WHO HAS MADE MY EARTH SICK? BHG – Talk 19: The forgotten nature lovers*

*Inspired by: The Invention of Nature – The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science, by Andrea Wulf.

Grete has become an Earth-Doctor working hard to find a medicine to cure Earth’s disease. She remembers the long list of Earth’s sickness syndromes. The disease is multifaceted and awfully complex. It’s impossible for her alone to treat the disease without genuine help from many others. So, her strategy is to concentrate on reducing Earth’s temperature, what we call climate warming, and not the disease itself yet. Grete has come to see Earth after many months and is very sad to note that Earth’s health has deteriorated. Earth is pleased to see Grete and greets her with a weak tender smile.

“What have you been up to all these months? Earth inquired.

“I’m trying to get your fever down. Apparently, climate change is warming you up.”

“My dear Grete, that is not new. I assumed you knew that two hundred years ago many nature lovers alerted humankind that it must correct its behaviour and stop perverse devastation of nature. Have you not read how they expressed their love of nature, giving scientific facts and figures in voluminous books? I assure you that these books are holier than all your sacred books combined. You must have heard of Alexander von Humboldt. He was foremost among them and was the greatest scientist–naturalist that humankind has ever produced. Nature was his sacred guru. He was already more than a prophet when young.”

Bursting with curiosity, with her small eyes widened, Grete pleaded, “Please Earth, tell me more. No one talks about these people anymore.”

“Von Humboldt was born in 1769.” Earth continued. “He learnt so much about me and my nature that he could not finish transcribing his knowledge during ninety years of his life. Right away, his books became a must in educational institutes, literate homes and royal courts.”

“And churches?” Grete intervened. Looking tenderly at Grete, Earth just smiled.

“What he preached were not vague divine prophesies nor incredulous revelations. They were the product of personal experience and scientific observations. Studying his books, many were transformed into famous eco-lovers. Nature-poets like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Johan Wolfgang von Goethe sang his praises in their poems. Von Humboldt inspired Charles Darwin, who took his books with him on his famous voyage on HMS Beagle.”

“Yes, I’ve heard a lot about Darwin. I’m glad he got rid of a lot of rubbish ideas about humans and other living beings. Who else?” Grete prompted tired mother Earth.

Earth continued, “Henry David Thoreau in the USA. Humboldt inspired him when he wrote Walden. Then there was Thoreau’s fellow compatriot, George Perkins Marsh, who described in his book, Man and Nature, how radically the Vermont landscape had changed since Europeans arrived. Human progress, he wrote, has left ‘nature in the shorn and crippled condition.’ It’s a story of destruction and avarice, of extinction and exploitation, as well as of depletion of soil resulting in torrential floods. You see, my dear Grete, humankind or BGH needs to change its behaviour fast if my sickness ‘is to be protected from the ravages of ploughs and axe.’”

That reconfirmed in Grete’s mind that just lowering Earth’s temperature will not cure her disease. She focused her attention again when Earth continued to tell her that Humboldt’s friend, Earnest Haeckel, who coined the term “ecology”, collaborated with Darwin to spread ideas on ecological issues. As an artist his Art Forms in Nature beautifully illustrates nature as seen through a microscope. Then she learnt about another divine spirit, John Muir. Muir, having failed to muster funds to follow Humboldt’s travels in Orinoco, ended up in the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite Valley. Here he experienced the same sensation of oneness of interactive nature as that of Humboldt in Orinoco. He was so inspired that he took up a single-handed mission to arouse the human conscience to block butchering of world’s tallest and oldest sequoia trees and devastating the valley. His compassionate writings about his love of nature convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to declare the valley a national monument, but not without facing much opposition by many greedy eco-exterminator BHG. Few have heard of Simon Bolivar other than as a revolutionary liberator of Venezuela and other South American countries. He encountered Humboldt very briefly but was so touched by his love for nature that he aspired to plant one million trees in Venezuela, and that already two and a half centuries ago.

Common people understood Humboldt. Prime ministers, presidents, kings and queens adored and honoured him. But none could put out the fire of human greed.

Grete was most astounded when she heard that Humboldt longed to visit the Indian subcontinent. In spite of all the guile, the British Government and other dignitaries failed to obtain an authorization for him from the real rulers of India, the powerful greedy eco-exterminators, the board of governors of the East India Company.

Earth’s voice started to falter. Grete started to talk, “You have truly opened my eyes, dear Earth. I see my mission full of hurdles. I thought all religions would join me to amend the virulent BHG. They rule over the genetic chain, or what they call soul, of the virulent BHG. By staying silent they are a big obstacle. In fact, they continue to champion human activities and human empowerment in order to dominate and confront nature. You will be amazed to know that in our two-thousand-year history, the Pope uttered the word “ecology” for the first time at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, although it was first coined by Humbolt’s fellow naturalist one and a half centuries ago. Evidently, naturalism was not considered compatible with the church ideology.”

Grete stopped talking when Earth raised her finger and said, “I’m so happy with you my Grete. You are learning so fast. For centuries these people of the faith loathed nature lovers and scientists, especially Humboldt. This, I believe, is one of the reasons that few humans now remember Humboldt’s sacred concept: Earth is a natural whole, one great living organism where everything is interconnected. Nature is a web; everything hangs together, not even an atom can be standalone. Cut one thread, the whole will crumble.”

Grete continued, “Science has made us learn and understand all these intricacies more than ever before. But, at the same time our super technologies have separated our lives from nature.”

Having recovered her breath, Earth asked Grete, “How many of your fellow BHG know that Humboldt conceived the term “isotherm” and used it to study my climate for the first time? Who recalls that he was a life-long abolitionist of the slave trade and anti-colonialist, and that he also developed the idea of human-induced climate change, local and global? I appreciate your struggle to cure this symptom of my sickness. But I feel I should say that you are trying to treat my fever first because it affects human greed. Any good to nature might come as a spin-off. Should you succeed, humans can proliferate even more in every way and make me sicker. Remember that Humboldt saw how humankind unsettled the balance of nature. Go out and revive him as the father of your environmental movement. Do not take his views as self-evident and then forget him and not put his ideas in to practice. People do not know or have forgotten that more places in the world are named after Humboldt than anybody else. I would be most interested to know if you can tell me of any positive progress humankind has made since Humboldt’s time to cure my disease. All I see is that the BHG have become even more virulent. I see only darkness in the illuminated abode and the intellectual and technological brilliance of humankind. Grete please, it might help if you pray to the All Mighty BHG. It might cure me!” Earth laughed.

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