazo from the Earth’s Centre
Légende Because the earth is flattened at the poles, Chimborazo, which is located close to the Equator, extends more than 1 km out from the centre of the earth than Mount Everest, even if measured from sea-level is more than 2 km higher. This figure exaggerates the vertical scale by a factor of 50 near the surface of the earth.
Crédits Source: Sketch by Bertram Broberg. Previously published in Buttimer, 2001, p.114
Fichier image/jpeg, 924k
Titre Figure 5. Alternative locations for the construction for the Panama Canal
Légende Sketched by Alexander von Humboldt
Crédits Source: Humboldt A. von, 1811, Essai politique sur le royaume de la nouvelle Espagne
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,8M
Titre Figure 6. Sketch of Old and New World Vegetation by Goethe
Légende [Tableau comparatif des altitudes de l’Ancien et du Nouveau Monde, Dessin de Goethe dédié à Humboldt]
Crédits Source: A. de Humboldt (1807) Essai… p. 134. Image courtesy of “Société des Lettres, sciences et arts ’La Haute-Auvergne’; Archives départementales du Cantal, 28 J, 1 Ai 186”
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,4M
Titre Figure 7: Geography of plants in tropical lands. A tableau of the Andes and neighbouring regions
Crédits Source : A. de Humboldt, Essai sur la géographie des plantes (1805), Vème partie
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,1M
Titre Figure 8. Landscape as focus for both scientific and humanistic study. Gas volcanoes of Turbaco in Colombia
Crédits Source: A. de Humboldt, 1810, Vue des Cordillères…, table 41.
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Titre Figure 9. Isotherms as background for global mapping
Crédits Source: H. Berghaus, 1849, Physikalischer Atlas, vol. I, plate No.1
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Titre Figure 10 - An Andean couple
Crédits Source: A. de Humboldt, Vue des Cordillères…, 1810, plate 52
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Titre Figure 11 Cargueros on the arduous Quindiu Pass between Bogota and Quito
Crédits Source : A. de Humboldt, Vue des Cordillères…, 1810, planche 5.
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,5M
Titre Figure 12 Umrisse des Pflanzengeographie (Sketch Outline of the Geography of Plants)
Crédits Source : H. Berghaus, 1851, Physikalischer Atlas, vol.V, plate No.1
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Titre Figure 12a. Himalaya
Crédits Source : H. Berghaus, 1851, Physikalischer Atlas..., vol.V, plate No.1
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Titre Figure 12b The Andes
Crédits Source : H Berghaus, 1851, Physikalischer Atlas..., vol.V, plate No.1
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Titre Figure 12c. Lapland and the Alps
Crédits Source : H Berghaus, 1851, Physikalischer Atlas…, vol.V, plate No.1
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Titre Figure 12d. Tenerife
Crédits Source : H Berghaus, 1851, Physikalischer Atlas…, vol.V, plate No.1
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Anne Buttimer, « Alexander von Humboldt and planet earth’s green mantle », Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Epistémologie, Histoire de la Géographie, Didactique, document 616, mis en ligne le 03 août 2012, consulté le 21 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne Buttimer

University College Dublin, Ireland

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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