There were few human beings in the 19th century more interesting and transformative than the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. And yet his name and his story, at least in the U.S., is far from common knowledge. His adventures in Latin America and Siberia not only opened Europe’s eyes to the richness and wonder of those regions, but he also changed the future of science. His meticulous documentation of plants, geology, and climate still has effects in the worlds of ecology and science today.
That’s why this week’s selection for Just Booked, our twice-a-month series highlighting gorgeous new coffee table books related to travel, is H. Walter Lack’s Alexander von Humboldt and the Botanical Exploration of the Americas. Lack, a renowned German botanist, fills the pages with a serious (and not always flattering) look at Humboldt’s legacy in science. The book has beautiful illustrations of his journeys, including when he climbed what was then believed to be the world’s tallest peak, Chimborazo in Ecuador. The real gems in the book, however, are the richly colored prints of artistic renderings of the plants he documented along the way, as well as photographs of the specimens he retained for study in Europe.
Humboldt was incredibly courageous; he was challenged by a hostile power (Spain), the extremes going from some of the most deadly jungles in the world to its highest peaks, and the general perils of living in an era without modern medicine or communication. He remains, quite simply, an inspiration, and this book hopefully will continue the recent trend of a return to his notoriety.
Alexander von Humboldt and the Botanical Exploration of the Americas by H. Walter Lack. Published by Prestel (Available on Amazon for $35.13)