Inside The New York Botanical Garden

Alexander von Humboldt: The History, Science, & Poetry of Ecology

Posted in From the Library, Humanities Institute on June 27 2016, by Vanessa Sellers

Speakers of the day: Susan Stewart, Stephen Kellert, and Andrea Wulf
Speakers of the day: Susan Stewart, Stephen Kellert, and Andrea Wulf

On May 20, 2016, more than 300 students, scholars, members of the general public, and NYBG staff poured into Ross Hall for Alexander von Humboldt: The History, Science, and Poetry of Ecology. There they listened intently to three remarkable interdisciplinary speakers: author Andrea Wulf, ecologist Stephen Kellert, and poet Susan Stewart.

The Symposium also coincided with—in fact, it officially opened—NYBG’s Science Open House, held from May 20–22, offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the laboratories, Herbarium, and other scientific departments of this premier plant research institute. This annual weekend saw a vast increase in the number of participants enjoying the various tours and Garden-wide demonstrations, due in part to the excellent introduction provided by Barbara Thiers, Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium and Vice President for Science, before the Symposium started.

Andrea Wulf explaining the impact of Humboldt’s life and work
Andrea Wulf explaining the impact of Humboldt’s life and work

After a welcome word by Vanessa Sellers, Coordinator of the Humanities Institute and host of the day, Andrea Wulf took the podium, setting the stage for a discussion of Alexander von Humboldt via her book, the bestseller The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015). She highlighted Humboldt’s radical vision of ecology, for the first time describing nature as an interconnected, unified whole. His vision has influenced some of the best American thought about nature and its relation to mankind, including the development of the National Parks movement. Beautifully illustrated throughout, Wulf’s presentation left an indelible impression on the audience.

Stephen Kellert, the Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, then offered a careful reflection on Humboldt’s scientific and philosophical influences and suggested (humbly) in what areas Humboldt may have fallen short. Analyzing changes in the vision and experience of nature since the early 19th century, Kellert emphasized the (dis)connections between nature and modern humanity, pointing to the world’s current ecological and societal crises. His explanation—balanced with Wulf’s—could warrant a whole separate symposium focusing solely on historical and modern ecology.

Finally, Susan Stewart closed the morning’s presentations by reciting some of her current poetic works, including her soon-to-appear collection Cinder. Her poems have inspired artists and scientists alike in the past, and clearly touched the present audience deeply as well: one could hear a pin drop in Ross Hall as she spoke.

A spirited conversation with the audience in the Ross Lecture Hall
A spirited conversation with the audience in the Ross Lecture Hall

A lively panel discussion ensued, and various questions were leveled at our scholars, some of these pertaining to the hierarchical standing which human beings might assume (or should be allowed to assume) at the cost of our larger ecosystem. Immediately after the Symposium the authors signed books, while a long line of enthusiastic readers formed.

Andrea Wulf remarked on how much she enjoyed the multidisciplinary set-up of the Symposium, embracing not only history, but also science and poetry—this did not happen anywhere else on her American tour. It was clear that the other speakers were also pleased to share thoughts which connect so many areas of expertise. “The biological sciences and humanities are separated into much too narrow fields of specialization today,” agreed Stephen Kellert, while conferring with Susan Stewart about literature. “They should include poetry and the arts and be much more broadly conceived.”

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A pair of students had traveled to The New York Botanical Garden especially to see Susan Stewart. “She was such a pleasure to speak with,” said the literature student from Chicago. “Her poems are really important. To listen to her weave between the classical and avant-garde modes—it was wonderful.”

Immediately following the book signing event, the audience was invited to visit the LuEsther T. Mertz Library and view several of Humboldt’s extraordinary literary works as well as some of his own dried plant specimens from the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. Close to 100 people responded to this invitation. This was a real surprise and confirmed the great curiosity which Alexander von Humboldt and his work continue to excite today, as a result of Andrea Wulf’s spirited book and such inspiring occasions as this interdisciplinary Symposium.

Susan Fraser, Director of the Mertz Library (left), and Vanessa Sellers, Coordinator of the Humanities Institute, join speakers Susan Stewart, Stephen Kellert, and Andrea Wulf
Susan Fraser, Director of the Mertz Library (left), and Vanessa Sellers, Coordinator of the Humanities Institute, join speakers Susan Stewart, Stephen Kellert, and Andrea Wulf

“What an impressive audience turnout!” one visitor exclaimed. “Andrea Wulf’s presentation was positively mesmerizing—the inclusion of Stewart’s enchanting poems and Kellert’s ecological challenges made for a fascinating conversation.” On leaving the Garden, another participant acknowledged, “It was gratifying to hear them comment about their varied research projects and the special role the Garden plays in their ongoing intellectual development.”

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