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Imagining the Orinoco River: Alexander von Humboldt Did, and Much More

Camilo Ucrós By Camilo Ucrós Published on March 7, 2018

The Orinoco River, door to the South American continent, has made itself a space in literature. The abundance of its water nurtures life to such a degree that scientific descriptions are sometimes believed to be fictitious. 

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Alejo Carpentier saw in it the flow of time as he travelled to the origins of humanity in The Lost Steps. Arthur Conan Doyle saw in its water even further back to the time of dinosaurs in The Lost World. Jules Verne used the accounts of other explorers to write his series of short stories The Mighty Orinoco. When Simón Bolívar´s dream of a united Gran Colombia was still intact, he founded a newspaper for the nation. Its name? Correo del Orinoco, or The Orinoco Post.

Columbus had already recognized the Orinoco during his third voyage to America. Sir Walter Raleigh navigated its waters on his search of the legendary land of El Dorado. From the 16th century onwards, Germans, Spanish, and Jesuits alternately tried, with different levels of success, to map the full extent of the river and its native populations.

Nevertheless, of all the accounts of navigating the mythical river, none is more fantastic than the scientific reports of Alexander von Humboldt, which Andrea Wulf brings to life in her book The Invention of Nature

Humboldt arrived more or less by accident in South America. It was never his original intention to travel to the continent. At the end of the 18th century it still belonged to the Spanish Crown, which tightly controlled who could travel to its colonies. Nevertheless, Humboldt insisted, and since Europe was being ravaged under the Napoleonic wars, much to his surprise, he was allowed to travel to the New World. 

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Wellcome Library, London: Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland collecting plants at the foot of Chimborazo in today’s Ecuador; aquatint from Humboldt’s Vue des Cordillères et monuments des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique, 1810–1813

Humboldt’s travels consisted of two main parts: navigating the Orinoco and climbing the Ecuadorian Andes. He documented his trip in painstakingly detail. Without photographic cameras he had to rely on his drawings and on leaf pressings to study and compare plant and animal life. While this may seem a purely utilitarian choice, Humboldt found in these activities part of the experience that connects science, poetry, reality and perception. For him, the study of nature was a romantic pursuit; humans could only try to understand it in relation to how it existed in respect to them. Nature, while measurable, could only be perceived through senses and the lens of human emotions.

The composition of nature goes much farther than a particular leaf or a specific insect. Nature is like a painting, tinted by the colors of the biology, chemistry and physics that govern it. Nature is a dwelling for all living things, as the term ecology suggests. It is with this idea that Humboldt developed his naturgemalde. In it, he avoided usual classifications based on species and weather. Instead, he constructed a transversal layout of the stratovolcano in the Andes, Chimborazo, with all the plants and atmospheric characteristics present at each altitude. He felt that nature cannot be subdivided into taxonomical groups and instead should be understood through the interplay between species and their environment, in order to portray the world as a living organism. 

In Ecuador, specifically, there are traces of Humboldt’s voyage. He climbed the Pichincha volcano, overlooking Quito and its beautiful historical center. He slept in a haunted Hacienda 3000 meters above sea level called La Ciénega, near the Cotopaxi volcano. He also attempted to climb the Chimborazo, back then believed to be the highest mountain in the world. He studied the Quechua language and walked the remnants of Incan roads. He met Carlos de Montúfar, who would become a martyr during Ecuador’s first attempt at independence. He also left his imprint in the rest of Latin America: there are several peaks, rivers, ranges and even a species of penguin named after him.

The legacy of Humboldt lies in the fact that his studies set the groundwork for evolutionary theory; the impact humans have on their environment, environmental protection, the interconnectedness of distinct biomes, continental shifts, and magnetic and climatic patterns. Moreover he denounced the evils of colonialism and slavery and he pushed for the democratization of science in his collection, Cosmos

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The list of people he influenced is endless. Charles Darwin carried a copy of Cosmos with him in his cabin on the HMS Beagle. Simon Bolívar carried out his revolution after the discussions they held in the Parisian cafés. Henry David Thoreau built his cabin next to Walden Pond in an attempt to study nature in its most pristine form. Thomas Jefferson heeded Humboldt’s advice and joined in the international scientific collaboration programs Humboldt organized. Ralph Waldo Emerson, another student and poet of nature described him as “one of those wonders of the world”. Humbolt even managed to intimidate Napoleon, as one of the most important scientists in post revolutionary France and a Prussian no less.

Circling back to the Orinoco, one cannot help but wonder which of the many depictions is the truest. Whoever is inclined to say that Humboldt’s perception is the most accurate, is opening the doors to all the other authors who navigated and imagined the hidden secrets of the river. Those who saw in its flow the transition from past to future, or future to past, whether navigating upstream or downstream, all proved that nature has many faces that reveal only as much as the observer is ready to feel and imagine.  

Banner photo by Dan Roizer on Unsplash

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History teacher based in Ecuador. Enjoys literature, discovering new music and the stories history tells. Follow on twitter @camucros

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