by Sue B. Walker

CHAPTER 7:  Chimborazo

Climbing Chimborazo:  13,500 feet, Humboldt, Bonpland, and Montúfar, and Jose left the animals behind.  At 15, 600 feet, their porters refused to go on.  There was terrific fog, and the explorers crawled on all fours along a ledge that was only 2 inches wide. The Spanish called the ledge cuchilla or Knife Edge.  This and Von Humboldt was the most experienced mountaineer in the world.

On further – 19,413 feet.  Gives me vertigo to even think about it? Acrophobia?  Fear of heights, yes.

Humboldt asserts that Nature is a Web of Life and a global force.  Everything is interwoven as with a thousand threads.  Everything is connected.  Nature is a living whole.  Here’s an amazing German word – Naturgemälde with that umlaut over the a.  Put it on your tongue like a lozenge, like a mint. Wulf says it’s an untranslatable term that can mean a “painting of nature” but which, she says, implies a sense of unity or wholeness. Humboldt called it a microcosm on a page – a little world – maybe like I’m creating here.  The poet, William Blake, spoke of a world in a grain of sand.  As writers, I think we create a world with words and inhabit it.

Look.  See those words on the pages of The Invention of Nature.  We read them – perhaps aloud. We say . . . and we see . . . and we hear a landscape, a world come alive through reading.

One thing that comes alive to me is: cinchona forests in Loja (in today’s Ecuador).  I like the sound of the word, cinchona.  I’m a googler – so I looked It up.  It is an evergreen South American tree or shrub of the bedstraw family, with fragrant flowers and cultivated for its bark. The dried bark of the cinchona tree is a source of quinine and other medicinal alkaloids. Quinine used to be used to treat malaria.

Humboldt studied rocks. Magnificent rocks. I have a collection – rocks I picked up in my travels.  Isn’t it interesting that sometimes a diamond is called a “rock.”  I have a special rock I picked up shore-side in Sligo, Ireland one summer.  Think rock. Think stone. Think pebble. Or think dance—hop, jig, hoof it, cut a rug, trip the light fantastic.  Think “rock-a-bye baby in the tree top.”  Words transport us.  Aren’t they wonderful?

So Humboldt studied rocks – and climate patters and was fascinated with geomagnetism – the study of the magnetic fields of the earth.  With the mention of climate patterns, I cannot help but think of the wildfires in California,  of the eruption of volcanos, of floods, and hurricanes.  Another book I wrote through was Edward O. Wilson’s Half Earth.

I love the phrase – “the great tapestry of nature.”  E.O. Wilson calls the Mobile-Tensaw-Delta, a sanctuary.  He says that it is our heritage.  We have only one earth. It is our home.

In February 1803, Humboldt crossed the Equator for the last time.  He was thirty-three – and had spent more than 3 years in Latin American.  Where have you spent more than three years of your life?  In Mobile, Alabama?  Outside my morning window, the sun “trips the light fantastic” through the leaves of various trees.  One is bent from a previous hurricane. A popcorn tree.  I can see the various shades of green. I say “pine” and “magnolia.”  I say “azalea” though it’s a bush.  If you were to pluck several leaves from various trees around Mobile, how many different trees would there be?  And could you identify the tree by its leaf?  Should we take a tree-tour of the Mobile Botanical Gardens.

A Veer Voice here  – that of philosopher, Merleau Ponty, addresses the Visible and the Invisible.  Let see how his vision informs Von Humboldt?  Let me boldface some words for our consideration.

The visible about us seems to rest in itself. It is as though our vision were formed in the heart of the visible, or as though there were between it and us an intimacy as close as between the sea and the strand. And yet it is not possible that we blend into it, nor that it passes into us, for then the vision would vanish at the moment of formation, by disappearance of the seer or of the visible. What there is then are not things first identical with themselves, which would then offer themselves to the seer, nor is there a seer who is first empty and who, afterward, would open himself to them—but something to which we could not be closer than by palpating it with our look, things we could not dream of seeing all naked because the gaze itself envelops them, clothes them with its own flesh. Whence does it happen that in so doing it leaves them in their place, that the vision we acquire of them seems to us to come from them, and that to be seen is for them but a degradation of their eminent being? What is this talisman of color, this singular virtue of the visible that makes it, held at the end of the gaze, nonetheless much more than a correlative of my vision, such that it imposes my vision upon me as a continuation of its own sovereign existence? How does it happen that my look, enveloping them, does not hide them, and, finally, that, veiling them, it unveils them?

 

I have just created an erasure poem to make a new poem.  I am going to recopy the passage above and grey-out the text I’m erasing – so that them, my new text will be there – ready to view.

The visible about us seems to rest in itself. It is as though our vision were formed in the heart of the visible, or as though there were between it and us an intimacy as close as between the sea and the strand. And yet it is not possible that we blend into it, nor that it passes into us, for then the vision would vanish at the moment of formation, by disappearance of the seer or of the visible. What there is then are not things first identical with themselves, which would then offer themselves to the seer, nor is there a seer who is first empty and who, afterward, would open himself to them—but something to which we could not be closer than by palpating it with our look, things we could not dream of seeing all naked because the gaze itself envelops them, clothes them with its own flesh. Whence does it happen that in so doing it leaves them in their place, that the vision we acquire of them seems to us to come from them, and that to be seen is for them but a degradation of their eminent being? What is this talisman of color, this singular virtue of the visible that makes it, held at the end of the gaze, nonetheless much more than a correlative of my vision, such that it imposes my vision upon me as a continuation of its own sovereign existence? How does it happen that my look, enveloping them, does not hide them, and, finally, that, veiling them, it unveils them?