The Father of Environmentalism

I’m reading the new biography of Alexander von Humboldt by Andrea Wulf at the moment. It’s a wonderful read and the book is highly recommended. Humboldt himself was a fascinating man who inspired Charles Darwin to take a particularly fateful trip around the world on HMS Beagle. He was centuries ahead of his time and some of his theories would easily justify his status as the Father of Environmentalism.

Humboldt first travelled to South America in the late 18th century after spending the best art of a decade as a mining inspector in his native Prussia. In Venezuela, he saw how deforestation to make way for agriculture had an extremely detrimental effect on soil quality and, it was argued by locals, had changed the weather patterns as well, making it even harder to earn a living by farming. In turn, “improvements” to irrigation seemed to have an equally devastating effect on water levels, causing even more hardship. He did not take long to make the connections between deforestation, desertification and increasing poverty.

Unfortunately, Humboldt’s opinion was very much a lone one in a world that believed it had a divine right to control and subdue nature for the benefit of mankind. Humboldt demonstrated the fallacy of that attitude and showed that to live in harmony with nature, rather than trying to conquer it, would bring greater long term benefits for all concerned. These days, we would call this permaculture – but to Humboldt, it was simply obvious.

Some two hundred years later, it seems that his ideas are still considered somewhat niche, despite the growing scientific evidence confirming his assertions. Environmental scientists have long been able to prove the devastating climatic effects of deforestation, and how it tends to promote and/or worsen existing desertification; they have also repeatedly shown how the loss of dense forestry has an adverse effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Yet huge swathes of jungle and rainforest worldwide fall to the demands of loggers and intensive farmers desperate to make a quick buck. It is almost as if nobody has learned anything.

I’m only a couple of chapters into this book and already, I’m both fascinated and appalled that Humboldt’s name has been allowed to be forgotten quite so completely. He was a brilliant man whose theories and ideas are still applicable now, yet very few people outside of science are aware of him. I really believe it is not too much of a stretch to call him the Father of Environmentalism.

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Taking a Break

I’ve decided that I’m going to take a short break from the blog. At the moment, I’m finding writing 2-3 pieces a week quite time consuming and if I’m truthful (and you may have noticed) I’m struggling to find things to write about. I’m hopeful this is only a temporary glitch and what equates to normal service will resume shortly. After I’ve had a nice long rest with a couple of novels to recharge my batteries.

Some of my absolute favourite artworks

So here was the challenge – to list my six favourite artworks (in no particular order) and explain why I like them so much. Listing six favourite artworks wasn’t the problem (I could probably have listed a couple of dozen without much effort) but trying to explain why I like a particular artwork could be tricky. But I like a challenge, so I’m going to have a go.

Vincent van Gogh – Wheatfield with Crows

Of all van Gogh’s later paintings, this is my absolute favourite. It’s a painting of distinct contrasts, from the deep blue sky and the rich yellow wheatfield; the black crows, little more than tick-like strokes, are barely visible through the centre of the painting. Yet this painting almost vibrates with life and movement. Nobody paints like van Gogh did and I doubt that anyone ever will.

Francisco Goya – Time

There is a wicked mischief about this painting that really appeals to me, yet its subject matter is really quite sad. The essential moral of the story is that old age creeps up on all of us eventually and trying to live in the past makes you look stupid. But in Goya’s hands, you can’t help but feel sorry for the poor old dear in her best dress and finest jewels.

William Blake – Satan Rousing the Rebel Angels

Like van Gogh, nobody really drew like William Blake, and his distinctive style set him apart at a time when there was still a certain uniformity in etching. This print was designed to illustrate an edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost and shows Satan summoning his rebel army in revolution against God. But notice something? This Satan doesn’t have horns or cloven feet – he looks like the rest of us. Even in the 18th century, Blake had realised that evil can be human.

William Hogarth – Gin Lane

Talking of evil, there’s some shocking scenes in this print, from the master of the form, William Hogarth. Most notable – and obvious – is the baby falling to its death from the arms of the drunken mother in the centre foreground of the picture. Its lesser known companion is Beer Street, which shows the benefits of drinking ale at a time when gin was both cheap and plentiful. The inn featured in the background was known to have a sign up saying “Drunk for a penny. Dead drunk for tuppence. Straw free.”

Henri Fuseli – The Nightmare

In a rare example of familiarity not breeding contempt (see my post “Artworks I really don’t like” to see what I mean), I have always loved this painting even though it’s been parodied and reproduced in various ways numerous times. It is the classic “gothic” painting, from the swooning white clad female to the sneering goblin and the distinctive colours.

Monet – The Magpie

I do find some of Monet’s Giverney paintings a bit of a muchness – and some of his early Impressionistic works make me think my eyesight’s gone a bit strange – but this is a lesson in how many shades of white you can work into one picture. The magpie itself is a tiny little thing somewhere in the middle of the picture – easy to miss if you’re not careful – but the layers of snow and sky are magnificent.

Believe me when I tell you that this is only a snapshot of the kinds of things I like; it really could go on and on and on. I’m not even sure that it’s truly representative, but this is what happens when I have to limit myself to half a dozen!