Sometimes a book gets under my skin. It works its way into my bloodstream and courses through my veins like a hit of caffeine that won’t quit. I get excited about it in a way that makes me want to let everyone know. Like reading the book is something that happened to me, the experience is so visceral.
This is how I felt about The Invention of Nature, Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf. I wrote a little about it yesterday on my blog and I finished reading the book this morning. It’s one of those books I’m going to keep, as much as I want to share it. I’ve dog-eared pages, there are passages that I know I going to want to reread and will continue to inspire me.
So I’m trying to understand what it is about the book that has me so excited. And I think has something to do with Alexander Von Humboldt’s passion and commitment to his life’s work. (He also was an egalitarian, a visionary thinker and generous, mostly likeable man, which helps).
Humboldt was a scientist, explorer, writer, and artist. And he combined all his talents to write books about his ideas of the natural world that all kinds of people could enjoy and understand. In the late 18th century, at a time when nature was divided into categories and not seen as interrelated, he had a holistic view of our world. The way we think of nature today is largely because of Alexander Von Humboldt. Through dedication, poetic prose, drawings and enthusiasm he was able to convey what he believed in a way that made people understand and care about it.
And he never quit. Until he died at the age of 90 in 1856 he was still gathering information and writing his latest book. Still supporting young scientist and explorers, with money he didn’t have to carry on his work. Still receiving visitors and answering fan mail and sharing his knowledge.
When I started making my art about 8 years ago, I made a commitment to it like I never had before. Before that it was never a priority. I realized that no matter what happened in my life, I would always have my art. And that was a comfort and also gave me a sense of security.
At the time I was going through a divorce and many of my old friendships were dissolving. The thought of being alone for the first time in my life was liberating and frightening. But the idea of my art as a constant, gave me a sense of security that had nothing to do with money or other people. For the first time I knew it was an integral part of who I am. I embodied it, it lived inside of me. It was something that I would never give away again. No matter what I had to do, from then on, my work would be a priority. And in my commitment to it, I knew it would sustain me.
In Alexander Von Humboldt, I see a kindred spirit. Someone who dedicated his life to his work, did what he had to in order to pursue it. He was dedicated. He didn’t do it to write a best seller or amass a lot of money or things. It was about the doing.
And although I’m not exploring a wilderness or climbing mountains, or changing the way the world thinks about nature, I am in my own way, an explorer. Creating my life, walking my very own path, one which I lay with each new step I take.
“Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meeting and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way……What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” W.H. Murray and John Anster
My art is Humboldt’s wilds of South America, and the peak of Chimborazo. And it’s not about making it big, it’s about being committed and doing the work. And about giving back to the world, the gift that was given to me. The gift of my art, that I’m finally able to embrace.