Each year I look forward to the Esri User Conference, and the day of the plenary is always one of my favorite days there. This year I have particular interest in hearing our keynote speaker, Andrea Wulf, because I just finished reading her magnificent biography of Alexander Von Humboldt, entitled The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World. A historian and master storyteller, Wulf is the author of five books and has written articles for many well-known publications. Her latest book about Von Humboldt was a New York Times bestseller and recently won the 2016 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the science and technology category. It is listed as one of the “10 Best Books of 2015” by the New York Times.
Nowadays, we take for granted discussions and investigations into human impact on the environment, climate change, and the interconnections between Earth systems such as the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere. We make maps of the variation of vegetation by elevation. We weave together the sense of place and the description of flora, fauna, weather, landforms, and people. But it wasn’t always this way: Von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a pioneer in all of these areas, and more: He was really the first to integrate the arts into STEM education, which sounds strikingly 21st Century!
One of the things I like about Wulf’s book is that she takes the time to investigate those who Von Humboldt influenced, such as Thoreau, Emerson, Bolivar, Darwin, and Muir, just to name a few. Von Humboldt frequently met with the poet, writer, and statesman Goethe. I would have loved to sit in that room or tag along on one of their many walks together, as they discussed art, science, and literature.
As a geographer, I knew about Von Humboldt before I read Wulf’s book, but I wasn’t aware until after I read the book that he really only made two epic treks in his lifetime: To South America (with some time in Central and North America as well), and to Russia, all the way to China and Mongolia. In fact, he walked all the way to China when he was 59 years old. While he also traveled extensively throughout Europe, it is even more amazing that he accomplished what he did with these two trips: It shows that he listened to others, read widely and gathered as much data as he could. He was meticulous in his mapping, drawing, and research. But my favorite thing about him is something we are always mentioning in our workshops with students–Be curious, and ask lots of questions.
I won’t say any more – you need to read this book for yourself! Then I encourage you to use Wulf’s book in your own instruction, discussing the above geographic themes that Von Humboldt pioneered and why they mattered in the 19th Century and why they matter now. You could examine his traits in career focused discussions. In addition, your students could create a story map about Von Humboldt, or those who he influenced, highlighting where they traveled, what they discovered, and what they thought about.