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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The cloud forest concept and Alexander Humbolt


                                             the Humboldt Current

Pelicans feeding -Humboldt Current
 The Humboldt Current ---isn't that somewhere off South America? What is it anyway?

 It's the cold current that creates some of the world's richest fishing grounds,* and makes for excellent  wines from South America. It creates cloud forests.

                                            Cloud Forest

 It is one of the few reminders in the New World of it's least appreciated , super hero naturalists, Alexander Humboldt.

The idea that a climate  could being more than one place—that a cloud forest can exist in on the Olympic Peninsula, in Guatemala, in Brazil, on the Azores—that breadth of conception we owe to  Humboldt, naturalist, geographer and explorer in the New World.

 Humboldt is an Promethean character on all counts. He’s a figure of the Late Enlightenment, or an early Romantic, depending on what you see in his work. (He and Napoleon were born in the same year, and despite the fact most of us have never heard of him, in his own time ,Humboldt was as well known as was Napoleon.)
  Here’s his self-portrait (did I mention he was an accomplished artist and draftsman as well?)

 Humboldt was absurdly well educated, a Romantic, a radical, a Prussian aristocrat (?) who  lived most of his life in France, wrote in French, and  was a freethinker like Jefferson. Yet --- Humboldt  persuaded the king of Spain to let him travel, and explore  Spanish S. America---the first "heretic" allowed in since the Conquest  (c. 1634)

                    Humboldt  mapped and explored the Orinoco River ( 1799-1804 )                      

one of the world's great river system-- enormous, swarming with extraordinary animals . He entered  and described a region totally unknown to most Europeans. The Orinoco area is steaming—4 ° from the Equator                   


Humboldt and his botanist companion, Aime Bonpland, travelled by dugout canoe accompanied by mountains of equipment --a miracle in itself--- and encountered an Alice in Wonderland collection of   animals.

Dugout canoes, present day, Orinoco River

                         The cabybara, a kind of giant guinea pig


                   much favored as a snack by the native jaguars and crocodiles

(Jaguars, in turn, were hunted for their coats by the Carib Indians of the region)

                                      Orinoco crocodile (50 feet not unusual)

Humboldt wrote about the creatures, plants, Indians, mission fathers in his Personal Narrative --(out in paperback with a wonderful cover.)

Humboldt, looking the Byronic hero, accompanied by Aimé Bonpland, busily taking notes (Bonpland did a lot of the grunt work) and various indigenous people who managed to transport everyone and all the equipment in the dugout canoes--the most "tender" of crafts--without losing any person to the caimans or crocodiles. (En passant , Humboldt also  described the piranha.)

The tone of the Personal Narrative is cool---intrepid, good-humored in the modern translation.  (Humboldt wrote in French. An 1889 digital copy is on the Internet, more romantic in tone. ) . Humboldt  sympathized with the Wahara and the other tribal people he met, finding them “sad “ rather than savage, depressed by their subjugation to the Spanish, and made “stupid” by being forced into drudgery and farming by the mission fathers.

Humboldt who  was deeply anti-slavery, thoroughly disapproved of the mission system of forced labor.

Besides the Personal Narrative, Humboldt's Essay on the Geography of Plants sets out his revolutionary descriptions linking plants with geographic features, rather than places. In the process he created a new scientific method based on careful data, elevation, weather systems, ocean currents (as the cloud forest in the Azores Chile, Japan etc.) and other empirical data. (see The Humboldt Method in  W)
This book, though frequently published has never been available in its present form, printed and edited by the U. of Chicago Press, as an e book.**

We'll let Stephen T. Jackson who edited this edition have the last word:   "the legacy of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) looms large over the natural sciences. His 1799–1804 research expedition to Central and South America with botanist Aimé Bonpland set the course for the great scientific surveys of the nineteenth century, especially Darwin’s travels to South America, and inspired such essayists and artists as Emerson, Goethe, Thoreau, Poe, and Church” 
Super Hero!  But what I loved the most was Humboldt's ability to empathize with his subjects-- the "unfortunate capybara" pursued by jaguars, flinging itself into the river, only to be eaten by a crocodile. 
Science with a heart.

** " Among the most cited writings in natural history, after the works of Darwin and Wallace, this work appears here for the first time in a complete English-language translation".

*W says "The Humboldt Current LME is considered a Class I, highly productive note: (>300 gC/m2-yr), ecosystem. It is the most productive marine ecosystem in the world, as well as the largest upwelling system. The Humboldt’s high rates of primary and secondary productivity support the world’s largest fisheries. Approximately 18-20% of the world’s fish catch comes from the Humboldt Current LME. The species are mostly pelagic: sardines, anchovies and jack mackerel. The LME’s high productivity supports other important fishery resources as well as marine mammals. The cold, nutrient-rich water brought to the surface by upwelling drives the system’s extraordinary productivity.

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