by Sue B. Walker

A wealth of Information here about Darwin:

Something I didn’t know – that Darwin’s  father was a doctor and investor – or that his maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgewood, the man famed for his china.  And Erasmus (what’s in a name?) Darwin was also prominent.

The Beagle, the ship that took Charles Darwin around the world – but we’ve read  Wulf’s words. A veer voice is calling:


Sea Fever


I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.


I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.


I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.


A PROMPT: Shall we write of our own Gulf waters, our own sandy shores?  Notice that Masefield’s poem is in quatrains.  Three stanzas of 4 lines each.

 Something else that I didn’t know – that pickles and lemon juice were remedies for scurvy.

Love the line that “Darwin’s mind was a hurricane of delight & astonishment.”

Note:  Darwin kept a diary too.

One of my favorite all-time books is Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s book The Little Prince.  Every child should possess this book and read about the baobab tree.


Some other interesting things to know:  Antoine de Saint Exupéry, author of The Little Prince was stricken

with wanderlust as well as Humboldt.  Antoine had been a pilot in the French Air Force until the armistice between France and Germany in 1940.  He was anti the French leader, Charles de Gaulle and refused to join the Royal Air Force, so he left for the U.S.  where he tried but failed to get the government to enter the war against Germany. Antoine died in a plane crash and his body was never recovered

by Sue B. Walker


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

A Thousand Miles From Moscow

Clear sky                   Warm air

Empty plains

And a convoy of three carriages

Along the Siberian Highway


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

What Humboldt sees out the window:

Low-growing grasses of the steppes

Stretches of forest

Poplars, birches, limes and large trees

A green juniper now and then

Wild roses

Small lady’s slipper orchids

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

When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And About Trees:

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


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


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

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

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

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

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

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well

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

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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





Home is the place where, that when you go there, they have to take you in.  – Robert Frost.

May 12, 1827.  Alexander did not want to go home again. He did not want to return to Berlin. He was King Friedrich Wilhelm III’s “ Intellectual entertainer and after dinner reader.”   And he was returning to a country that had become a police state in which censorship was part of daily life.”

PROMPT:  Write about going home again.  I grew up in Foley, Alabama – and while it is rich in memories, I would not want to move back “home.”  My husband, Ron, is from London.  My husband said that it would take a lot of money to go back to London – to go to the theatre, to museums, etc.  He said he wouldn’t even know where to live in London now.  So, if we were to go home after a certain period of time, how would it be?  Thomas Woolf said “you can’t go home again.”    

Why?  Why not:  Well, you’ve changed – and Home has changed – and memory is not reality.

  1. 224: Humboldt “believed in the power of learning and his Views of Nature were written for a general audience rather than for scientists in their ivory towers.”
  2. 225: “Humboldt had criticized governments, openly voicing his dissent and opinions, but by the time he moved to Berlin, he had grown disillusioned with politics.”
  3. 225: GEORGE CANNING, British Prime Minster (April 11, 1770-August 8, 1827)

If we really don’t know a lot about George Canning, what did he say that may resonate with us today?
“I can prove anything by statistics except the truth.”  (And how often do we hear someone say,” but to tell you the truth?”


“And finds, with keen,
discriminating sight,
Black’s not so black,–not white so
very white.”

What is it that Plato had to say about TRUTH?

(Plato, Republic, 380BC )And those whose hearts are fixed on Realityitself deserve the title of Philosophers. … When the mind’s eye rests on objects illuminated by truth and reality, it understands and comprehends them, and functions intelligently; but when it turns to the twilight world of change and decay, it can only form opinions, its vision is confused and its beliefs shifting, and it seems to lack intelligence. … What is at issue is the conversion of the mind from the twilight of error to the truth, that climb up into the real world which we shall call true philosophy. 


“Lord what fools these mortals be.”  — Shakespeare

PRINCE KLEMENS VON METTERNICH:  Though Humboldt and Metternich knew each other – and Humboldt called him “a head that’s gone politically awry,”  the two men knew each other well enough to avoid political discussions.”   Perhaps, there is wisdom in that remark.


  1. 227: Interesting – Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day, the 4th of July, 1826 – the 15th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.


  1. 228: Humboldt “wanted to help people unlock the power of the intellect. ‘ With knowledge comes power.”


  1. 228: From “students to servants, from scholars to bricklayers, — and half of those were women.”   Women?  Hmmmm.  And on p. 228-229:  “Women who were not permitted to study at universities or even to attend meetings of the scientific societies, were finally allowed to ‘listen to a clever word.’”


  1. 229: Indeed, do you write sideways? Do you make squiggles in the margin?  What do you glue into your “notebook” ?  We have sticky tabs – Humboldt had “sticky dots.”  BRITISH BLU-TACK?  Look at those lecture notes on plant geography on page 230!


Who’s Who in the World of Humboldt?  In this chapter, we have one of the founders of modern chemistry —  Jöns Jacob Berzelius,  Charles Babbage, and the brilliant mathematician, Carl Friedrich Gauss.


  1. 235 – an important note about Language (my capital L): re Wilhelm. Wilhelm wrote that “language was the formative organ of thoughts.” It “reflected different views of the world.” It was “not just a tool to express thoughts but it shaped thoughts—through its grammar, vocabulary, tenses and so on. . .”;  it was “an organism, a web that wove together action, thought and speaking.”


  1. 236. Humboldt said that he might have gray hair, but he could walk for 9 or 10 hours without a break!


Humboldt invited to Asia.

PROMPT:  Joyce Carol Oates has a short story titled “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been.”  I want to use that title as a prompt.  We might write our own travelogue.  We might use our own experiences to highlight our own special places.  Humboldt shows us the way to keep a notebook of words and scribbles – and our experiences in relation to where we have been and where we are going is a rich source for travel writing. 


by Sue B. Walker



Well Alexander does get around – and when we encounter him in Chapter 14 of The Invention of Nature, he is on a stagecoach en route from Paris to London.  It is September 14, 1818.

Are we glad we don’t travel by stagecoach?  And I remember when folks went by the Dew Drop Inn and picked up their famous hotdogs on the way to the airport – a different kind of dog in airports these days.  And we do prefer Delta to a stagecoach.

But let us think of Fame.  Humboldt was so famous that his arrival was announced in the column, “Fashionable Arrivals” in London papers!

And his intentions re traveling to India brought queries and suspicions.  The French police thought he carried a detailed report about rebelling colonies. I have almost finished Michael Ondaatje’s novel Warlight – the time just after WWII – and an account of postwar activities and espionage. Oh to write such poetic prose as Ondaatje – but no, it is 1818 – and Humboldt has India on his mind.  And his friend, Karl Sigmund Kunth was going to accompany on the journey.  Bonplandt was no longer available.

Alas, Bonplandt was imprisoned.  And Humboldt’s plans were thwarted. The East India Company refused him entry into India. Ok, so he would turn his back on Europe and move to Mexico – but Wilhelm said “Alexander always envisages things as being he, and then not even half of it happens.”

Still Humbold had his supporters!  Read’s like a British Who’s Who!  And who other than the famous chemist Humphry Davy, John Hershel, the son of the astronomer, William Hershel, and Charles Babbage, known today as the father of the computer.  And imagine working that into a conversation when the subject is computers – and saying casually:  “Well, you know, Steve Jobs may have been instrumental in founding the Apple Computer – but had it not been for Charles Babbage.”  Perhaps they are, Humboldt and Charles Babbage, sitting at a dinner table on Gold Street some six miles or so north of the Pearly Gates taking about inventions.  “Who would have thought?” Babbage says, and Humboldt replies:  “Great minds must gather together. Let’s have a conference!” “And invite William Buckland, the Oxford geologist, Albert Gallatin, said to be the founder of American ethnology, the naturalist, George Cuvier, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Charles Lyell, the Britisher whose work influenced Darwin.  And he is not to be left out either – Darwin.

“Hoombowl, Hoombowl,” a voice shouts.
“Who is that Humboldt asks?”
“Oh,” Babbage says.  “That’s Lyell.  Voices break the sound barriers here in the Beyond – and since time is not concern for us now – we can be here or there or anywhere in a whisper.”

PROMPT  inserted here:  So why not write a narrative – a scene – Who would say what to whom? 

All you need is a writing instrument – a pen, a pencil, an I-Pad, a cellphone.  Thanks Steve Jobs.  Why don’t you ask some near contemporaries.    I have never been asked what it is – but Humboldt invented isotherms – “the lines we see on weather maps today that connect different geographical points around the globe that are experiencing the same temperatures.”            I rather feel like the 5th grader who, when asked about thunder and lightening, said:  “You can listen to thunder after lightening and tell how close you came to getting hit.  If you don’t hear it, you got hit, so never mind.”  Verstehen Sie?  Well, even if I don’t understand, I like the lingo:  “Vergleichende Klimatologie.”

Humboldt-Delight:  Meeting the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel who invited Humboldt to see the construction of the first tunnel under the Thames.  Brunel and Humboldt, inside a diving bell that weighed almost 2 tons, were dropped 36 feet into the Thames.  The water pressure ruptured blood vessels in Humboldt’s nose and throat.

(The construction of the Bankhead Tunnel in Mobile took place from 1938-1940. )


by Sue B. Walker


31 October, 1817 – Humboldt was back in London  trying to get the East India Company to finance his travelling to India.  He wanted to investigate the Himalaya. Brother, Wilhelm complained that “London was too big and the weather was miserable. The streets were choked with carriages, carts and people.”

Not me . . . I would this very day fly to London if I could. Thunderstorms are again predicted for Mobile, Alabama. It is 30 August, 2018.  My son, James and his family live in London. My husband is from London.  Oh, let me cross the pond!

Did you know Goethe said this?    “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.”

And of the astronomer, William Herschel who discovered Uranus, well he was 80 when Humboldt spent two days at his home in Slough just outside London. Love it that Herschel used the analogy of a garden when he noted: “the germination, blooming, foliage, fecundity, fading, withering, and corruption of stars and plants to explain their formations.”  And Herschel said this: “By reflecting a little on this subject I am almost convinced that those numberless small Circuses we see on the moon are the works of the Lunarians and may be called their Towns.” What would Herschel have thought about man walking on the moon.”

In this chapter, Humboldt is age 48. He was called the “indefatigable Humboldt.”

Great praises for the Quarterly Review that said Humboldt’s great talent was his ability to combine scientific research with “a warmth of feeling and a force of imagination.”  Humboldt wrote like a poet.

Henry David Thoreau said:  This world is but a canvas to our imagination.”  Or maybe as William Blake would say, it is the ability to see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower.”

Seems Bryon was a bit short-sighted in his lack of appreciation of Humboldt.   It is good that both Coleridge and Wordsworth and Robert Southey all lauded him.

Andrea Wulf has given us astute connective powers of understanding.


Want to write a Haibun? It is a Japanese form, pioneered by the poet Basho, that comprises a section of prose followed by a haiku. They are sometimes travelogues – as in Basho’s “The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel (1688).”  Think Humboldt on Chimborazo – or in London or Berlin.  In the best examples, the prose and haiku should work together to create an organic whole.


The Importance of Goldfish
Michael McClintock

In our eyes and our sleep and our answers to everything and the way we ate our food and left our personal odors and debris around the house, like strands or clippings of hair, or a fingernail, or wadded tissue with spit, and seldom coordinated our clothes or speech or opinions when we went out or had people over, preferring different books by different authors about different things, and the feelings we kept to ourselves, harboring them like warts or bleeding punctures, until now, we grew apart and we knew it, had known it for over four years—since the day you lost the gold fish down the toilet and never said you were sorry. You even laughed about it.

“only temporary” —
about our separation
we agree to lie

by Sue B. Walker

CHAPTER 12 — Revolution and Nature:  Simón Bolívar and Humboldt

Andrea Wulf begins this chapter with a passage from Bolivar’s prose poem, “My Delirium.” A slightly different translation of the entire poem can be found at:

So, what is a prose poem?  It is a poem that is not written in lines and stanzas but is written in paragraphs.  It possesses, however, a beautiful poetic quality and makes us of poetic techniques – repetition, fragmentation, and sometimes rhyme.  It can vary in length from several pages to a few lines. Notice the repetition of “I” – “I was coming,”  “I had reached,”  “I had visited,”  “I sought,”  “I reached”  . . . and so on.  There is something captivating about the repetition, something lulling about the gathering of “I” sentences.

A few thoughts on reading – on what and how we read.  I think we read, at least to some degree, based on our background and experiences. We read for knowledge.  In terms of The Invention of Nature,  I feel my lack of knowledge regarding things scientific and geographical.  In fact, I subscribe to the magazine The Week to keep up with world affairs – and with where those the world-events are taking place.  I once team-taught a Literature and Medicine course with a professor in the medical school. The doctors told me about The Week. They said they didn’t have time to keep up with world news – so they read The Week.  Not only is there “The U.S. at a glance,” there’s “The World at a glance.”  Right now, I’m looking at Toyko – and there’s a little map to show me just where Tokyo is in relation to the rest of the other places mentioned in the world.  The subtitle is: “Woman kept from Med school.”  There’s a Review of Books,” “Food and Drink”  with a recipe for Chicken in plums and sweet sauce. So much good stuff, I can’t list it all.  Just saw “Tip of the week” – “How to get back to sleep at night.”   Yep, that’s for me.  I’ve even gotten ideas for poetry.  For example, there was once a blip about a husband who had given his wife a kidney.  They subsequently got a divorce – and he wanted his kidney back.  I have a poem about it!

I  loved Bolívar’s lines: “Liberty was a precious plant” and “Nature was the infallible teacher of men.”

PROMPT:  Write a prose poem.  Perhaps begin it with “I was coming” . . .  or “I sought” or another line of your own choosing.  Yesterday, a friend told me this story – but in keeping with the “I” prompt – I’m going to tell it as if it were my own with modifications.  “I was coming out of the store and decided to sit at the table outside the grocery. I didn’t know the woman who pulled out a chair and sat down beside me.  “I’m an angel,” the woman said. “God told me to come say hello to you.”  I didn’t know I was an angel; my husband might not say so, but hey, maybe I am.  Just maybe I’m angel, and you are too.”

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.

by Sue B. Walker

CHAPTER 10: W/Reading Through The Invention of Nature

We read of Humboldt’s hero’s welcome when he arrived in Paris.  No so—Berlin.   It was freezing, indeed unbearably cold – and within three weeks, Humboldt was ill – covered in a rash like measles.  King Friedrich Wilhelm III was delighted to have hi in the country and gave him a pension of 2,500 thalers with no obligations. Don’t know how much that would have been in American dollars in 1805?  Wulf doesn’t say.

In April 1806, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac departed for Paris.  Humbold complained of feeling lonely and unhappy.

Of significance in Chapter 10 is the acclaim of Humboldt’s Essay on the Geography of Plants that declared “all living matter as an organism of interconnected forces.” The book was dedicated to Goethe who said Humboldt had lit science into a bright flame.

In his unhappiness, Alexander turned to writing. His Views of Nature was composed of poetic vignettes.  Strange insects “poured their red phosphoric light on the herb-covered ground, which glowed with living fires if the starry canopy of heaven had sunk upon the turf.”

He told his publisher he was not to change a word in the manuscript lest he mar the melody of his sentences. It was a book unembarrassed by its lyricism. Nature was in a mysterious communication with our “inner feelings.”

Views of Nature was said to have inspired Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin and Jules Verne.  Captain Nemo in twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea owned the complete works of Humboldt.

Humboldt left Berlin in mid-November 1807.

This chapter of Invention is short compared to many of the other chapters in the book—only 14 pages.  On to Paris and London.

PROMPTS:  1) Write about an arrival – good or bad – poetry or prose.  2) Write about a specific place, where you have been.  London? France?  Berlin?

by Sue B. Walker


After five years, Humboldt returns to Paris. It is late June, 1804, and he is almost 35 years old.  Greeted with a hero’s welcome, he arrives with some 60,000 plant specimens of which 2,000 are new to European botanists.

Okay, so Humboldt, makes me feel most inferior!  I don’t dare say how many plant specimens, I can name – much less draw them. (How about drawing some MPG plant specimens for us, Derek Norman?)

But as for pomp and circumstance, Napoleon had declared himself Emperor of France—the most powerful man in France!  An interesting note about Humboldt and Simon Bolivar, both of whom were in Paris when Napoleon crowned himself emperor is that Bolivar said he was shocked to see how a man who had been his hero had become a despot and “hypocritical tyrant.”

Wulf says the reason Humboldt wished to return to Paris as his new home was due to the fact that it was “so deeply steeped in science.”  There were the numerous cafes. The poet, Robert Southey, said that in Paris, it seemed as if houses were only built to sleep in.

In Paris, Humboldt met up with the 25-yr-old chemist, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac who was thrilling the scientific world with balloon ascents that he used to study terrestrial magnetism at great heights.  He and Humboldt began giving lectures together and became not only good friends but travelling companions.  And – Wulf writes: “They even shared a small bedroom and study in the attic of the École Polytechnique” a few years later.

This chapter of Wulf reads like a Who’s Who of Europe:  naturalists Georges Cuvier and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Pierre-Simon Laplace, the astronomer – all the savants of Paris. And this reminds me that our Renaissance man, Eugene Walter, once organized MASS – the Mobile Assembly of Sages and Savants – because the assembly spelled out the word MASS.  Memory fades but to the best of my knowledge the Mobile Sages were Eugene Walter, of course, (who was instrumental in the launch Negative Capability, Jay Higginbotham, who wrote Fast Train Russia, among other books and was head of the Mobile Archives,  the musician, Fred Baldwin, Sue Hawkins, the actress, and Nicholas McGowan.


Ah, this word Schadenfreude, which means delight in another’s misfortune.  Humboldt said he felt a streak of schadenfreude in himself, and Wulf writes that our Alex was quick in his judgment of others.  He invented nicknames for people – and called the King of Sicily, the “pasta king” while a conservative Prussian minister was “a glacier” because he was “icy.”


And we would remember that Austria and France were at war.

So for a PROMPT.  Let’s write an American Sentence.

Allen Ginsberg didn’t like the Haiku because it wasn’t American – so he invented the AMERICAN SENTENCE – a line of 17 syllables. He added the 5 / 7 /5 syllables of the Haiku and came up with his American Sentence:

Humboldt was a handsome man, but I don’t think he would have trucked with me.  (Sue Walker)

by Sue B. Walker


Humboldt claimed that politics and nature belonged together.

“ Well, if I going to be drowned, if I’m going to drown, then let me be drunk.”   Chapter 8 of Invention begins with this Wulfian line:  “It was as if the sea were about to swallow them.”  It was May 1904 and Humboldt, Bombpland and Montúfar and the servant José were sailing from Cuba to the east coast of the United States.

Humboldt wanted to meet the President of the United States – Thomas Jefferson.

Some things Jefferson has said have lasting significance:  “I cannot live without books.”  Me either Tom.  And: “I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”  Also Honest is the first chapter of the book of wisdom.”

But whoa Nelly, there is much to do about the relationship of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemmings.  It is said that he was the father of six of her children – but there’s a lot of back-and-forthing about the veracity of that claim.  If you want the scuttlebutt about that, then see this:  At any rate, Jefferson freed six of Sally’s children.  Jefferson’s Federalist opponents loved fanning the flames of infidelity.  So, what else is new Horatio that hasn’t been dreamt of in our philosophy?   And what about the validity of DNA.  That’s another chapter and verse, right?  Wulf didn’t truck with the Jefferson scandal – and Jefferson kept his mouth shut.

Humboldt and Thomas Jefferson differed on their views of slavery.  Humboldt thought that slavery and colonialism were the same, interwoven with man’s relations in nature and the exploitation of natural resources. He believed slavery was unnatural and that it was unjust, bad, and without validity. He claimed that there were no superior or inferior races. Nature was a republic of freedom. The relationship between Thomas Jefferson and slavery was a complex one in that Jefferson worked to gradually end the practice of slavery while himself owning many African-American slaves throughout his adult life.

And today, the world wonders if the Pres did or did not – with Stormy Daniels?   What’s the latest weather report – stormy weather?

What Wulf did say is that Humboldt had determine surrounded by Enlightenment thinkers – and it is they who influenced his life – a belief in liberty, equality, tolerance, and the importance of education.  The French Revolution ( 1789)  — just before Tom’s 20th birthday that determined his political views.

SHALL WE SUP: A Thomas Jefferson dinner menu: Four cheese mac & cheese, Broiled salmon steaks, Blanched peas with lettuce, chicken with onions, calvados and cream, fingerling potatoes, apple pie and ice-cream. He gave presidential dinners – seating guests at a Round Table to avoid issues of hierarchy. The President dined well and entertained lavishly.  He hated laziness and claimed that “ennui was the most dangerous poison of life.”

James Madison, the Secretary of State under Jefferson, had a special dinner for Humboldt. His wife Dolly was charmed and said the ladies were all in love with him.  Humboldt was 34 at this time.

Jefferson and I suffer the same malady – that of Bibliomanie – buying and studying books.  My husband told me I must think Amazon is a lending library.

Politically, Jeffers believed that the central government should have as little power as possible. This, in contrast, to George Washington.

PROMPT:  Write an acrostic.  Spell the name HUMBOLDT down the left side of your page – or Bonplandt, or Wulf – and fill in the lines.

I just did it – with Humboldt – and my computer ate it.  Can’t go back and recreate what I wrote; it’s getting on for dinner – time to be in the kitchen.  You try it.  Let me know how it goes.