by Sue B. Walker

CHAPTER 16:  RUSSIA 

            There is so much poetry in Humboldt; what about this for a Found Poem?

A Thousand Miles From Moscow

Clear sky                   Warm air

Empty plains

And a convoy of three carriages

Along the Siberian Highway

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It is mid-June 1929.  Humboldt is 59 years old.

What Humboldt sees out the window:

Low-growing grasses of the steppes

Stretches of forest

Poplars, birches, limes and large trees

A green juniper now and then

Wild roses

Small lady’s slipper orchids

I think of Robert Frost’s “Birches,” one of my favorite poems:

When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

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A PROMPT:  Write about your favorite tree.  James Dickey said his tree was the pine.  I used to climb the neighbor’s magnolia and oak, our own mimosa tree.  Faulkner has a line in The Sound and the Fury, “Caddy smelled like trees.”  What trees did you climb as a child.  Look out your window – and tell about the trees.  We have a bent popcorn tree in our front yard.  It is a survivor.  Don’t remember when storm bent it so.

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Humboldt thought the sight too familiar. It might have been the Humboldt estate at Tegel.

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It seems to me that stopping at taverns (Chaucer did this on his pilgrimage—the Tabard Inn)  seems more exotic than stopping at a gas station. At the Tabard Inn, the 29 pilgrims meet the owner, Harry Bailey – who says he will serve as the traveler’s guide – but with one stipulation.

Each person must tell 4 tales – two go on the way there and two on the way back.)

Who was travelling with Humboldt?  Not the Wife of Bath, I bet. No!

With Humbold, there was Gustav Rose, a thirty-one year-old professor of mineralology from Berlin, thirty-four-year-old Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg, a naturalist, Johann Seifert, the huntsman for zoological specimens, Count Adolphe Polier, a French acquaintance from Paris, among others. They had three carriages.

A PROMPT:  Write about a journey.  Who was on this journey – and what did you take with you for traveling.  Now, we can’t – or at least, I can’t, go anywhere without my I-phone! 

I want to go back and read John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie.  OK, I know you have you’re the Invention of Nature at hand – and we will talk about that – but what about the matter of travelling – wow!  Stagecoaches vs automobiles, trains, and planes.  But I can’t resist quoting a few lines from Steinbeck. Charlie is his dog:

“Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters       and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all    other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A           journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing,            and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a        trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and     inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass bum relax and go along with it. Only        then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The      certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”

And About Trees:

“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”

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Ed Wilson said that the journey of a lifetime is around the trunk of a single tree.

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Wilhelm’s wife, Caroline, died of cancer –delaying Humbold’t departure from Berlin in early spring, 1829.  She and Wilhelm had been married 40 years.  John Donne, one of his Holy Sonnets:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

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The Russo-Turkish War began in spring, 1828.  Humboldt avoided the area around the Caspian Sea – and the volcano of Mount Ararat.

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Something I want to mention in relation to Language – and we remember that Wilhelm believed that Language (again my caps) was more than a tool – its grammar, etc. It was a living organism. Well, if we look at language closely in The Invention of Nature, we see that Wulf’s text is largely reportage.  Take page 239, for example.  Wulf reports:  “Humboldt had waited decades for this moment.” “Humboldt’s plan was to travel from St. Petersburg to Moscow . . . .”  And so forth – though the worlds of Caroline in her last letter were quoted.  Alexander was ‘loving and affectionate.”  Wulf – except through letters – couldn’t know what Humboldt actually said. To put words in his mouth would be fiction.  So suppose I wanted to write a short story about Humboldt.”  I could do this:  [At dinner that night with in the Tabard Inn, Humboldt touched Christian on the shoulder, and over a pint of ale, said “did you see how fast Karl drove that stagecoach? I thought I was going to fall out of my seat! I know the roads were good, but we must tell him to slow down tomorrow.”  Oh, I think I would like to write that dinner at the Inn. I would like to say what Humboldt ate and drank – but I would have to do some research. I couldn’t likely have them eating friend chicken and turnip greens with fatback.  Maybe “Spotted Dick” – or Bubble and Squeak. ]

And a note about writing biography. When Virginia Spencer Carr was writing the biography of Carson McCullers, the family was opposed to her reviewing much of the archived letters and materials that were at the Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas. I was a graduate student at Tulane writing my dissertation on McCullers – and got a small grant to travel there and conduct research on Carson.  Virginia Carr was not granted access – but I sat there – and held in my hand, a nightgown of Carson’s – and other items – in addition to letters.  Some materials were not assessable for 50 years.  So – when Carr wrote her biography, The Lonely Hunter, she couldn’t say what Carson actually said – so what she said was something like:  McCullers must have imaged this or that.  James Dickey’s family was critical of Henry Hart’s biography of  James Dickey, The World as a Lie – and the book failed to garner the attention that it might have otherwise had.

So to make this long story shorter, we don’t have, in Wulf, many words that actually came out of Humboldt’s mouth – except, I imagine, those that were gleaned from diaries, notebooks, or letters.  P. 240:  “[Humboldt] was almost sixty and time was running out.”  This is reportage – what Wulf has ascertained from her knowledge about Humboldt’s journey to Russia.

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And on page 241, we read that Tsar Nicholas I’s Russia was “one of absolutism and inequality, not a country  that encouraged liberal ideas and open criticism. . . . Strong censorship restricted every written word from poems to newspaper articles, and a web of surveillance made sure that any liberal ideas were suppressed. Those who spoke out against the tsar or the government were promptly deported to Siberia.”  [Who wrote that New York Times anonymous letter about President Trump?  S/he might well find herself / himself in Siberia!]

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But let us now journey to Siberia and think beauty in deserted emptiness.  Let’s eye the “tall candle-like reddish spikes of willow herb (Epilobium angustifolia)” and blue delphiniums (Delphinium elatum) . . . . “There were few wild animals and birds.”  The novelist, poet, Marge Piercy who lives in Wellfleet, Massachusettes, told me once that every writer needs a book of flora and fauna, a book of trees, a book of seashells,” and I might add a lexicon of creatures – snakes and snails and so forth.

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  1. 244: Note about the anthrax epidemic – “usually contracted first by herbivorous animals such as cattle and goats when the ingest . . . spores of the bacterium that causes the disease. And we know about the mosquitos that were annoying – but they didn’t know it caused Yellow Fever – the fever that devastated Blakeley. And Wulf writes that Humbold says: “At my age, nothing should be postponed.”  Wonder where she got that direct quote?  No documentation.

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  1. 247. I learned that a yurt was a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads.
  2. 248. Humboldt celebrates his 60th birthday with Vladimir Lenin’s grandfather.

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  1. 249. The Treaty of Adrianope was signed and the war ended.

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There was great celebrations upon Humboldt’s return to Moscow and St. Petersburg where he was hailed as “the Prometheus of our days” – and the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was “smitten by Humboldt.”

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And Pushkin said: “Write for pleasure and publish for money.”  Do we believe that / think that today?

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This was Humboldt’s final exhibition – but we are still travelling with him through our days and ways.

A PROMPT:  We read of Humboldt’s return to Berlin – that Humboldt’s coachman lost control of the carriage on an icy road and it “crashed full speed into a bridge.”  We may not experience so much ice and snow in the deep South – but we do experience hurricanes.  Write about a weather experience. Truth – and / or invention!  My grandmother said that the night my mother was born at home in West Point, Kentucky – my grandfather had to go out and shovel show, so the doctor could get in the house to deliver my mama.  Can you even imagine that a doctor today would take his horse and buggy out on a night like this – to go to a house and deliver a baby?  A subject for a story?  A poem?  Go for a weather remembrance.