Views of Nature, or Ansichten der Natur, was Humboldt’s best-known and most influential work—and his personal favorite. While the essays that comprise it are themselves remarkable as innovative, early pieces of nature writing—they were cited by Thoreau as a model for his own work—the book’s extensive endnotes incorporate some of Humboldt’s most beautiful prose and mature thinking on vegetation structure, its origins in climate patterns, and its implications for the arts. Written for both a literary and a scientific audience, Views of Nature was translated into English (twice), Spanish, and French in the nineteenth century, and it was read widely in Europe and the Americas. But in contrast to many of Humboldt’s more technical works, Views of Nature has been unavailable in English for more than one hundred years. Largely neglected in the United States during the twentieth century, Humboldt’s contributions to the humanities and the sciences are now undergoing a revival to which this new translation will be a critical contribution.
Great Journeys allows readers to travel both around the planet and back through the centuries – but also back into ideas and worlds frightening, ruthless and cruel in different ways from our own. Few reading experiences can begin to match that of engaging with writers who saw astounding things: Great civilisations, walls of ice, violent and implacable jungles, deserts and mountains, multitudes of birds and flowers new to science. Reading these books is to see the world afresh, to rediscover a time when many cultures were quite strange to each other, where legends and stories were treated as facts and in which so much was still to be discovered.
The chronicles of the expedition were published in Paris after Humboldt’s return, and first among them was the 1807 “Essay on the Geography of Plants.” 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. Covering far more than its title implies, it represents the first articulation of an integrative “science of the earth, ” encompassing most of today’s environmental sciences. Ecologist Stephen T. Jackson introduces the treatise and explains its enduring significance two centuries after its publication.