The Invention of Nature

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

Book: The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf Read Free Book Online
Authors: Andrea Wulf
like tree trunks until they suddenly slid into the water. There were so many that there was hardly a moment when they didn’t see one. Their large, jagged tail scales reminded Humboldt of the dragons in his childhood books. Huge boa constrictors swam past their boat, but despite such dangers the men bathed every day in careful rotation, with one man washing while the others looked out for animals. Travelling along the river they also encountered great herds of capybaras, the world’s largest rodents, which lived in large family groups and paddled in the water like dogs. The capybaras looked like giant blunt-nosed guinea pigs, weighing around fifty kilograms or more. Even bigger were the pig-sized tapirs, shy and solitary animals that foraged for leaves with their fleshy snouts in the thickets along the riverside, and beautifully spotted jaguars that preyed on them. Some nights Humboldt could hear the snoring sounds of river dolphins against the perpetual background hum of insects. The men passed islands that were home to thousands of flamingos, white herons and pink-coloured spoonbills with their large spatula-shaped beaks.
    A boat on the Orinoco (Illustration Credit 5.3)
    They travelled during the day and camped on the sandy riverbanks at night – always placing their instruments and collections at the centre with their hammocks and several fires forming a protective circle around. If possible they fastened their hammocks to the trees or to the oars which they stuck upright into the ground. Finding wood dry enough for their fires in the dripping wet jungle was often difficult but an essential defence against jaguars and other animals.
    The rainforest made for treacherous travelling. One night one of the Indian oarsmen woke to find a snake curled up under the animal skin on which he had been sleeping. On another the entire camp was woken by Bonpland’s sudden scream. Something furry and with sharp claws had landed on top of him with a heavy thump when he was fast asleep in his hammock. A jaguar, Bonpland thought, as he lay rigid with fear. But when Humboldt crept closer, he saw that it was only a tame cat from a nearby tribal settlement. Then, a couple of days later Humboldt almost walked into a jaguar hiding in the thick foliage. Terrified, Humboldt remembered what the guides had told him. Slowly, without running or moving his arms, he walked backwards away from the danger.
    The animals weren’t the only hazard: on one occasion Humboldt was almost killed when he accidentally touched some curare. It was a deadly paralysing poison that he had collected from an indigenous tribe, and which had leaked from its container into his clothing. The tribes used it as arrow poison for their blowguns and Humboldt was fascinated by the curare’s potency. He was the first European to describe its preparation, but it also almost cost him his life. Had more poison seeped out, he would have suffered an agonizing death by suffocation as the curare paralysed the diaphragm and muscles.
    Despite the danger, Humboldt was captivated by the jungle. At night he loved to listen to the monkeys’ choir, picking out the different contributions from the various species – ranging from the deafening bellows of the howler monkeys that ricocheted through the jungle across great distances to the soft almost ‘flute-like tones’ and ‘snorting grumblings’ of others. The forest teemed with life. There are ‘many voices proclaiming to us that all nature breathes’, Humboldt wrote. This, unlike the agricultural region around Lake Valencia, was a primeval world where ‘man did not disturb the course of nature’.
    Here he could truly study animals that he had only seen as stuffed specimens in Europe’s natural history collections. They caught birds and monkeys which they kept in large wide-meshed reed baskets or chained to long ropes in the hope of sending them back to Europe. The titi monkeys were Humboldt’s favourites. Small with long tails and

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