A Lesson on Alexander von Humboldt from Lillian Melcher

By Shanti Escalante-De Mattei


Apparently behind Darwin, Romanticism, and our appreciation for nature, there is one preeminent geographer, naturalist, polymath: Alexander von Humboldt. But before picking up a copy of The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, I hadn’t known this. The Adventures is a 270+ page work — I guess I would call it a comic, though the form it takes is perhaps one that people wouldn’t usually associate comics with. It’s part collage, part illustration, part biography, and part science lesson, focusing on the years that Humboldt was traveling through South America with the botanist Aime Bonpland. It was written by Andrew Wulf, the author behind The Invention of Nature, a highly acclaimed, wildly popular biography on Mr. Humboldt. It was illustrated by Lillian Melcher, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art fest, an annual convention for illustrators.

I was introduced to the book after having spent an hour at MoCCA trying to find something to write on. At some point during this process I was introduced to Melcher after asking around if there was an artist working on climate change. When Melcher first described the book to me I wasn’t totally convinced of its relevance. But with a deadline in mind, I took a copy home.

On this journey through South America that The Adventures takes us through, we get to know Humboldt, his work, his influence, and some of the key concepts he fathered. He seemed to be way ahead of his time, in fact, ahead of our time. He warned against the dangers of deforestation, improper farming practices, industrialization, and even human induced climate change — in the 19th century! But most importantly, Humboldt recognized something it seemed that Europeans had long since forgotten — nature is an interconnected web of life, not some pre-ordained hierarchy of relations.

Having read the book, I was eager to talk with Melcher, and fortunately she made time to speak with me before heading back to her native Boston. Our conversation not only touched on the process she and Wulf went through to create the book, but Melcher also infected me with her clear love and admiration for Humboldt and the legacy he has left behind.

Image of Alexander von Humboldt via Wikipedia

Image of Alexander von Humboldt via Wikipedia

Image of the illustrator via LillianMelcher.com

Image of the illustrator via LillianMelcher.com

Before I embark on the interview, let me just put in my two cents here as to my opinion of the book. I think it’s beautifully illustrated. Wulf did an incredible job narrating, from Humboldt’s perspective, an adventure of science. The feats of daring, the strange encounters, the delights of the new are all, ultimately, centered around and motivated by Humboldt’s scientific practice. Not only does the book communicate scientific concepts with clarity, it’s a wonderful bridge to the kind of “adventure science” that physical anthropologists and primate behaviorists are famous for doing. In other words, it shows the ways in which science doesn’t have to be restricted to the lab, it can and does happen in the field, all the time. However, I worry about the audience available for The Adventure. Melcher told me the book is intended for adults, and could be used, perhaps, in high schools. While there are, undoubtedly, many illustrated books meant for adults, I feel that the aesthetic is one that does better with younger audiences. However, the text, while highly accessible, takes on a tone and narrative that may not attract younger audiences. Despite this seeming disparity, I am no marketer, so we’ll just have to see how the book fares. In fact, I’ll lend the book to my younger siblings and give everyone an update on how much they liked it.

Wulf has the great fortune of working with the rare historical figure that, in today’s terms, we would characterize as moral. Humboldt was anti-slavery, anti-colonization, and even against cutting down trees. Unfortunately, though, there is a moment in the book where Humboldt’s perspective is, for once, not on par with common decency. There is a scene where Humboldt takes human remains away from an indigenous tribe. Humboldt, whom we have come to love for not only his quirky commitments to science and his frequent dismay at seeing the evidence of slavery and ecological decimation, is suddenly committing an act of extreme cruelty. Wulf, as Humboldt, has no choice than to say what he said “It’s for science”. Melcher in this moment provides us with the objectivity that the first person narrative denies us. The tribespeople are drawn in anguish, and Wulf gives them lines in which they plea that Humboldt not take away their ancestors’ bones. It’s a difficult moment for the book that Wulf and Melcher tried to handle respectfully within the confines of the narrative. I have no prescription except to say that if one is reading this book with one’s child, this moment should be discussed, condemned, and contextualized in the larger scheme of this kind of imperial thievery that scientists and archaeologists have been committing for centuries and has not stopped today. I feel that it is important to point out the scene and how the author and illustrator handled it because any history of science is going to contain ethically reprehensible moments and themes. The method that Wulf and Melcher used should be kept in mind as an option for fleshing out these often one sided historical narratives.

Collage process image via the illustrator

Collage process image via the illustrator

Image via the book

Image via the book

Shanti Escalante-De Mattei: How did you begin to collaborate with Andrea Wulf?

Lillian Melcher: I went to Parsons, and my professor Lauren Redness had been contacted by Andrea because she had really liked her work after reading Thunder and Lightning, which won her the MacArthur genius grant. In school I had been, like I am now, super research based. I wanted everything to be for a reason, all my work had to be motivated, form follows function. And Lauren, as my professor, really saw that. And when she couldn’t take this job, and thought it was interesting, she said, you know what? Put your hat in the ring, get in touch with these people, I met with Andrea and we talked. I read Invention of Nature, Andrea’s book and was like, Whoa. Once we had an in person interview together we clicked.

SED: To clarify, The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt isn’t an adaptation of The Invention of Nature, correct?  

LM: The Invention of Nature is a full biography of Humboldt. It’s written beautifully, very visually. But this is not a graphic adaptation of it. In the beginning of the book, yes, there’s a section where Humboldt goes to South America and that, I would say, is the most pivotal point in his life. It was the first great thing he did, and I think it was also the reason for everything in the rest of his life. So I don’t think she could really fit everything it [the South America voyage] was into the book. Also, Invention of Nature came out in 2015, but was already in the publishing process in 2014. Just at that time, his manuscripts were scanned and made public, so you could go through all his journals. She had just done this massive biography, and then she saw this and was like, “Of course this happens now.” So she wanted to do a deep dive into his journey in South America using these manuscripts. In fact, the manuscript pages are featured on almost every page.

Humboldt’s manuscripts, image courtesy of the illustrator

Humboldt’s manuscripts, image courtesy of the illustrator

SED: What exactly was your involvement in the project? What was working with Wulf like?

LM: It was highly collaborative. From the first time we had a meeting we knew we worked in a very similar way: we like it done right, meticulously. In the beginning I was sending her thumbnails and that was sort of working, but then we met up in New York. We went to one of her friend’s offices and we just took over an entire table, took out what we had so far, which was about three chapters or so, five maybe. We just went through a whole bunch of cheap printer paper and thumbnailed out the entire book. She had the script, which was laid out in four columns. There’s a column describing generally what’s going on in the scene and where it takes place. And then there’s one that’s all the dialogue, a column with all the body text, and a column that’s all the important research materials that go along with that part of the story: manuscripts, all of the reference images she could scrounge up, if we had help from a scientist elsewhere, look at this research for that, look at this place to draw the shoreline where he docked, stuff like that. We were both really trying to make this as close to what Humboldt would have wanted.

SED: Why do you think this story had to be told visually?

LM: I think that telling the story of South America visually is super important because of the implications [the voyage]  had on the art world, and the influence that Humboldt had not only science but also the arts. 

SED: Could you speak a bit more on that?

LM: It all starts with the natu-naturgel-the Naturgemalde![1] I am horrible at saying it, Andrea makes fun of me every single time. But, the big fold out in the book is this image. I chose it to be a fold out because it’s such an important moment for design. I would say [Humboldt] is the father of infographics to teach huge scientific processes. He really wanted people to understand what he was talking about and he knew that in order to do that he needed to write in a way that was accessible, in a way that was beautiful and would be appreciated, and he had to show them what he was talking about because they had to understand the utter scale of it all. He’s talking to Europeans about places they may never go and cannot even fathom. You can’t have a jungle experience in the middle of France. So he told painters, “Go out there, go to these places and paint, and show the world.”

The Naturgemalde via Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

The Naturgemalde via Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

Romanticism was really a result of Humboldt because Humboldt was saying [that] nature is an interconnected web of life and humans are just one small point in that massive web, we are animals and we exist in this massive environment. And we are, through our actions, destroying this environment. So this whole concept of being small in big nature, nature being mightier than all of us — you started to see this in compositions of paintings, and in poetry, all over. There was a huge shift from this historical, Biblical, very man-focused to scenes to, let’s paint these landscapes, let’s go out there and see them because that is where value is now. It’s in the glory of nature, and that’s the glory of god. 

SED: Wow, I had no idea his influence was that big. But what was really the point of convincing people of nature’s beauty in this way? To what end?

LM: I think he was smart in the way that he knew that if he showed people how beautiful nature is, and how insignificant we are to it, he could convince people that we really have to stop cutting down these trees, we have to stop these irrigation techniques, we have to start being smart about how we treat nature, because we’re destroying it and that effect is going to spread and spread and spread until we have what we have today: massive swaths of land that are completely destroyed because of one system of — whatever we’re doing. So he knew if he put the importance into preserving land because it’s “the best thing ever,” then people would react the way I see them reacting today. But it’s taken a while, and that’s partly because the ideas of Humboldt have been completely buried.  

SED: How familiar were you with Humboldt at the beginning of this project?

LM: I did not know anything about Alexander von Humboldt. I got my history classes in public school, I love history outside of any classes I’ve ever taken  — never heard of Humboldt. It’s so ridiculous, especially because he was the most famous man. He was the most famous person.[2] 

SED: Why do you think he got buried like that?

LM: A lot of reasons. The people in power wanted to benefit from things that he was making evil in the popular eye. He was against any industrialization because of the implications it had on nature. I mean also, public interest changes.

SED: It’s interesting, though, that he isn’t more prominent today, especially given his relationship with Darwin and all… 

LM: I will say, he was a queer man. I don’t want to speak to his sexuality, I don’t know where he fell on the spectrum. But we do know that he never took a wife and had male bed mates so either that was used to help bury him, or it was a contributing factor. 

SED: And also he was pretty critical of colonization —

LM: Oh! He was an abolitionist, against the church, all these things. So if the world gets more religious, and it’s like, we don’t know how to talk about slavery and we’re grappling with that — of course it’s going to be difficult to accept this person even if people really like his ideas.


SED: How would you describe his influence?

LM: The biggest problem I have talking about Humboldt is...it’s hard to tell someone, “You know when you look at a tree, and you want to cry? That’s because of Humboldt.” We just did not think that way before. It’s possible we did, but he completely changed the way that we learn and see nature. I see him in everything now. He influenced everyone who influences everyone, in science and even design.

I think it would be great if we could teach history of science. Learning about the people behind science would make it easier to learn. And then maybe people would understand — scientists today are able to prove climate change in ways that we were never able to before, just because of technology. But if you look at the history of science, people have been trying to show our effects on the environment for hundreds of years, and that mainly begins with Humboldt.

SED: I think identifying this history is a really important part of the climate change story.

LM: I feel like the book is really important. It took me a long time to get to a point where I can say, “I think my work is important.” Comic artists in general, everyone I’ve met at least — we’re very introverted, and I think we don’t usually give ourselves a lot of credit. I think that...having something accessible out there that describes not only the scientific concepts of Humboldt, but tells you where we got where we are today, is so important right now.

Like with the Green New Deal. I heard Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talking the other day and I love her very much, but she was saying “You know, we knew about climate change in the 80s, we knew about climate change in the 70s!” And then she stopped — and I wanted to scream — we knew about it in the 1880s, the 1950s! People think that this all started in the crisis in the 70s. But we knew about it way before. And, you know, I think if Republicans knew that Jefferson met with Humboldt and was very excited about his ideas, they could start saying, it’s American to save a tree. Cause you know what, it should be! Why aren't we trying to preserve our country?

SED: Yeah! I had a teacher once who told us — look, when national parks get shrunk, people should be angry, because that’s your land being  taken away. Public goods like this are yours and you should be angry that they’re taking them away. And these parks and such, those are national legacies.  

LM: From sea to shining sea, purple mountain majesty — that whole song is Humboldt.

SED: I did feel while I was reading this that I was shifting  in my conception of environmental/climate change history. One of the bones I have to pick with the way climate change is perceived now is that it’s isolated to an energy issue, to carbon. And “environmental” issues, like water pollution, waste issues, and so on, are somehow not a part of the same discussion. But the thing is, climate change is just one of the many symptoms of the overarching issues in the way that we treat this planet, and without knowledge of Humboldt, it’s kind of hard to make that connection. 

LM: “The interconnected web of life.” It’s the most important sentence anyone has ever said, I think — because it proves that point, there isn’t one issue It’s more like you’re just trying to keep a balance in the larger scheme of things, and you want to make sure humans aren’t out balancing everything else.  

[1] The Naturgemalde translates to “nature painting,” but Wulf says that there is an almost untranslatable aspect of it that speaks to a sense of “unity” or “wholeness.” The Naturgemalde was a drawing of a cross section of the mountain Chimborazo with plant names superimposed at the point on the mountain at which they appear — basically, plant geography.

[2] Colin Thubron, who reviewed The Invention of Nature, comments that Humboldt was second only to Napoleon in the fame he commanded at the time.