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?

By Sue B. Walker

Chapter 6:  Across the Andes

Last night I dreamed I was in the Andes.  When I looked out on the horizon, a meandering lake met my eyes.  You know – at least I do, that when you dream in relation to a book you are reading,  it has entered your psyche: wonder and beauty, and sometimes fear as well.

Let’s join Humboldt journey as he crosses the first mountain chain along the Quindio Pass – a trail that at almost 12,00 feet is known to be the most dangerous and difficult in all the Andes. We are travelling via mules and oxen. There are thunderstorms, rain and blizzards.  And the ledge where they must walk is only eight inches wide.  Humboldt was amazed how the mules – on their four legs – managed to balance their y along.  The travelers shoes were shredded by bamboo shoots, and they had to continue barefoot.

Look up – huge Andean condors with their magnificent wingspan glided across the sky.

Is it a miracle, Humboldt and his crew arrive in Quito?  It is January, 1802. They are 1,300 miles from Cartagena.  He was to meet Captain Nicolas Baudin who was, reportedly, sailing to Australia via South America, but that was not to happen.  Still Humboldt did not despair.  He was interested in volcanos – and he would study how the earth was formed – and he would climb every reachable volcano, no matter how dangerous.

I laughed out loud when I read that Humboldt wrote a letter to the wife of a close friend and said:  “ and you dearest, how is your monotonous life?”

It appears that Rosa Montúfar, the daughter of the provincial governor of Quito, had her eye on Humboldt – but he was, alas, not interested.  “Humboldt would rather be outdoors,” she said.  It came to pass, however, that her brother became Alexander’s traveling companion.  Humboldt later remarked that “I only have a scientific relationship with him.”  It was
nevertheless suggested Humboldt might be homosexual.  Caroline von Humboldt once said that “nothing will ever have a great influence on Alexander that doesn’t come through men.”
The German poet, Theodor Fontane complained that a Humboldt biography failed to mention “sexual irregularities.”

I believe we say that Andrea Wulf’s Invention of Nature”  is more than a travelogue; it is a biography, the focus of which is wild Nature – rather than an account of Humboldt’s personal human nature.  Yet, when Carlos became ill with altitude sickness while climbing to the summit of Antisana, Wulf writes:  “Carlos Montúfar became so ill that Humboldt who was sharing a bed with him, grew very worried.”  What the text doesn’t elaborate on was how long the bed was shared – if this were related to illness or something more permanent.  Wulf’s biography is carefully crafted in regard to what is said and what is not.

So, an aside here about biographies.  There are permissions to be had when making certain claims and assertions.  When writing the biography of Carson McCullers, Mary Mercer, Carson’s physician, friend, and companion, threatened to sue Virginia Spencer Carr who was writing The Lonely Hunter, if she made mention of a possible physical relationship between Carson and Mary.  I once visited Mary Mercer in Nyack, NY.  She was wearing Carson’s vest.  She showed me Carson’s room – as it was before she died.  She plunked a few notes on Carson’s piano.  When I returned home to Mobile, I had a note from Mary’s care-person.  “You may not write anything that was discussed here today.”  There wasn’t really anything to write that would be concerning. Likewise, much of the biographical material related to the relationship between Flannery O’Connor and her friend, Elizabeth Hester, long designated as “A”  was kept  privileged.  Henry Holt, who wrote the biography of James Dickey drew the wrath of the Dickey family. One might say that there is much to-do about entering literary troubled / troubling waters.

by Sue B. Walker

CHAPTER 5:  The Llanos and the Orinco

March 1800:  If swimming with an alligator weren’t enough, Humboldt encountered electric eels in the trading town of Calabozo!  The pools were infested with them. Touching them meant instant death.  But when the locals in the Llanos rounded up thirty horses and drove the herd into the pool, the horses screamed in pain. The eels thrashed beneath their bellies. The water boiled, horses fell and were trampled by other horses.  Thus Humboldt and Bonpland thought of magnetism and electricity.

And this is not all there was to their encounters. Paddling along the Rio Apure, Humbolt’s crew   came upon large crocodiles, a huge boa constrictor, and herds of capybaras, the world’s largest rodents that paddled the waters like dogs.   And then, there were jaguars, flamingos, river dolphins, white herons, spoonbills, insects, and the large pig-sized tapirs that weighed 50 kilograms or more.

But beware the curare with its deadly paralyzing poison.  Still, the greatest nuisance was the mosquito that created the historic ghost town of Blakeley, Alabama.

Today the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is home to over 500 plant species, 300 bird species, 126 fish species, 46 mammals, 69 reptiles, 30 amphibians, and countless insects.

And let us not forget Edward O. Wilson’s ants, Anthill and his book about growing up in Mobile, Naturalist.  My favorite book is, perhaps, Consilience – concerning the unification of all knowledge.  That was Humbold’s theme in his day as well.

So, write along with me – a list poem – or an abecedarian.


(Sue Walker)

Alligators, large ones anyway, bite with a force of 2960 pounds.
Boa constrictors cut off their prey’s blood flow that leads to death;
Capabaras are the largest living rodents in the world.
Dolphins in river waters are among the oldest creatures on Earth.
Electric Eels are not really eels but knife fish. One touch: instant death.
Flamingoes have backward bending knees, curvy necks, & are pink.
Geckos were also in the Llanos, but Humboldt doesn’t mention them.
Howler monkeys in the early morning sound their Gregorian chant.
Insects bothered Humboldt and Bonpland though smoked ants, served as food.
Jaguars now face extinction—occupying only 46% of their historic range.
Killer vines, such as the curare, paralyze the diaphragm and muscles.
Llanos, Spanish for “plains’ are grasslands that stretch across South America.
Mosquitos cause illness and were the greatest nuisance to Humboldt and Bonpland.
Nature, Humboldt says, connects the present with the past as he notes that
Only what we have wrought into our character during our life can we take with us.
Palms, notably the Mauritia’s a perfect symbol of nature, shielding against rain. No
Question, Alexander von Humboldt is the Shakespeare of science.
Reading Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, leads into a world of wonder;
Snakes, spiders, and spoonbills habit the same stupendous space in the Llanos–
Tapirs too, with their pig-like snouts, haven’t changed in tens of millions of years,
Ugly creatures, weighing some 50 kilograms, bless them, are now becoming extinct.
Viewing nature and Von Humboldt as Wulf’s invention gives voice to
Wonders undreamt of in this wherefore of our lives, her book a
Xenagogue, what E.O. Wilson would deem consilience,
Yarely at hand, a yhte, like yquem, that fine French sauterne we sip and savor,
Zenzizenzizenzi no less.

by Sue B. Walker

CHAPTER 4:  South America

This is Humboldt by way of Andrea Wolf playing poet.  The following passage is worth a close look:

The landscape held a spell over him, Homboldt said. The palm trees were ornamented with magnificent red blossoms, the birds and fish seemed to compete in their kaleidoscopic hues, and even the crayfish were sky blue and yellow. Pink flamingos stood one-legged at the shore and the palms’ fanned leaves mottled the white sand into a patchwork of shade and sun. There were butterflies, monkeys  and so many plants to catalogue that, as Humboldt wrote to Wilhelm, “we run around like fools.” Even the usually unruffled Bonpland said that he would go ‘mad if the wonders don’t stop soon.’”

Now, a prose poem – and we might consider the above passage a prose poem is verse that is written in paragraph form.  It makes use of poetic images, descriptions, and usage. So, in addition to being a prose poem, the passage could also become a Found Poem – a poem that a composition made by combining fragments of such printed material as newspapers, signs, or menus, and rearranging them into the form of a poem. And let’s add “text” into this definition. Might I, then, try my hand at a Found Poem:

The landscape casts a magical spell:
palm trees with red blossoms
bird and fish displaying kaleidoscopic hues
along with skyblueyellow crayfish.

Pink flamigoes stand one-legged on the shore
as palm leaves mottled the white sand
into a patchwork of shade and sun.

Butterflies and monkeys shared this certain scene
with myriad plants. Enough to drive a body mad
and run around like fools.

The famed entomologist / environmentalist Edward O. Wilson has this to say:

“The humanities, and especially the creative arts, are the natural history of Homo sapiens. The descriptions based on them describe the human condition and human nature in exquisite detail, over and over again in countless situations. When verbal descriptions are novel in style and obedient to the most basic principles of human nature, when they connect old memories, create new images, and stir emotions all together, we call that great literature. The important innovator produces a tableau of relationships in a story that describes not just the particularities of a place in time, but something that is true for humanity as a whole for all time.”

(And if you don’t know about “Brain Pickings,” you’re missing out on one of my favorite sites. See this:

Humboldt said that “Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice that is familiar to his soul.”

Wulf states that Humboldt realized “memories and emotional responses would always form part of man’s experiences and understanding of nature.”  Imagination is like “a balm of miraculous healing properties.”

Humbolt noted the deleterious effects of climate change. Humboldt was the father of the environmental movement.

Wulf cites John Bartram who travelled in lower Alabama.  Bartram lamented the problem of deforestation and the cutting of timber.  He said that “timber will soon be very much destroyed.”

Humboldt noted that the action of humankind across the globe could affect future generations.

Let’s return to William Bartram and to a poem Sue Walker wrote about Bartram’s visit to Alabama:

Following Your Trail
(An Address to William Bartram)


You speak of fusty ferruginous rocks
that encumber the heights of hills
along Mobile Bay, 1778, that day
you arrived at Taensa—the smell
of dampness, of age and mold
clinging to stones you hold
in your hand. Cemented with iron oxide,
the sandstone is rust-red. Dust colors
the fingers with which you write
pinus taeda, nyssa sylvatica,
quercus rubra, fagus,
while visitors follow your light canoe
220 years after you voyaged
the river, mapping the flora
and giving it a name.

In this new millennium,
would a spy glass and lexicon suffice
those who wished to see
what you saw in pebbles and stones,
in high cliffs, in the rills and meanders
of this native land?

You say the air is humid and still,
Scarce a breeze in the sultry,
Sticky, mosquito-ridden July.
The sky, stricken with thunder,
Protests, perhaps, the invasion
of loggers yet to come,
the way they bore a hole
in the loblolly’s heart
and pull a plug. But you,
Will, marvel at the pistillate
flowers, the pale shades of green,
pink, and purple-red depending
on the state of development.

The pine, you note, is not alone;
it stands alongside the nyssa sylvatica—
the blackgum and common red oak
from which warblers call,
the red-cockaded woodpecker,
the osprey and bald eagle
seeking nest along 16 miles
of the marshy river
that extends from Hubbard’s
to Live Oak Landing. The cypress,
ash, sycamore, yellow poplar,
as well as pine, that line
the waterways are the tallest,
straightest, most enormous trees
you’ve ever seen. The cane
grows thirty, maybe forty
feet tall, taller by far, than a woman
or a man, but not as tall as their pride
in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta land
as they walk in naturalist shoes
and follow your path
along the Bartram Trail.



by Sue B. Walker

CHAPTER 3: The Search of a Destination

Marie Elizabeth von Humboldt died of cancer on November 1796.  Neither Wilhelm nor Alexander attended her funeral.  Wilhelm, however, during the final year of his mother’s life, moved from Jena to Tegel to Berlin to look after her.  Wulf says that “oppressed by her dark presence, he couldn’t read, work, or think. He felt paralyzed.”  Nevertheless, her death left the sons wealthy.   Alexander said that the 100,000 thalers he inherited, he could get his “nose, mouth, and ears gilded.”

Alexander was free to travel – and he noted in a letter concerning his “breathless energy,”  that “this is just the way I am, I do what I do, impetuously and briskly.”

The French Revolutionary Wars  and the execution of the French King, Louis XVI in January 1793 tampered Humboldt’s plans to travel.  France had declared war on Austria, Prussia, Spain, Portugal, and Britain.

Will there ever and always be turmoil and war.  This reminds me of the exchange of letters between Einstein and Sigmund Freud that asked “Why War?”  It is long, but interesting to place this exchange along Humboldt’s travails of travel and his comment that “War and politics  stopped everything and the world is closed.”

The Einstein-Freud Correspondence (1931-1932) The letter which Einstein addressed to Freud, concerning the projected organization of intellectual leaders, was sent in 1931, or possibly 1932, and read as follows: I greatly admire your passion to ascertain the truth–a passion that has come to dominate all else in your thinking. You have shown with irresistible lucidity how inseparably the aggressive and destructive instincts are bound up in the human psyche with those of love and the lust for life. At the same time, your convincing arguments make manifest your deep devotion to the great goal of the internal and external liberation of man from the evils of war. This was the profound hope of all those who have been revered as moral and spiritual leaders beyond the limits of their own time and country, from Jesus to Goethe and Kant. Is it not significant that such men have been universally recognized as leaders, even though their desire to affect the course of human affairs was quite ineffective?

I am convinced that almost all great men who, because of their accomplishments, are recognized as leaders even of small groups share the same ideals. But they have little influence on the course of political events. It would almost appear that the very domain of human activity most crucial to the fate of nations is inescapably in the hands of wholly irresponsible political rulers. Political leaders or governments owe their power either to the use of force or to their election by the masses. They cannot be regarded as representative of the superior moral or intellectual elements in a nation. In our time, the intellectual elite does not exercise any direct influence on the history of the world; the very fact of its division into many factions makes it impossible for its members to co-operate in the solution of today’s problems.

Do you not share the feeling that a change could be brought about by a free association of men whose previous work and achievements offer a guarantee of their ability and integrity? Such a group of international scope, whose members would have to keep contact with each other through constant interchange of opinions, might gain a significant and wholesome moral influence on the solution of political problems if its own attitudes, backed by the signatures of its concurring members, were made public through the press. Such an association would, of course, suffer from all the defects that have so often led to degeneration in learned societies; the danger that such a degeneration may develop is, unfortunately, ever present in view of the imperfections of human nature. However, and despite those dangers, should we not make at least an attempt to form such an association in spite of all dangers?

It seems to me nothing less than an imperative duty! Once such an association of intellectuals–men of real stature–has come into being, it might then make an energetic effort to en-list religious groups in the fight against war. The association would give moral power for action to many personalities whose good intentions are today paralyzed by an attitude of painful resignation. I also believe that such an association of men, who are highly respected for their personal accomplishments, would provide important moral support to those elements in the League of Nations who actively support the great objective for which that institution was created. I offer these suggestions to you, rather than to anyone else in the world, because your sense of reality is less clouded by wishful thinking than is the case with other people and since you combine the qualities of critical judgment, earnestness and responsibility.

The high point in the relationship between Einstein and Freud came in the summer of 1932 when, under the auspices of the International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation, Einstein initiated a public debate with Freud about the causes and cure of wars. Einstein’s official letter is dated July 30, 1932; it was accompanied by the following private note of the same date: I should like to use this opportunity to send you warm personal regards and to thank you for many a pleasant hour which I had in reading your works. It is always amusing for me to observe that even those who do not believe in your theories find it so difficult to resist your ideas that they use your terminology in their thoughts and speech when they are off guard.

This is Einstein’s open letter to Freud, which, strangely enough, has never become widely known: Dear Mr. Freud: The proposal of the League of Nations and its International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation at Paris that I should invite a person, to be chosen by myself, to a frank exchange of views on any problem that I might select affords me a very welcome opportunity of conferring with you upon a question which, as things now are, seems the most insistent of all the problems civilization has to face.

This is the problem: Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war? It is common knowledge that, with the advance of modern science, this issue has come to mean a matter of life and death for Civilization as we know it; nevertheless, for all the zeal displayed, every attempt at its solution has ended in a lamentable breakdown. I believe, moreover, that those whose duty it is to tackle the problem professionally and practically are growing only too aware of their impotence to deal with it, and have now a very lively desire to learn the views of men who, absorbed in the pursuit of science, can see world problems in the perspective distance lends.

As for me, the normal objective of my thought affords no insight into the dark places of human will and feeling. Thus, in the inquiry now proposed, I can do little more than to seek to clarify the question at issue and, clearing the ground of the more obvious solutions, enable you to bring the light of your far-reaching knowledge of man’s instinctive life to bear upon the problem.

There are certain psychological obstacles whose existence a layman in the mental sciences may dimly surmise, but whose interrelations and vagaries he is incompetent to fathom; you, I am convinced, will be able to suggest educative methods, lying more or less outside the scope of politics, which will eliminate these obstacles. As one immune from nationalist bias, I personally see a simple way of dealing with the superficial (i.e., administrative) aspect of the problem: the setting up, by international consent, of a legislative and judicial body to settle every conflict arising between nations. Each nation would undertake to abide by the orders issued by this legislative body, to invoke its decision in every dispute, to accept its judgments unreservedly and to carry out every measure the tribunal deems necessary for the execution of its decrees. But here, at the outset, I come up against a difficulty; a tribunal is a human institution which, in proportion as the power at its disposal is inadequate to enforce its verdicts, is all the more prone to suffer these to be deflected by extrajudicial pressure. This is a fact with which we have to reckon; law and might inevitably go hand in hand, and juridical decisions approach more nearly the ideal justice demanded by the community (in whose name and interests these verdicts are pronounced) insofar as the community has effective power to compel respect of its juridical ideal. But at present we are far from possessing any supranational organization competent to render verdicts of incontestable authority and enforce absolute submission to the execution of its verdicts.

Thus I am led to my first axiom: The quest of international security involves the unconditional surrender by every nation, in a certain measure, of its liberty of action–its sovereignty that is to say–and it is clear beyond all doubt that no other road can lead to such security. The ill success, despite their obvious sincerity, of all the efforts made during the last decade to reach this goal leaves us no room to doubt that strong psychological factors are at work which paralyze these efforts. Some of these factors are not far to seek. The craving for power which characterizes the governing class in every nation is hostile to any limitation of the national sovereignty. This political power hunger is often supported by the activities of another group, whose aspirations are on purely mercenary, economic lines.

I have especially in mind that small but determined group, active in every nation, composed of individuals who, indifferent to social considerations and restraints, regard warfare, the manufacture and sale of arms, simply as an occasion to advance their personal interests and enlarge their personal authority. But recognition of this obvious fact is merely the first step toward an appreciation of the actual state of affairs. Another question follows hard upon it: How is it possible for this small clique to bend the will of the majority, who stand to lose and suffer by a state of war, to the service of their ambitions.1 An obvious answer to this question would seem to be that the minority, the ruling class at present, has the schools and press, usually the Church as well, under its thumb. This enables it to organize and sway the emotions of the masses, and makes its tool of them. Yet even this answer does not provide a complete solution. Another question arises from it: How is it that these devices succeed so well in rousing men to such wild enthusiasm, even to sacrifice their lives?

Only one answer is possible. Because man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction. In normal times this passion exists in a latent state, it emerges only in unusual circumstances; but it is a comparatively easy task to call it into play and raise it to the power of a collective psychosis. Here lies, perhaps, the crux of all 1 In speaking of the majority I do not exclude soldiers of every rank who have chosen war as their profession, in the belief that they are serving to defend the highest interests of their race, and that attack is often the best method of defense. the complex factors we are considering, an enigma that only the expert in the lore of human instincts can resolve.

And so we come to our last question. Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness? Here I am thinking by no means only of the so-called uncultured masses. Experience proves that it is rather the so-called “intelligentsia” that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw but encounters it in its easiest, synthetic form–upon the printed page.

To conclude: I have so far been speaking only of wars between nations; what are known as international conflicts. But I am well aware that the aggressive instinct operates under other forms and in other circumstances. (I am thinking of civil wars, for instance, due in earlier days to religious zeal, but nowadays to social factors; or, again, the persecution of racial minorities.) But my insistence on what is the most typical, most cruel and extravagant form of conflict between man and man was deliberate, for here we have the best occasion of discovering ways and means to render all armed conflicts impossible. [15] I know that in your writings we may find answers, explicit or implied, to all the issues of this urgent and absorbing problem. But it would be of the greatest service to us all were you to present the problem of world peace in the light of your most recent discoveries, for such a presentation well might blaze the trail for new and fruitful modes of action. Yours very sincerely, Leon Steinig, a League of Nations official who did much to inspire this correspondence, wrote Einstein on September 12, 1932: . . . When I visited Professor Freud in Vienna, he asked me to thank you for your kind words and to tell you that he would do his best to explore the thorny problem of preventing war. He will have his answer ready by early October and he rather thinks that what he has to say will not be very encouraging. “All my life I have had to tell people truths that were difficult to swallow. Now that I am old, I certainly do not want to fool them.” He was even doubtful whether Bonnet2 would want to publish his pessimistic reply. . . .

Einstein replied to Steinig four days later saying that even if Freud’s reply would be neither cheerful nor optimistic, it would certainly be interesting and psychologically effective. 2 Henri Bonnet, Director of the Institute of Intellectual Co-operation in Paris. Freud’s reply, dated Vienna, September 1932, has also never been given the attention it deserved: Dear Mr. Einstein: When I learned of your intention to invite me to a mutual exchange of views upon a subject which not only interested you personally but seemed deserving, too, of public interest, I cordially assented. I expected you to choose a problem lying on the borderland of the knowable, as it stands today, a theme which each of us, physicist and psychologist, might approach from his own angle, to meet at last on common ground, though setting out from different premises. Thus the question which you put me–what is to be done to rid mankind of the war menace?–took me by surprise.

And, next, I was dumbfounded by the thought of my (of our, I almost wrote) incompetence; for this struck me as being a matter of practical politics, the statesman’s proper study. But then I realized that you did not raise the question in your capacity of scientist or physicist, but as a lover of his fellow men, who responded to the call of the League of Nations much as Fridtjof Nansen, the polar explorer, took on himself the task of succoring homeless and starving victims of the World War.

And, next, I reminded myself that I was not being called on to formulate practical proposals but, rather, to explain how this question of preventing wars strikes a psychologist. But here, too, you have stated the gist of the matter in your letter–and taken the wind out of my sails! Still, I will gladly follow in your wake and content myself with endorsing your conclusions, which, however, I propose to amplify to the best of my knowledge or surmise.

You begin with the relations between might and right, and this is assuredly the proper starting point for our inquiry. But, for the term might, I would substitute a tougher and more telling word: violence. In right and violence we have today an obvious antinomy. It is easy to prove that one has evolved from the other and, when we go back to origins and examine primitive conditions, the solution of the problem follows easily enough. I must crave your indulgence if in what follows I speak of well-known, admitted facts as though they were new data; the context necessitates this method. Conflicts of interest between man and man are resolved, in principle, by the recourse to violence. It is the same in the animal kingdom, from which man cannot claim exclusion; nevertheless, men are also prone to conflicts of opinion, touching, on occasion, the loftiest peaks of abstract thought, which seem to call for settlement by quite another method.

This refinement is, however, a late development. To start with, group force was the factor which, in small communities, decided points of ownership and the question which man’s will was to prevail. Very soon physical force was implemented, then replaced, by the use of various adjuncts; he proved the victor whose weapon was the better, or handled the more skillfully. Now, for the first time, with the coming of weapons, superior brains began to oust brute force, but the object of the conflict remained the same: one party was to be constrained, by the injury done him or impairment of his strength, to retract a claim or a refusal. This end is most effectively gained when the opponent is definitely put out of action–in other words, is killed.

This procedure has two advantages: the enemy cannot renew hostilities, and, secondly, his fate deters others from following his example. Moreover, the slaughter of a foe gratifies an instinctive craving–a point to which we shall revert hereafter. However, another consideration may be set off against this will to kill: the possibility of using an enemy for servile tasks if< his spirit be broken and his life spared. Here violence finds an outlet not in slaughter but in subjugation. Hence springs the practice of giving quarter; but the victor, having from now on to reckon with the craving for revenge that rankles in his victim, forfeits to some extent his personal security. Thus, under primitive conditions, it is superior force--brute violence, or violence backed by arms-- that lords it everywhere. We know that in the course of evolution this state of things was modified, a path was traced that led away from violence to law. But what was this path? Surely it issued from a single verity: that the superiority of one strong man can be overborne by an alliance of many weaklings, that l‘union fait la force. Brute force is overcome by union; the allied might of scattered units makes good its right against the isolated giant.

Thus we may define “right” (i.e., law) as the might of a community. Yet it, too, is nothing else than violence, quick to attack whatever individual stands in its path, and it employs the selfsame methods, follows like ends, with but one difference: it is the communal, not individual, violence that has its way. But, for the transition from crude violence to the reign of law, a certain psychological condition must first obtain. The union of the majority must be stable and enduring. If its sole raison d’etre be the discomfiture of some overweening individual and, after his downfall, it be dissolved, it leads to nothing. Some other man, trusting to his superior power, will seek to reinstate the rule of violence, and the cycle will repeat itself unendingly. Thus the union of the people must be permanent and well organized; it must enact rules to meet the risk of possible revolts; must set up machinery insuring that its rules–the laws–are observed and that such acts of violence as the laws demand are duly carried out. This recognition of a community of interests engenders among the members of the group a sentiment of unity and fraternal solidarity which constitutes its real strength.

So far I have set out what seems to me the kernel of the matter: the suppression of brute force by the transfer of power to a larger combination, founded on the community of sentiments linking up its members. All the rest is mere tautology and glosses. Now the position is simple enough so long as the community consists of a number of equipollent individuals. The laws of such a group can determine to what extent the individual must forfeit his personal freedom, the right of using personal force as an instrument of violence, to insure the safety of the group. But such a combination is only theoretically possible; in practice the situation is always complicated by the fact that, from the outset, the group includes elements of unequal power, men and women, elders and children, and, very soon, as a result of war and conquest, victors and the vanquished–i.e., masters and slaves–as well. From this time on the common law takes notice of these inequalities of power, laws are made by and for the rulers, giving the servile classes fewer rights.

Thenceforward there exist within the state two factors making for legal instability, but legislative evolution, too: first, the attempts by members of the ruling class to set themselves above the law’s restrictions and, secondly, the constant struggle of the ruled to extend their rights and see each gain embodied in the code, replacing legal disabilities by equal laws for all. The second of these tendencies will be particularly marked when there takes place a positive mutation of the balance of power within the community, the frequent outcome of certain historical conditions. In such cases the laws may gradually be adjusted to the changed conditions or (as more usually ensues) the ruling class is loath to rush in with the new developments, the result being insurrections and civil wars, a period when law is in abeyance and force once more the arbiter, followed by a new regime of law.

There is another factor of constitutional change, which operates in a wholly pacific manner, viz.: the cultural evolution of the mass of the community; this factor, however, is of a different order and an only be dealt with later. Thus we see that, even within the group itself, the exercise of violence cannot be avoided when conflicting interests are at stake. But the common needs and habits of men who live in fellowship under the same sky favor a speedy issue of such conflicts and, this being so, the possibilities of peaceful solutions make steady progress. Yet the most casual glance at world history will show an unending series of conflicts between one community and another or a group of others, between large and smaller units, between cities, countries, races, tribes and kingdoms, almost all of which were settled by the ordeal of war. Such war ends either in pillage or in conquest and its fruits, the downfall of the loser.

No single all-embracing judgment can be passed on these wars of aggrandizement. Some, like the war between the Mongols and the Turks, have led to unmitigated misery; others, however, have furthered the transition from violence to law, since they brought larger units into being, within whose limits a recourse to violence was banned and a new regime determined all disputes. Thus the Roman conquest brought that boon, the pax Romana, to the Mediterranean lands. The French kings’ lust for aggrandizement created a new France, flourishing in peace and unity. Paradoxical as its sounds, we must admit that warfare well might serve to pave the way to that unbroken peace we so desire, for it is war that brings vast empires into being, within whose frontiers all warfare is proscribed by a strong central power.

In practice, however, this end is not attained, for as a rule the fruits of victory are but short-lived, the new-created unit falls asunder once again, generally because there can be no true cohesion between the parts that violence has welded. Hitherto, moreover, such conquests have only led to aggregations which, for all their magnitude, had limits, and disputes between these units could be resolved only by recourse to arms. For humanity at large the sole result of all these military enterprises was that, instead of frequent, not to say incessant, little wars, they had now to face great wars which, for all they came less often, were so much the more destructive. Regarding the world of today the same conclusion holds good, and you, too, have reached it, though by a shorter path.

There is but one sure way of ending war and that is the establishment, by common consent, of a central control which shall have the last word in every conflict of interests. For this, two things are needed: first, the creation of such a supreme court of judicature; secondly, its investment with adequate executive force. Unless this second requirement be fulfilled, the first is unavailing. Obviously the League of Nations, acting as a Supreme Court, fulfills the first condition; it does not fulfill the second. It has no force at its disposal and can only get it if the members of the new body, its constituent nations, furnish it. And, as things are, this is a forlorn hope.

Still we should be taking a very shortsighted view of the League of Nations were we to ignore the fact that here is an experiment the like of which has rarely–never before, perhaps, on such a scale–been attempted in the course of history. It is an attempt to acquire the authority (in other words, coercive influence), which hitherto reposed exclusively in the possession of power, by calling into play certain idealistic attitudes of mind. We have seen that there are two factors of cohesion in a community: violent compulsion and ties of sentiment (“identifications,” in technical parlance) between the members of the group. If one of these factors becomes inoperative, the other may still suffice to hold the group together.

Obviously such notions as these can only be significant when they are the expression of a deeply rooted sense of unity, shared by all. It is necessary, therefore, to gauge the efficacy of such sentiments. History tells us that, on occasion, they have been effective. For example, the Panhellenic conception, the Greeks’ awareness of superiority over their barbarian neighbors, which found expression in the Amphictyonies, the Oracles and Games, was strong enough to humanize the methods of warfare as between Greeks, though inevitably it failed to prevent conflicts between different elements of the Hellenic race or even to deter a city or group of cities from joining forces with their racial foe, the Persians, for the discomfiture of a rival.

The solidarity of Christendom in the Renaissance age was no more effective, despite its vast authority, in hindering Christian nations, large and small alike, from calling in the Sultan to their aid. And, in our times, we look in vain for some such unifying notion whose authority would be unquestioned. It is all too clear that the nationalistic ideas, paramount today in every country, operate in quite a contrary direction. Some there are who hold that the Bolshevist conceptions may make an end of war, but, as things are, that goal lies very far away and, perhaps, could only be attained after a spell of brutal internecine warfare. Thus it would seem that any effort to replace brute force by the might of an ideal is, under present conditions, doomed to fail.

Our logic is at fault if we ignore the fact that right is founded on brute force and even today needs violence to maintain it. I now can comment on another of your statements. You are amazed that it is so easy to infect men with the war fever, and you surmise that man has in him an active instinct for hatred and destruction, amenable to such stimulations. I entirely agree with you. I believe in the existence of this instinct and have been recently at pains to study its manifestations. In this connection may I set out a fragment of that knowledge of the instincts, which we psychoanalysts, after so many tentative essays and groupings in the dark, have compassed? We assume that human instincts are of two kinds: those that conserve and unify, which we call “erotic” (in the meaning Plato gives to Eros in his Symposium), or else “sexual” (explicitly extending the popular connotation of “sex”); and, secondly, the instincts to destroy and kill, which we assimilate as the aggressive or destructive instincts.

These are, as you perceive, the well known opposites, Love and Hate, transformed into theoretical entities; they are, perhaps, another aspect of those eternal polarities, attraction and repulsion, which fall within your province. But we must be chary of passing overhastily to the notions of good and evil. Each of these instincts is every whit as indispensable as its opposite, and all the phenomena of life derive from their activity, whether they work in concert or in opposition. It seems that an instinct of either category can operate but rarely in isolation; it is always blended (“alloyed,” as we say) with a certain dosage of its opposite, which modifies its aim or even, in certain circumstances, is a prime condition of its attainment. Thus the instinct of self-preservation is certainly of an erotic nature, but to gain its end this very instinct necessitates aggressive action. In the same way the love instinct, when directed to a specific object, calls for an admixture of the acquisitive instinct if it is to enter into effective possession of that object. It is the difficulty of isolating the two kinds of instinct in their manifestations that has so long prevented us from recognizing them.

If you will travel with me a little further on this road, you will find that human affairs are complicated in yet another way. Only exceptionally does an action follow on the stimulus of a single instinct, which is per se a blend of Eros and destructiveness. As a rule several motives of similar composition concur to bring about the act. This fact was duly noted by a colleague of yours, Professor G. C. Lichtenberg, sometime Professor of Physics at Gottingen; he was perhaps even more eminent as a psychologist than as a physical scientist. He evolved the notion of a “Compass-card of Motives” and wrote: “The efficient motives impelling man to act can be classified like the thirty-two winds and described in the same manner; e.g., Food-Food-Fame or Fame-Fame-Food.” Thus, when a nation is summoned to engage in war, a whole gamut of human motives may respond to this appeal–high and low motives, some openly avowed, others slurred over.

The lust for aggression and destruction is certainly included; the innumerable cruelties of history and man’s daily life confirm its prevalence and strength. The stimulation of these destructive impulses by appeals to idealism and the erotic instinct naturally facilitate their release. Musing on the atrocities recorded on history’s page, we feel that the ideal motive has often served as a camouflage for the dust of destruction; sometimes, as with the cruelties of the Inquisition, it seems that, while the ideal motives occupied the foreground of consciousness, they drew their strength from the destructive instincts submerged in the unconscious. Both interpretations are feasible.

You are interested, I know, in the prevention of war, not in our theories, and I keep this fact in mind. Yet I would like to dwell a little longer on this destructive instinct which is seldom given the attention that its importance warrants. With the least of speculative efforts we are led to conclude that this instinct functions in every living being, striving to work its ruin and reduce life to its primal state of inert matter. Indeed, it might well be called the “death instinct”; whereas the erotic instincts vouch for the struggle to live on.

The death instinct becomes an impulse to destruction when, with the aid of certain organs, it directs its action outward, against external objects. The living being, that is to say, defends its own existence by destroying foreign bodies. But, in one of its activities, the death instinct is operative within the living being and we have sought to trace back a number of normal and pathological phenomena to this introversion of the destructive instinct. We have even committed the heresy of explaining the origin of human conscience by some such “turning inward” of the aggressive impulse. Obviously when this internal tendency operates on too large a scale, it is no trivial matter; rather, a positively morbid state of things; whereas the diversion of the destructive impulse toward the external world must have beneficial effects.

Here is then the biological justification for all those vile, pernicious propensities which we are now combating. We can but own that they are really more akin to nature than this our stand against them, which, in fact, remains to be accounted for. All this may give you the impression that our theories amount to species of mythology and a gloomy one at that! But does not every natural science lead ultimately to this–a sort of mythology? Is it otherwise today with your physical sciences? The upshot of these observations, as bearing on the subject in hand, is that there is no likelihood of our being able to suppress humanity’s aggressive tendencies.

In some happy corners of the earth, they say, where nature brings forth abundantly whatever man desires, there flourish races whose lives go gently by; unknowing of aggression or constraint. This I can hardly credit; I would like further details about these happy folk. The Bolshevists, too, aspire to do away with human aggressiveness by insuring the satisfaction of material needs and enforcing equality between man and man. To me this hope seems vain. Meanwhile they busily perfect their armaments, and their hatred of outsiders is not the least of the factors of cohesion among themselves. In any case, as you too have observed, complete suppression of man’s aggressive tendencies is not in issue; what we may try is to divert it into a channel other than that of warfare.

From our “mythology” of the instincts we may easily deduce a formula for an indirect method of eliminating war. If the propensity for war be due to the destructive instinct, we have always its counter-agent, Eros, to our hand. All that produces ties of sentiment between man and man must serve us as war’s antidote. These ties are of two kinds. First, such relations as those toward a beloved object, void though they be of sexual intent. The psychoanalyst need feel no compunction in mentioning “love” in this connection; religion uses the same language: Love thy neighbor as thyself. A pious injunction, easy to enounce, but hard to carry out!

The other bond of sentiment is by way of identification. All that brings out the significant resemblances between men calls into play this feeling of community, identification, whereon is founded, in large measure, the whole edifice of human society. In your strictures on the abuse of authority I find another suggestion for an indirect attack on the war impulse. That men are divided into the leaders and the led is but another manifestation of their inborn and irremediable inequality.

The second class constitutes the vast majority; they need a high command to make decisions for them, to which decisions they usually bow without demur. In this context we would point out that men should be at greater pains than heretofore to form a superior class of independent thinkers, unamenable to intimidation and fervent in the quest of truth, whose function it would be to guide the masses dependent on their lead. There is no need to point out how little the rule of politicians and the Church’s ban on liberty of thought encourage such a new creation. The ideal conditions would obviously be found in a community where every man subordinated his instinctive life to the dictates of reason. Nothing less than this could bring about so thorough and so durable a union between men, even if this involved the severance of mutual ties of sentiment. But surely such a hope is utterly utopian, as things are.

The other indirect methods of preventing war are certainly more feasible, but entail no quick results. They conjure up an ugly picture of mills that grind so slowly that, before the flour is ready, men are dead of hunger. As you see, little good comes of consulting a theoretician, aloof from worldly contact, on practical and urgent problems! Better it were to tackle each successive crisis with means that we have ready to our hands. However, I would like to deal with a question which, though it is not mooted in your letter, interests me greatly. Why do we, you and I and many another, protest so vehemently against war, instead of just accepting it as another of life’s odious importunities? For it seems a natural thing enough, biologically sound and practically unavoidable.

I trust you will not be shocked by my raising such a question. For the better conduct of an inquiry it may be well to don a mask of feigned aloofness. The answer to my query may run as follows: Because every man has a right over his own life and war destroys lives that were full of promise; it forces the individual into situations that shame his manhood, obliging him to murder fellow men, against his will; it ravages material amenities, the fruits of human toil, and much besides. Moreover, wars, as now conducted, afford no scope for acts of heroism according to the old ideals and, given the high perfection of modern arms, war today would mean the sheer extermination of one of the combatants, if not of both. This is so true, so obvious, that we can but wonder why the conduct of war is not banned by general consent.

Doubtless either of the points I have just made is open to debate. It may be asked if the community, in its turn, cannot claim a right over the individual lives of its members. Moreover, all forms of war cannot be indiscriminately condemned; so long as there are nations and empires, each prepared callously to exterminate its rival, all alike must be equipped for war. But we will not dwell on any of these problems; they lie outside the debate to which you have invited me. I pass on to another point, the basis, as it strikes me, of our common hatred of war. It is this: We cannot do otherwise than hate it. Pacifists we are, since our organic nature wills us thus to be. Hence it comes easy to us to find arguments that justify our standpoint. This point, however, calls for elucidation. Here is the way in which I see it. The cultural development of mankind (some, I know, prefer to call it civilization) has been in progress since immemorial antiquity. To this processus we owe all that is best in our composition, but also much that makes for human suffering. Its origins and causes are obscure, its issue is uncertain, but some of its characteristics are easy to perceive.

It well may lead to the extinction of mankind, for it impairs the sexual function in more than one respect, and even today the uncivilized races and the backward classes of all nations are multiplying more rapidly than the cultured elements. This process may, perhaps, be likened to the effects of domestication on certain animals–it clearly involves physical changes of structure–but the view that cultural development is an organic process of this order has not yet become generally familiar. The psychic changes which accompany this process of cultural change are striking, and not to be gainsaid. They consist in the progressive rejection of instinctive ends and a scaling down of instinctive reactions. Sensations which delighted our forefathers have become neutral or unbearable to us; and, if our ethical and aesthetic ideals have undergone a change, the causes of this are ultimately organic.

On the psychological side two of the most important phenomena of culture are, firstly, a strengthening of the intellect, which tends to master our instinctive life, and, secondly, an introversion of the aggressive impulse, with all its consequent benefits and perils. Now war runs most emphatically counter to the psychic disposition imposed on us by the growth of culture; we are therefore bound to resent war, to find it utterly intolerable. With pacifists like us it is not merely an intellectual and affective repulsion, but a constitutional intolerance, an idiosyncrasy in its most drastic form. And it would seem that the aesthetic ignominies of warfare play almost as large a part in this repugnance as war’s atrocities.

How long have we to wait before the rest of men turn pacifist? Impossible to say, and yet perhaps our hope that these two factors–man’s cultural disposition and a well-founded dread of the form that future wars will take–may serve to put an end to war in the near future, is not chimerical. But by what ways or byways this will come about, we cannot guess. Meanwhile we may rest on the assurance that whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war. With kindest regards and, should this expose prove a disappointment to you, my sincere regrets, Yours, SIGMUND FREUD

Einstein was apparently not disappointed when Freud’s reply was received. He addressed the following letter to Freud on December 3, 1932: You have made a most gratifying gift to the League of Nations and myself with your truly classic reply. When I wrote you I was thoroughly convinced of the insignificance of my role, which was only meant to document my good will, with me as the bait on the hoof; to tempt the marvelous fish into nibbling. You have given in return something altogether magnificent. We cannot know what may grow from such seed, as the effect upon man of any action or event is always incalculable. This is not within our power and we do not need to worry about it. You have earned my gratitude and the gratitude of all men for having devoted all your strength to the search for truth and for having shown the rarest courage in professing your convictions all your life. . . . By the time the exchange between Einstein and Freud was published in 1933, under the title Why War?, Hitler, who was to drive both men into exile, was already in power, and the letters never achieved the wide circulation intended for them. Indeed, the first German edition of the pamphlet is reported to have been limited to only 2,000 copies, as was also the original English edition.

This exchange of letters is central to our world today.

“Love and lust for life,” Einstein says.  And circling back to the matter of Mrs. Marie Elizabeth Humboldt, Friedrich Schiller told Goethe that “Alexander was participating in some dubious séances in Paris involving her. Humboldt had always been inflicted by a ‘great fear of ghosts.’”

And here is a man who seems fearless afraid of ghosts.  And why not drag Shakespeare into this: “Lord, what fools we mortals be.”

by Sue Walker

CHAPTER 2: Imagination and Nature:  Joann Wolfgang von Goethe and Humboldt.

Alexander hobnobbed with some the world’s greatest minds. Alexander’s brother Wilhelm and his wife Catherine lived in Jena, not far from Weimar, where Germany’s greatest poet, Goethe lived.  Friedrich Schiller lived nearby as well.  Can’t imagine popping in to visit or to dine with Goethe. Since that is impossible, I can gather words like Humboldt gathers leaves;

Let’s see some of the things Goethe said.  I cannot resist veer-voices:

“One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”
― Johann Wolfgang von GoetheWilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship


            “Every reader, if he has a strong mind, reads himself into the book, and amalgamates his thoughts with those of the author.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Yes, here I am busy busy busy amalgamating.

Goethe’s masterpiece, perhaps, is The Sorrows of Young Werther about unrequited love.  I remember reading this book in graduate school.  Some passages are memorable – especially this:

“The human race is a monotonous affair. Most people spend the greatest part of their   time working in order to live, and what little freedom remains so fills them with fear that they seek out any and every means to be rid of it.”

and this:

“Every day I observe more and more the folly of judging of others by ourselves; and I have so much trouble with myself, and my own heart is in such constant agitation, that I am well content to let others pursue their own course, if they only allow me the same privilege.”

Oh, were there world enough and time, I would return to Werther and read it again.

And yes, we celebrate the eponymous Humboldt, do we not?

But stop!  Goethe and Karl August, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, are trouncing through the streets of Weimar wrapped in sheets to scare those who believed in ghosts.

What accounts for the ghosts of those we love?  Think divination.  Shhh. The ghost of Carson McCullers won’t be still. It enters here, rambles about and speaks of love – but wait – why is McCullers stirring on the June morning when I am writing through The Invention? Because Wulf comments that Goethe shocked Weimar society when he took the uneducated Christiane Vulpius as his lover. The couple gave birth to a son they named August. Christiane and August lived with Goethe.  “There is,” McCullers says, “the lover and the beloved”  . . . but let’s see what McCullers said:

“First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons — but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people  involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different  countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which had lain  quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He  feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange  loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for  the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world — a world intense and strange, complete in himself. Let it be added here that this lover about whom we speak need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring — this lover can be man, woman, child, or indeed  any human creature on this earth.

Now, the beloved can also be of any description. The most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love. A man may be a doddering great-grandfather and still love only a strange girl he saw in the streets of Cheehaw one afternoon two decades past. The  preacher may love a fallen woman. The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else — but  that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit. A most mediocre person can be   the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll.  Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.

It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best  of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”  —  The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories.

Do we learn by reading one text, one passage, against another?  Do we learn about love by reading about love? And just to mention another book that is an exploration on the nature of love, I love  – Alain de Botton’s On Love (a novel). Caritas. Agape. 

So, let’s take a walk, shall we?  Shall we stroll, amble, along with Goethe and Humboldt?  Mind we must stay out of storms – for glancing out of the corner of our eye, we see Humboldt’s acquisition of the corpse of a farmer and his wife killed by lightening.  Their bodies are laid out on a table. He’s poking and prodding the bodies. The man’s leg looks as if it’s  been punctured by shotgun pellets.  The worse damage is to his genitals.  But, I’ll leave him there spread out on the table as Humboldt exclaims: “ I cannot exist without experiments.”

I should rather venture to Schiller’s garden house, sit outside on a mild summer evening and talk with Wihelm and Alex about the marriage of art, nature, and the mind.  And the question? “Is the tree that I’m seeing in my garden the idea of a tree or the real tree?” What of the imagination and rational thought? I like the juxtaposition of those two words:  imagination and Rational.

Humboldt said Goethe equipped him with “new organs” through which to see and understand the natural world.

Let’s tour the Mobile Botanical Gardens, yes? By all means!

by Sue Walker


Chapter 1: Beginnings

Chapter 1 is largely biography, the first sentence announces Humboldt’s date of birth:  14 September, 1769. Because of his inquisitive gathering tendencies – insects and plants – he was called “The Little Apothecary.”

Other snippets of biography include those of Frederick the Great–known for his love of music, philosophy, and learning.  Fred was Prussia’s king from 1740 to 1786. He was adept at winning wars and grabbling territories – and making Prussia a formidable military power.


Listen. A voice whispers in my ear? Frederick the Great reminds me that:

“Great things are achieved only when we take risks.”  Humboldt certainly took this truth to heart.”

Frederick, however, may been something of a curmudgeon, for he also said: “The more I see of men, the better I like my dog.”




We have to wonder—at least I do—about Humboldt’s fearlessness—how he could creep on hands and knees on a narrow ledge when a fall would bring certain death.  Alas, I fear I have it—acrophobia. The word “acrophobia” is derived from the Greek “acron” (height) and “hobos” (fear).

I remember learning about James Watt’s ( 1736-1819) letting off steam with that engine of his.


What say ye, James Watt?  Hey, let her blow!

“About 6 or 8 years ago My Ingenious friend Mr. John Robinson having [contrived]         conceived that a fire engine might be made without a Lever—by Inverting the Cylinder 7      placing it above the mouth of the pit proposed to me to make a model of it which was set         about by having never Completed & I [being] having at that time Ignorant little       knowledge of the machine however I always thought the Machine Might be applied to [more ] other as valuable purposes [than] as drawing Water.”


How can one thing become part of another and make it new?  Humboldt, in a later chapter, talks about poetry – but let’s think erasure here.  Suppose I make a new text from the Watt text?
Hmmmm. Let me color my new “invention” here – make it bold red.

About 6 or 8 years ago My Ingenious friend Mr John Robinson having [contrived]            conceived that a fire engine might be made without a Lever—by Inverting the Cylinder        7 placing it above the mouth of the pit proposed to me to make a model of it which was    set about by having never Completed & I [being] having at that time Ignorant little       knowledge of the machine however I always thought the Machine Might be applied to            [more ] other as valuable purposes [than] as drawing Water.”

Without a lever
the machine might be more
valuable than water.


We meet René Descartes and Isaac Newton, who thought of the universe as divine clockwork.  We learn about the invention of the telescope and the microscope. And we acquaint ourselves with Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz whose ideas of a universal science were based on mathematics. No one thought Nature could be destroyed.

Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am.  So think along with me . . . as we read / write out way through Wulf by way of Humboldt, et al.

Hello there Isaac Newton! May I, stand on your shoulder – for you say: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”—Letter to Robert Hooke (5 Feb 1675-6).In H. W. Turnbull (ed.), The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, 1, 1661-1675 (1959), Vol. 1.  These aforementioned shoulders and those of Humboldt and Wulf – are like stair steps that help us get where we would go.

One thing that stands out for me in this chapter is the portrait of Alexander and Wilhelm’s mother. Alexander was nine when his father died.  His mother was demanding and not very affectionate.  The boys had to adhere to her wishes.  Alexander, however, had a longing for distant places. The German word for this longing is fernweh. “My unhappy circumstances,” Humboldt said, “force me to want what I can’t have and to do what I don’t like.”  And so, at home, Alexander became fascinated with Galvanism – or animal magnetism – as he “cut, prodded, poked, and electrocuted frogs, lizards, and mice.” Ick!

PROMPTS:  1) Write an erasure piece.  2) Write about Mother.


Sue Brannan Walker 

Let me begin my adventure here – “writing through Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature,” and let me say that you know when you have entered a book – i.e. begun to read it. No, let me rephrase that slightly: you know when a book has entered you when you dream about it.  Last night, about half-way through Wulf’s book, I dreamed I was giving a lecture on it.  The place was, I think, the Admiral Semmes Hotel in downtown Mobile, Alabama.  There were people milling around before going to their seats.  Derek Norman was to introduce me.  I was excited, nervous before speaking, but there was one problem; I had lost my shoes and was barefooted.  Perhaps it is because there is more than a bit of foot-work in Invention  — Humbolt and his fellow explorers suffered feet raw and bleeding from the cold because their shoes had become threadbare and torn.  Nevertheless, I didn’t want to wake up this morning; I wanted to continue my dream though I remember standing barefooted before the audience explaining that I couldn’t find my shoes. In a sense then, Alexander Von Humbolt has come to Mobile – just as Andrea Wulf will do on October  9  when she speaks at the Mobile Botanical Gardens in Mobile.

Wulf is the bestselling author of The Invention of NatureThe Brother GardenersFounding GardenersChasing Venus, and the co-author of This Other EdenThe Brother Gardeners was long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2008, the most prestigious non-fiction award in the UK and won the American Horticultural Society 2010 Book Award. ‘The Invention of Nature” won the Royal Society Science Book Award 2016 and the LA Times Book Prize 2016.

Wulf’s comments on writing are valuable – especially when it comes to revising.

“I’m an obsessive re–drafter.” Wulf says.  “I write, re–write, re–write and re–write. Draft after draft.”

And about editing, she has this to say:

“For me, editing is as important as writing. No, probably even more important. I’ve never been able to sit down and write the perfect sentence. I re–write constantly – it’s almost like being a carpenter sanding a piece of wood, again and again, until it’s perfectly smooth.”

And let me pause here to point out that in America, periods and commas go inside quotation marks. In Britain, they are outside. And note above – the British spelling of armour – which makes me think of my British granddaughter who was born in Washington, DC.  She (age 10)  and her younger brother (age 8) moved to London where my son, her father, and mother live and work. Calliope, it seems, was writing cursive (yes, they thankfully still teach it in Britain), and I thought, “yes, of course!  She would have to pause to think of how certain words were spelled in her school in London.



But let my reading begin.  The poet, novelist, James Dickey, spoke of “veer voices,” so my “read” here will mention voices that come into being as I read. I hope they illuminate Wulf’s inventive and fascinating text.

Begin?  How? Where?  I question texts and talk back to them.  I write in the margins. I highlight. And that is, in part, what I mean about entering a text and letting it enter me.

I groove on the epigraph that features Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  It is worth repeating and offering a few comments, making note of words I will highlight:


Close your eyes, prick your ears, and from the softest sound to the wildest noise from        the simplest tone to the highest harmony, from the most violent, passionate scream to the gentlest words of sweet reason, it is by Nature, who speaks, revealing her being, her            power, her life, and her relatedness so that of a blind person, to whom the infinitely   visible world is denied, can grasp an infinite vitality in what can be heard.

Look at the emphasis on “sound.”  We see / hear “noise,” “tone,” “harmony” and scream – in addition to “the gentlest words of sweet reason” – all of which is the language Nature speaks when “revealing her being, [and] her life.  Two other words in this soundscape deserve attention:  “Nature” (capital N) and “being.” I mention two designations regarding the word “Nature” that I will use in my account. I will spell “Nature” with a capital “N” when I refer to the natural word. I will spell “nature” (lowercase) when I refer to human beings and their responses to “being-in-the- world,” their human nature.  Enter the veer voice of Michael E. Zimmerman, professor / philosopher who says in Eclipse of Self,  that “being” does not mean any particular being, or even the totality of beings. Being (to be) means for a being to be manifest or revealed.  We are speaking, here, of Deep Ecology and of self-realization, of how we see ourselves in and of Nature.  There is, as a matter of interest, an “Eight-point Deep Ecology Platform” noted by Arne Naess in “The Deep Ecological Movement: Some Philosophical  Aspects,” published in Deep Ecology For The 21st Century, edited by George Sessions.

Now, let’s look at where Wulf begins her Invention. I find it fascinating to examine the point of entry that each individual author makes. Wulf begins by creating a scene.  She writes”

They were crawling on hands and knees along a high narrow ridge that was in places only two inches wide.

We see what is happening, but this initial sentence does not tell us “who” or “where.”  We, as readers, are brought into the narrative. “The path,” she says, “if you would call it that.”  Note that 2nd person pronoun: “you.”  That’s us, isn’t it – so let us go then, you and I” (ah, I hear T.S. Eliot’s voice from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Let us go then, you and I.”

Wulf takes us on an adventure – her own and that of Alexander Von Humboldt” though his name and that of his travelers isn’t mentioned in the first paragraph.  But, we have a view of “rocks that protruded like knife blades.”

It is in paragraph two that Humboldt’s name is mentioned – and we see him and his three companions  as they inch forward, moving single-file along the aforementioned narrow ledge.  And we feel the icy wind that has numbed their hands and feet. Melted snow has soaked their shoes. Indeed, “the jagged rocks shredded the soles of their shoes, and their feet began to bleed.”  Perhaps this is why I dreamed I was barefooted, why I was sans shoes, yes?  I have definitely entered this narrative in my dream.

We are 17,000 feet above sea level. It is June 23, 1802 – and Humboldt and co. are climbing Chimborazo – and inactive volcano in the Andes.  Alexander is 32 years old.  And we note that he meticulously recorded everything in his notebook.

Let’s see how we can turn this initial excavation into the “mind” of Wulf / Humboldt with a rather objectivist poem after Lorine Niedecker:

An ode – simply stated is a poem that celebrates a person or particular person, place, thing or idea.

Take a look at this poem by Niedecker:

You are the man
You are my other country

and I find it hard going

You are the prickly pear
You are the sudden violent storm

the torrent to raise the river
to float the wounded doe

One thing I want to point out here is the lack of punctuation.

And let’s say we can copy this – adding a note:  (After Lorine Niedecker)

(Sue Walker)

You are Alexander von Humboldt
You are a naturalist, inventor  scientist  explorer
grasping rock ledge while while studying a volcano

You are Nature and nature, Chimborazo,
You are storms and the aftermath

the ocean and its tides
isotherms and a forest of the mind


The Volcano & Hyeroglyphs At Hand: An Ode to Alexander von Humboldt

Die gefährlichst weltanschauung ist die weltanschauung derer, die die welt nie angeschaut haben.

(The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world)”


His questing hands

claw a 2-inch ledge.

His feet bleed in tattered shoes;

What defines fear        17,000

feet above sea level     climbing

Chimborazo, answering Nature’s call?


Had it not been for Humboldt’s notebook(s) and were it not for Wulf’s account, we would not be on this journey.  Like Humboldt, we don’t know what we’re in for – and is that true of Wulf as well?

Wulf cites Humboldt as saying “[N]ature had to be experienced through feelings.  This “writing” is a means of exploring my feelings; I hope that in reading Invention is true for you as well.

A few things that seem worth mentioning in this Prologue are:

“Humboldt became the first scientist to talk about harmful human-induced climate change.”

“He invented isotherms—the lines of temperature and pressure that we see on today’s        weather maps—and he also discovered the magnetic equator.”



1) write an ode – to nature, to a thing (remember Keats wrote an “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”  And Percy Shelley, “Ode to the West Wind.”  2)  Write a short poem after Niedecker.


Amanda Wilkins, Curator of Plant Collections

MBG has received a plethora of calls all wondering the same things: ‘Should I be cutting back my dead foliage?’  or ‘When should I be pruning [insert plant here]?’

Okay, dead foliage first:

I have been hesitant to encourage people to cut back their dead foliage on their citrus, perennials and woody plants. This week is looking quite “spring-like”, but because of the weird especially cold winter we’ve experience I have been warning caution. The reason being the dead foliage protects the plants from biting wind and bitter cold that can get at the living crown of the plant and desiccate the living tissue. If we get one more cold snap before the end of “winter”, especially after this upcoming week of warm weather, you may have more damage in your garden.

If you have already cut it back, don’t worry! Plants are surprisingly resilient. We also have a plant sale coming up, so you can use it as an opportunity to fill in those new dead spots!


Many people have reported their satsumas and kumquats have dead foliage and tips on them after the cold. This is normal, given the crazy weather we’ve had. Your plants will grow new leaves in good time, so don’t worry. To properly cut back the dead tips on any citrus:

  • Identify the where the bark on the tips goes from brown to green
  • Count down four to six buds
  • Make the cut just above one of the buds, making sure it is facing away from the center of the plant!

Sago Palms and Palmettos

Most of the sago palms, Cycas taitungensis and C. revoluta, around Mobile have turned a golden, crispy looking color that certainly stands out as a glaring wound from winter. I know a lot of you are chomping at the bit to get the seemingly standing dead out of your landscape, but I encourage you to be patient with those clippers! Your plants are most likely just fine and they need that foliage to protect their central growing bud from harm (you know, that crazy looking fuzzy swirl in the middle)!

If you are not sure if your plant is still alive, sago or palmetto, look at the foliage. Even if it is brown, if most of the fronds are still standing erectly then your plant is fine. If the foliage is hanging down and starting to fall off, the plant is dead and should be removed. If you’re still not sure, email me at the Gardens ( with a picture of the whole plant.

The best time to cut the dead-looking foliage off is once the center bud starts to elongate. If you can’t wait until then, then wait until you feel confident spring has arrived.

Timing Your Pruning

I wish it was as easy as giving some quick advice when it comes to pruning. I really do. Unfortunately, it is a fairly complicated business and if not understood properly can forever sentence you to a life without flowers in your garden. Who out there has a mophead or lacecap Hydrangea that “never blooms”? Yep, I thought so.

A few tips though:

  • Timing is everything! Make sure(!) you know what species of plant you have before you go after it with the shears. Get to know when it flowers and other habits it has so that way you are not cutting it back at the wrong time. For example, there are three types of Hydrangea we commonly grow on the Gulf Coast. Two of them flower on old wood (Hydrangea macrophylla) and one of them flowers on new wood (Hydrangea paniculata). You can cut back the one that blooms on new wood in the winter without issue, but if you cut back one that blooms on old wood you cut next season’s flowers off!
  • Make sure to keep your tools clean! Spray the blades with isopropyl alcohol in-between plants in your garden. Think about it this way: would you want your doctor going at you with a recycled needle? I think not! Make sure to scrub off debris before storing your tools.
  • There are times when you don’t need to worry about timing: When a plant is getting in the way of your walkway (clearance) or is growing into another plant; and when there is dying, dead or diseased wood (make sure to remove the material completely from your garden!).
  • “Pruning Winter” ends at the end of February/early March. Anything after that you run the risk of

Okay, I will try to give you the quick and dirty on the more common plants you might be going after this time of year.

Crape Myrtles

Winter is the time to prune these back. We won’t talk about “crape murder”. You prune your plants the way you want (or visit the Gardens to see what crape myrtles can really look like)!


Winter is the time to prune these back as well. I understand a lot of folks are dealing with plant behemoths they may have let go too long. We may have to deal with that at a later date.


“Azaleas after” is all you have to remember. Prune them after they have finished flowering, whatever cultivar you have. Evergreen azaleas are very forgiving with pruning, but if you have any deciduous/native/Aromi azaleas, don’t prune them too harshly. Only prune them if their branches are crossing or if they are growing in the wrong direction.


Valentine’s Day is the beginning of pruning season for Camellias. If your Camellias haven’t bloomed by Feb. 14, then hold off until after they do! June is a good time to stop pruning.


Valentine’s Day is the beginning of the pruning season for roses too. Roses bloom on new growth, so you can cut them back fairly heavily, if your taste dictates. Many rose cultivars will also continue to bloom if you cut off them spent blossoms. Drift® and Knockout® roses are two such types!


If you have any other questions or concerns, feel free to email them to me at I always appreciate accompanying photos!

I look forward to seeing you around the Gardens!


Written by Amanda Wilkins


Camellia grijsii flowering in the Kosaku Sawada WinterGarden, with display label.

I gave a tour to a group of visiting botanists a couple weeks ago. These were people who dealt mainly with the natural world, but can still appreciate gardens. One of the ladies was reading a Camellia label in the WinterGarden and exclaimed, “Hey! That’s where I’m from in Georgia!” She beamed as one of the other scientists took her photo with the beautiful pink flowers.

Visitors take a picture of the display label of Osmanthus heterophylla ‘Kaori Hime’ to remember the name of the plant they saw.




Knowing and understanding the “origin” of a particular plant or cultivar helps put the plant into the wider context of the plant kingdom and of cultivation around the world. Think about it: looking at a tree and thinking ‘it’s just a tree,’ but suddenly you see it is from a specific region in China or was a cultivar developed in a town near where your family was from? That plant has just taken on a whole new meaning to you.

One of the most important things that sets a botanical garden apart from any other garden is the presence of labels telling you what plant you are looking at. To have that, you need knowledgeable staff members who know plants, how to research them, and how to properly communicate that information to a broad audience, from laypeople to scientists.

We are fortunate at the Mobile Botanical Gardens that we have a staff who can! In the past, diligent volunteers did their best to make sure each plant was labeled with a metal tag and a label that could be seen from the path; however, this was not consistent throughout the Gardens. One of my jobs as curator of plant collections is to come back behind them, record the names in our master plant database, and then make sure the name is correct. After all of that, a newly formatted label is made.

Dissecting the flowers of Camellia grijsii to determine whether it was properly identified.

The new labels contain several pieces of information: the scientific name; the cultivar name (if it has one); a common name (if it is not a repeat of the scientific name); the plant family it is in; the accession number, which corresponds to its entry in the database; and then we’ll call it the “origin” information.

What is the “origin” of a plant? We define it many ways at the Gardens. For species that can be found in the wild, it is where they are native to. For the azaleas and Camellias, the origin is the breeder or registrar of the particular cultivar. We do this because these are significant collections at the Gardens. For other plants that are cultivars (we’ll table this term for another time), it will generally say “Garden Origin.”

Camellia sasanqua ‘Sakura’ was collected during a trip to Japan a few years ago. It was in cultivation there, but no one knows the details of its origin.

It seems every time I walk through the Gardens with visitors, the question arises: “what does ‘Garden Origin’ mean?” The long and short of it is that it comes from a garden. It is just that simple, yet here is a lot of meaning packed into that little term. Really, it means that at one point in the history of horticulture, man came along and selected it from the wild or selectively bred it for the purpose of growing it in a garden. Which garden? How long ago? Where did it come from? Who selected it? Sometimes it is easy to know if there is a lot of literature about that particular group of plants or if it is a relatively recent development; but sometimes time has shrouded the origins in mystery and we may never know. For the sake of consistency and sanity, we choose to roll all of this simply into “Garden Origin”.


Come visit us at the Gardens from Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Last entry is at 3 p.m., so come early! The Gardens are a private non-profit and rely on donations and entrance fees to survive. It is $5 for non-members, and free members and for children under 12. Join me for the monthly Walk with the Curator every second Thursday. The next walk is Thursday, January 11 at 10 a.m.