by Sue B. Walker

CHAPTER 11 –W/reading Through The Invention of Nature

(A somewhat gossipy chapter filled with jealousy and intrigue)

Alexander Von Humboldt is phenomenal!  And he’s back in Paris – with a problem most writers would like to have – yes? – that of writing so many books at the same time that you have trouble meeting a deadline.

Now how did Wulf know about Alex’s “painful haemorrhoidal incidents”?  Reckon he wrote Goethe about them?  Can you imagine writing Goethe about your hemroids?  Wulf has 100 pages of notes – so I had to look and see if could find info about Alex’s dilated veins?  Wulf cites a letter to Goethe, dated 1 January, 1810.  (In Goethe Humboldt Letters, 1901, p. 305. ) Now, isn’t reading through invention fun?

Wulf mentions that Humboldt’s Vues des Cordillères et monuments des peoples indigènes de l’Amérique.  It was a an edition of 69 gorgeous engravings of Chimborazo.  But wait –what is meant by “folio edition.”  I remember from Shakespeare, but it is:

“Firstly, a folio (abbreviated fo or ) is a book or pamphlet made up of one or more full sheets of paper, on each of which four pages of text are printed, two on each side; each sheet is then folded once to produce two leaves. Each leaf of a folio book thus is one half the size of the original sheet. Ordinarily, additional printed folio sheets would be inserted inside one another to form a group or “gathering” of leaves prior to binding the book.”

Curiosity killed the cat.  I just found that I could order this book – French edition – for less than $30.00.

Now, imagine living in three different houses in order to rest whenever and wherever you wanted.  I doubt you could do that if you were a married man! One night in the Paris Observatory so you could look at the stars.  And then – a night with Joseph Louis GaypLussac at the École Polytechnique or with Bonplandt.  And – far better than doctors’ morning rounds – meeting with young savants from 8-11:00 a.m.  I think perhaps that we are Savants (deliberate capital S here) – for in our “garret hours” here at the Mobile Botanical Gardens, we meet from 10:00 to 12.  Ah – Savants, we are, yes?

Wulf enters interesting tidbits.  She tells us – in a footnote – (sometimes you can do marvelous things with footnotes.  (Have you even written poems with footnotes?  I shall call the fun of it, “footnotese.)  Lo, Wulf says that Humboldt moved into an apartment (1810) with Karl Sigismund Kunth, the nephew of his former tutor and a German botanist whom he had commissioned to work on the botanical publications that Bonpland failed to complete in a timely manner.  Then Wulf tells us about François Arago, the talented young mathematician and astronomer, who became Alex’s closest friend – at the exact moment, no less, that Gay-Lussac married.

Interesting what Arago says about Alex.  (Perhaps we’re friendly enough now that we can call Humboldt by his first name!)  At any rate, Arago said Alex had a “big heart” but a “malicious tongue.”

Wulf tells us more about Arago. He and Alex were like “Siamese twins” and Humboldt wrote that Arago was the “joy of his life.”  “They were so close,” Wulf writes, that Alex’s brother Wilhelm told his wife, Caroline, that he was concerned about the relationship.  “You know his passion to be only with one person,” Wilhelm said. He complained that his brother had ceased to be German!

What’s more,  we have shades of jealousy here.  Napoleon criticized Humboldt. Humboldt had sent him several of his books – for which there was no response.  Humboldt said of Napoleon: “He hates me.”  Napoleon even accused Alex of being a spy – and in 1810, ordered him to leave the country within 24 hours.  The chemist and treasurer of the Senate, Jean Antoine Chaptal intervened, however, and Alex was allowed to stay in Paris.

And so, let us speak of Love!  Here he is – our amazing anabamous, handsome and unmarried paragon who often attracted the attention of women.  Wulf says one woman was “desperately in love with him” – but claimed he was “a layer of ice” behind his constant smile. She’d asked him if he’d ever loved, and he replied that he had “ with a fire” – but “it was burning for the sciences, “my first and only love.”

Now, I couldn’t resist – I wanted another “a” adjective to follow “amazing” which is altogether too commonplace – so I turned to a favorite book that ought to be on every writer’s shelf:  Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words.  (You can get it on Amazon – $9.00 for a hardback – and just over $1.00 for a paperback.)  So “anabamous” means able to climb.  I chose it because I could make the word serve a dual purpose – “climb” – as in “climb every mountain” – and social climb.  Alexander von Humboldt did get around!

Wulf said the flow Humboldt’s words “’whooshed’ past relentlessly.” I love that verb. “Whooshed!”

Napoleon was exiled to Elba, a small island in the Mediterranean on April 6, 1814.  Wulf writes that “Humboldt had watched how Napoleon had destroyed Prussia in 1806, and how, eight years later, he observed the triumphal entry of the Allies into France, the country that he called his second fatherland.”

Wulf tells of Humphry Davy, Britisher who invented the miner’s safety lamp, and was a poet as well as a chemist.  I like his notion of keeping a notebook – one one side he listed his experiments and on the other, he listed his personal reactions and emotional responses.  For us – maybe one side for quotes  and notes – especially if we’re writing a report or review – and on the other, our personal thoughts.  Wouldn’t work for this Writing Through, I think, but an idea.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that Davy’s lectures enlarged his stock of metaphors.

I grooved on this chapter; is it the lure of Paris. Remember the song?  Ella Fitzgerald sang it.  So did Doris Day and Frank Sinatra:

I love Paris in the spring time
I love Paris in the fall
I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles

I love Paris every moment
Every moment of the year . . .


  1. Write a poem with footnotes: Here are a few lines from a poem by one of my favorite poets, Kristina Maria Darling, from her book Brushes With.

From:  Cartography.

We were no longer in love. The sky, too, was beginning to show its wear. A silk lining could be seen through ever slit in the dark green fabric.1

. . . . . . .

  1. The photographs portray this dress as one of the most violent manifestations of the heroine’s femininity.

(One of many footnotes.)

  1. Write a poem that is only footnotes. No text above the line.
  2. Write a poem that is gossip: Annie sat at the back table of the restaurant. / “Look,”  she said, “Doesn’t that look like Abner with Alec’s wife?”  And so on . . .   Or the Omaross Tapes – in which you just cite lines from some tape.