Alexander von Humboldt.

Aspects of nature, in different lands and different climates; with scientific elucidations online

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IT is not without diffidence that I present to the public a series
of papers which took their origin in the presence of natural scenes
of grandeur or of beauty on the Ocean, in the forests of the
Orinoco, in the Steppes of Venezuela, and in the mountain wilder-
nesses of Peru and Mexico. Detached fragments were written
down on the spot and at the moment, and were afterwards moulded
into a whole. The view of Nature on an enlarged scale, the dis-
play of the concurrent action of various forces or powers, and the
renewal of the enjoyment which the immediate prospect of tropical
scenery affords to sensitive minds, are the objects which I have
proposed to myself. According to the design of my work, whilst
each of the treatises of which it consists should form a whole com-
plete in itself, one common tendency should pervade them all.
Such an artistic and literary treatment of subjects of natural history
is liable to difficulties of composition, notwithstanding the aid which
it derives from the power and flexibility of our noble language.
The unbounded riches of Nature occasion an accumulation of sepa-
rate images; and accumulation disturbs the repose and the unity of
impression which should belong to the picture. Moreover, when
addressing the feelings and imagination, a firm hand is needed to
guard the style from degenerating into an undesirable species of
poetic prose. But I need not here describe more fully dangers
which I fear the following pages will show I have not always suc-
ceeded in avoiding.




Nevertheless, notwithstanding faults which I can more easily
perceive than amend, I venture to hope that these descriptions of
the varied Aspects which Nature assumes in distant lands may
impart to the reader a portion of that enjoyment which is derived
from their immediate contemplation by a mind susceptible of such
impressions. As this enjoyment is enhanced by insight into the
more hidden connection of the different powers and forces of nature,
I have subjoined to each treatise scientific elucidations and additions.

Throughout the entire work I have sought to indicate the unfail-
ing influence of external nature on the feelings, the moral disposi-
tions, and the destinies of man. To minds oppressed with the cares
or the sorrows of life, the soothing influence of the contemplation
of Nature is peculiarly precious; and to such these pages are more
especially dedicated. May they, " escaping from the stormy waves
of life," follow me in spirit with willing steps to the recesses of the
primeval forests, over the boundless surface of the Steppe, and to
the higher ridges of the Andes. To them is addressed the poet's
voice, in the sentence of the chorus

" Auf den Bergen ist Freiheit! Der Hauch der Grufte
>Vteigt nicht hinauf in die reinen Liifle;
Die Welt ist vollkommen uberall,
Wo der Mensch nicht hinkommt mit seiner Qual."




THE twofold aim of the present work (a carefully prepared and
executed attempt to enhance the enjoyment of Nature by animated
description, and at the same time to increase in proportion to the
state of knowledge at the time the reader's insight into the harmo-
nious and concurrent action of different powers and forces of Nature)
was pointed out by me nearly half a century ago in the Preface to
the First Edition. In so doing, I alluded to the various obstacles
which oppose a successful treatment of the subject in the manner
designed. The combination of a literary and of a purely scientific
object the endeavor at once to interest and occupy the imagination,
and to enrich the mind with new ideas by the augmentation of
knowledge renders the due arrangement of the separate parts, and
the desired unity of composition, difficult of attainment. Yet, not-
withstanding these disadvantages, the public have long regarded my
imperfectly executed undertaking with friendly partiality.

The second edition of the " Ansichten der Natur" was prepared
by me in Paris in 1826; and at the same time two fresh treatises
were added one an Essay on the Structure and Mode of Action of
Volcanos in different regions of the earth; and the other on the
" Vital Power,/' bearing the title "Lebenskraft; oder der rhodische
Genius." During my long stay at Jena, Schiller, in the recollec-
tion of his youthful medical studies, loved to converse with me on
physiological subjects; and the considerations in which I was then
engaged on the muscular and nervous fibres when excited by con-


tact with chemically different substances, often gave a more specific
and graver turn to our discourse. The "Rhodian Genius" was
written at this time: it appeared first in Schiller's "Horen," a
periodical journal; and it was his partiality for this little work
which encouraged me to allow it to be reprinted. My brother, in
a letter forming part of a collection which has recently been given
to the public (Wilhelm von Humboldt's Briefe an eine Freundin,
th. ii. s. 39), touches tenderly on the subject of the memoir in
question, but adds at the same time a very just remark: "The de-
velopment of a physiological idea is the object of the entire treatise;
men were fonder at that time than they would now be of such semi-
poetic clothing of severe scientific truths."

In my eightieth year, I am still enabled to enjoy the satisfaction
of completing a third edition of my work, remoulding it entirely
afresh to meet the requirements of the present time. Almost all
the scientific Elucidations or Annotations have been either enlarged
or replaced by new and more comprehensive ones. I have hoped
that these volumes might tend to inspire and cherish a love for the
study of Nature, by bringing together in a small space the results
of careful observation on the most varied subjects; by showing the
importance of exact numerical data, and the use to be made of them
by well-considered arrangement and comparison; and by opposing
the dogmatic half-knowledge and arrogant skepticism which have
long too much prevailed in what are called the higher circles of

The expedition made by Ehrenberg, Gustav Rose, and myself,
by the command of the Emperor of Russia, in 1829, to Northern
Asia (in the Ural and Altai Mountains, and on the shores of the
Caspian Sea), falls between the period of publication of the second
and third editions. This expedition has contributed materially to
the enlargement of iny views in all that regards the form of the
surface of the earth, the direction of mountain-chains, the connection
of Steppes and Deserts with each other, and the geographical distri-
bution of plants in relation to ascertained conditions of temperature.
The long subsisting want of any accurate knowledge on the subject
of the great snow-covered mountain-chains which are situated be-
tween the Altai and the Himalaya (i. e. the Thian-schan and the


Kuen-liin), and the ill-judged neglect of Chinese authorities, have
thrown great obscurity around the geography of Central Asia, and
have allowed imagination to be substituted for the results of obser-
vation in works which have obtained extensive circulation. In the
course of the last few months, the hypsometrical comparison of the
culminating summits of the two Continents has almost unexpectedly
received important corrections and additions, of which I hasten to
avail myself. (See pages 63-64, and 88-89.) The determinations
of the heights of two mountains in the eastern chain of the Andes
of Bolivia, the Sorata and the Illimani, have been freed from the
errors which had placed those mountains above the Chiinborazo,
but without as yet altogether restoring to the latter with certainty
its ancient pre-eminence among the snowy summits of the New
World. In the Himalaya, the recently executed trigonometrical
measurement of the Kinchinjinga (28,178 English feet) places it
next in altitude to the Dhawalagiri, a new and more exact trigono-
metrical measurement of which has also been recently made.

For the sake of uniformity with the two previous editions of the
" "Ansichten der Natur," I have given the degrees of temperature in
the present work (unless where expressly stated otherwise) in de-
grees of Reaumur's scale. The linear measures are the old French,
in which the toise equals six Parisian feet. The miles are geo-
graphical, fifteen to a degree of the Equator. The longitudes are
reckoned from the Observatory at Paris as a first meridian.

BERLIN, 1849.


IN the translation, the temperatures are given in degrees of Fahr-
enheit, retaining at the same time the original figures in Reaumur's
scale. In the same manner, the measures are given in English feet,
generally retaining at the same time the original statements in Pa-
risian or French feet or toises, a desirable precaution where accuracy
is important. The miles are given in geographical miles, sixty to a
degree ; but in this case the original figures have usually been omit-
ted, the conversion being so simple as to render the introduction of
error very improbable. In a very few instances, '" English miles"
appear without any farther epithet or explanation; these have been
taken by the author from English sources, and may probably signify
statute miles. The longitudes from Greenwich are substituted for
those from Paris, retaining in addition the original statement in
particular cases.






Annotations and Additions . >. , : , . 43


Annotations and Additions . . . . , 187

Annotations and Additions . . ' . . ' .215



Annotations and Additions . . . . '. 247

Postscript on the Physiognomic Classification of Plants . 367

Annotations and Additions . . ' . . 395


Note . . . . . . . .408

ATAHUALLPA, and the First View of the Pacific Ocean,
from the Crest of the Andes . . . .413

Annotations and Additions . . 438

General Summary of the CONTENTS . . . . 453 /

INDEX | . . , . . , . . ^. 471







A WIDELY extended and apparently interminable plain stretches
from the southern base of the lofty granitic crest, which, in the
youth of our planet, when the Caribbean gulf was formed, brayed
the invasion of the waters. On quitting the mountain valleys of
Caraccas, and the island-studded Lake of Tacarigua, ( 1 ) whose surface
reflects the stems of plantains and bananas, and on leaving behind
him meads adorned with the bright and tender green of the Tahitian
sugar-cane or the darker verdure of the Cacao groves, the traveller,
looking southward, sees unroll before him Steppes receding until
they vanish in the far horizon.

Fresh from the richest luxuriance of organic life, he treads at
once the desolate margin of a treeless desert. Neither hill nor cliff
rises, like an island in the ocean, to break the uniformity of the
boundless plain ; only here and there broken strata of limestone,
several hundred square miles in extent, appear sensibly higher than
the adjoining parts. " Banks" ( 2 ) is the name given 'to them by the
natives ; as if language instinctively recalled the more ancient con-
dition of the globe, when those elevations were shoals, and the
Steppes themselves were the bottom of a great Mediterranean sea.

Even at the present time, nocturnal illusion still recalls these
images of the past. When the rapidly rising and descending con-
stellations illumine the margin of the plain, or when their trembling


image is repeated in the lower stratum of undulating vapor, we
seem to see before us a shoreless ocean. ( 3 ) Like the ocean, the
Steppe fills the mind with the feeling of infinity; and thought,
escaping from the visible impressions of space, rises to contemplations
of a higher order. Yet the aspect of the clear, transparent mirror
of the ocean, with its light, curling, gently foaming, sportive waves,
cheers the heart like that of a friend ; but the Steppe lies stretched
before us dead and rigid, like the stony crust ( 4 ) of a desolated

In every zone nature presents the phenomena of these great
plains:, in each they l>a^e a peculiar physiognomy, determined by
diversity of seil/by climate, and by elevation above the level of the

r ' IB 'Hbrinera Europe, the Heaths, which, covered with a single
race of plants repelling all others, extend from the point of Jutland
to the mouth of the Scheldt, may be regarded as true Steppes but
Steppes of small extent and hilly surface, if compared with the
Llanos and Pampas of South America, or even with the Prairies of
the Missouri ( 5 ) and the Barrens of the Coppermine river ; where
range countless herds of the shaggy buffalo and musk ox.

A grander and severer aspect characterizes the plains of the in-
terior of Africa. Like the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean, it is
only in recent times that attempts have been made to explore them
thoroughly. They are parts of a sea of sand, which, stretching
eastward, separates fruitful regions from each other, or encloses them
like islands; as where the Desert, near the basaltic mountains of
Harudsh, ( 6 ) surrounds the Oasis of Siwah rich in date trees, and in
which the ruins of the temple of Ammon mark the venerable site
of an ancient civilization. Neither dew nor rain bathes these desolate
plains, or develops on their glowing surface the germs of vegetable
life; for heated columns of air, everywhere ascending, dissolve the
vapors, and disperse each swiftly vanishing cloud.

Where the Desert approaches the Atlantic Ocean, as between the
Wadi Nun and Cape Blanco, the moist sea air pours in to supply
the void left by these upward currents. The mariner, steering to-
wards the mouth of the Gambia through a sea covered with weed,
when suddenly deserted by the east trade wind of the tropics, ( 7 ) infers


tlie vicinity of the widely extended heat-radiating desert. Herds of
antelopes and swift-footed ostriches roam through these vast regions ;
but, with the exception of the watered Oases or islands in the sea of
sand, sonic groups of which have recently been discovered, and whose
verdant shores are frequented by nomade Tibbos and Tuaricks, ( 8 )
the African Desert must be regarded as uninhabitable by man.
The more civilized nations who dwell on its borders only venture to
enter it periodically. By trading routes, which have remained un-
altered for thousands of years, caravans traverse the long distance
from Tafilet to Timbuctoo, and from Moorzouk to Bornou; ad-
venturous undertakings, the possibility of which depends upon the
existence of the camel, the "ship of the desert/' ( 9 ) as it is called in
the traditionary language of the eastern world.

These African plains occupy an extent nearly three times as great
as that of the neighboring Mediterranean sea. They are situated
partly within, and partly in the vicinity of the tropics; and on this
situation their peculiar character depends. In the eastern part of
the Old Continent, the same geognostic phenomenon occurs in the
temperate zone. On the plateaux of Central Asia, between the gold
mountains or the Altai and the Kuen-lun, ( 10 ) from the Chinese wall
to beyond the Celestial mountains, and towards the sea of Aral, there
extend, through a length of many thousand miles, the most vast, if
not the most elevated, Steppes on the surface of the globe. I have
myself had the opportunity, fully thirty years after my South
American journey, of visiting a portion of them; namely, the Cal-
muck Kirghis Steppes between the Don, the Volga, the Caspian, and
the Chinese lake Dsaisang, being an extent of almost 2800 geogra-
phical miles.

These Asiatic Steppes, which are sometimes hilly and sometimes
interrupted by pine forests, possess (dispersed over them in groups)
a far more varied vegetation than that of the Llanos and Pampas of
Caraccas and Buenos Ayres. The finest part of these plains, which
is inhabited by Asiatic pastoral tribes, is adorned with low bushes of
luxuriant, white-blossomed Rosacese, and with Fritillarias, Tulips, and

As the torrid zone is characterized on the whole by a disposition
in all vegetation to become arborescent, so some of the Asiatic


Steppes in the temperate zone are characterized by the great height
attained by flowering herbaceous plants, Saussureas and other Synan-
therse, and Papilionaceae, especially a host of species of Astragalus.
In traversing pathless portions of these Steppes, the traveller, seated
in the low Tartar carriages, sees the thickly crowded plants bend
beneath the wheels, but without rising up cannot look around him
to see the direction in which he is moving. Some of the Asiatic
Steppes are grassy plains; others are covered with succulent, ever-
green, articulated soda plants : many glisten from a distance with
flakes of exuded salt, which cover the clayey soil, not unlike in ap-
pearance to fresh fallen snow.

These Mongolian and Tartarian Steppes, interrupted frequently
by mountainous features, divide the very ancient civilization of
Thibet and Hindostan from the rude nations of Northern Asia.
They have in various ways exercised an important influence on the
changeful destinies of man. They have compressed the population
towards the south, and have tended, more than the Himalaya, or
than the snowy mountains of Srinagur and Ghorka, to impede the
intercourse of nations, and to place permanent limits to the extension
of milder manners, and of artistic and intellectual cultivation in
Northern Asia.

But, in the history of the past, it is not alone as an opposing bar-
rier that we must regard the plains of Central Asia : more than once
they have proved the source from whence devastation has spread
over distant lands. The pastoral nations of these Steppes Moguls,
G-etse, Alani, and Usuni have shaken the world. As, in the course
of past ages, early intellectual culture has come like the cheering
light of the sun from the East, so, at a later period, from the same
direction barbaric rudeness has threatened to overspread and involve
Europe in darkness. A brown pastoral race, (") of Tukiuish or
Turkish descent, the Hiongnu, dwelling in tents of skins, inhabited
the elevated Steppe of Gobi. Long terrible to the Chinese power, a
part of this tribe was driven back into Central Asia. The shock or
impulse thus given passeiUxom natio4^fia4ien, until it reached the
ancient land of the Finns, near the Ural mountains. From thence,
Huns, Avari, Ghazares, and various admixtures of Asiatic races,
broke forth. Armies of Huns appeared successively on the Volga,


in Pannonia, on the Marne, and on the Po, desolating those fair and
fertile fields which, since the time of Antenor, civilized man had
adorned with monument after monument. Thus went forth from
the Mongolian deserts a deadly blast, which withered on Cisalpine
ground the tender, long-cherished flower of art.

From the salt Steppes of Asia, from the European Heaths smiling
in summer with their purple blossoms rich in honey, and from the
arid Deserts of Africa, devoid of all vegetation, let us now return to
those South American plains of which I have already began to trace
the picture, albeit in rude outlines.

The interest which this picture can offer to the beholder is, how-
ever, exclusively that of pure nature. Here no Oasis recalls the
memory of earlier inhabitants; no carved stone, ( ls ) no ruined
building, no fruit tree once the care of the cultivator, but now wild,
speaks of the art or industry of former generations. As if estranged
from the destinies of mankind, and rivetting attention solely to the
present moment, this corner of the earth appears as a wild theatre
for the free development of animal and vegetable life.

The Steppe extends from the Caraccas coast chain to the forests
of Ghiiana, and from the snowy mountains of Merida (on the slope
of which the Natron Lake Urao is an object of superstitious venera-
tion to the natives), to the great delta formed by the Orinoco at its
mouth. To the south-west a branch is prolonged, like an arm of
the sea, ( 13 ) beyond the banks of the Meta and Vichada to the un-
visited sources of the Gluaviare, and to the lonely mountain to which
the excited fancy of the Spanish soldiery gave the name of Paramo
de la Suma Paz the seat of perfect peace.

This Steppe occupies a space of 16,000 (256,000 English) square
miles. It has often been erroneously described as running uninter-
ruptedly, and with an equal breadth, to the Straits of Magellan,
forgetting the forest-covered plain of the Amazons, which intervenes
between the grassy Steppes of the Apure and those of the river
Plate. The Andes of Cochabamba, and the Brazilian group of
mountains, send forth, between the province of Chiquitos and the
isthmus of Villabella, some detached spurs, which advance, as it
were, to meet each other. ( 14 ) A narrow plain connects the forest
lands of the Amazons with the- Pampas of Buenos Ayres. The



latter far surpass the Llanos of Venezuela in area; and their extent
is so great that, while their northern margin is bordered by palni
trees, their southern extremity is almost continually covered with ice.
The Tuyu, which resembles the Cassowary (the Struthio rhea),
is peculiar to these Pampas, which are also the haunt of troops of
dogs ( 15 ) descended from those introduced by the colonists, but
which have become completely wild, dwelling together in subterra-
nean hollows, and often attacking with blood-thirsty rage the human
race whom their progenitors served and defended.

Like the greater portion of the desert of Sahara, ( 16 ) the north-
ernmost of the South American plains, the Llanos, are in the torrid
zone : during one-half of the year, they are desolate, like the Lybian
sandy waste; during the other, they appear as a grassy plain, re-
sembling many of the Steppes of Central Asia. ( ir )

It is a highly interesting though difficult task of general geography

to compare the natural conditions of distant regions, and to represent

by a few traits the results of this comparison. The causes which

lessen both heat and dryness in the New World ( 18 ) are manifold,

and in some respects as yet only partially understood. Amongst these

i may be classed the narrowness and deep indentation of the American

1 land in the northern part of the torrid zone, where consequently the

\ atmosphere, resting on a liquid base, does not present so heated an

ascending current; -the extension of the continent towards the

jpoles; the expanse of ocean over which the trade-winds sweep

[freely, acquiring thereby a cooler temperature; the flatness of the

; eastern coasts; currents of cold sea-water from the antarctic regions,

which, coming from the south-west to the north-east, first strike the

coast of Chili in the parallel of 35 south latitude, and advance

along the coast of Peru as far north as Cape Parina, and then turn

f suddenly to the west; the numerous lofty mountain chains rich in

springs, and whose snow-clad summits, rising high above all the

strata of clouds, cause descending currents of cold air to roll down

their declivities; the abundance of rivers of enormous breadth,

which, after many windings, seek the most distant coast; Steppes

which from not being sandy are less susceptible of acquiring a high

degree of heat ; impenetrable forests occupying the alluvial plains

situated immediately beneath the equator, protecting with their


shade the soil beneath from the direct influence of the sunbeams,

Online LibraryAlexander von HumboldtAspects of nature, in different lands and different climates; with scientific elucidations → online text (page 1 of 42)