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Proceedings: Alexander von Humboldt’s Natural History Legacy and Its Relevance for Today
2001 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1:109-120
THE MOUNTAIN OF THE GODS
EVAN EISENBERG *
ABSTRACT - In the spirit of the second volume of Cosmos, we consider two
worldviews that arose in the ancient Near East and are with us yet. For one,
the heart of the world is wilderness. For the other, the word revolves around
the city, the work of human hands. These two worldviews belonged to two
kinds of civilization (each with its characteristic kind of farming): those of the
hilly uplands and those of the great river valleys. The first kind is typified by
the Canaanites and Israelites, the second by the Mesopotamians. The myth of
the World Mountain is shown to have a basis in ecological fact: wilderness as
the source of life. Eden is here identified with the wild World Mountain or
Mountain of God, from which humans are necessarily exiled. As soon as we
become fully human, we begin to destroy Eden and so expel ourselves. With
the above dichotomy in mind, we ask: Was Humboldt a man of the Mountain
or of the Tower?
In the second volume of Cosmos, Alexander von Humboldt moved
beyond the physical description of nature to study its place in the
hearts of various peoples, ancient and modern. The present essay is
offered in that spirit. As you read, I ask that you keep in your mind's
eye two famliar and rather different images of Humboldt. The first:
Humboldt at his regular table (left-hand corner by the window) at the
Café Procope in Paris. The second: Humboldt at the rock-strewn foot
of Chimborazo, poised for his ascent of what he took to be the loftiest
mountain in the world.
Two ways of looking at the world arose in the ancient Near East and
are with us yet. For one, the heart of the world is wilderness. For the
other, the world revolves around the city, the work of human hands.
A cartographer’s quibble? Hardly. It is a fundamental dispute about
the way the world works and what our role in it should be. From the
point of view of ecology, there is no more important question one can
ask about a civilization than which of these views it adopts and acts
upon. Indeed, the prospects of our own civilization may hinge on
whether we can, at this late date, change our minds.
The two great worldviews I am speaking of, belonged to two kinds of
civilization: those of the hilly uplands and those of the great river
valleys.1 The first kind is typified by the Canaanites, the second by the
1 On the geography and ecology of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, see Ellen Churchill
Semple, The Geography of the Mediterranean Region: Its Relation to Ancient History (New York:
Holt, 1931); Yohanan Aharoni, The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography, trans. and ed. A. F.
110 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1
Mesopotamians. The peoples of the hills, narrow valleys, and narrow
coastal plains made their living from small-scale mixed husbandry. This
was a much refined but still modest descendent of the earliest farming
known, which had arisen in those same hills. The peoples of the great
river valleys were more ambitious. They practiced large-scale, irrigated
agriculture that was not so different, at heart, from what large corporations
do in California today.
Tied to these different ways of living on the land were different
economies, different social structures, different political forms, and
different ways of looking at the world. Above all, the hill peoples and
the valley peoples had different world-poles.
The world-pole is the axis on which the world turns. It is the heart of
the world, the source of all life. Nearly every people has a world-pole,
but they do not all agree on its shape. For the Canaanites, the world-pole
was the Mountain: the wild place sacred to the gods, the font of lifegiving
water. For the Mesopotamians, it was the Tower: the ziggurat
that rose in the midst of the city.
If there is one thing all cosmogonies agree upon, it is the need for
division. Pine as they may for a time of perfect oneness, all peoples
know that a world undivided cannot stand. For life to feed and reproduce
itself, there must be division: between heaven and earth, male and
female, man and beast and god. But for life to flourish — and on this
point, too, all cosmogonies agree — there must be some place where all
these things are reconnected. That is the world-pole.2
On the exact shape the world-pole must take there is less agreement,
yet more than one might expect. Hindu texts tell of a mountain at the
center at the earth called Meru, on which stands a tree called Jambu. Its
fruits are as big as elephants. When they fall and splatter, their juice
becomes the stream Jambunadi, drinking from which makes one proof
against old age, vice, and body odor. Among the Buddhist Kalmucks of
Siberia, Meru becomes Sumeru, a vast pyramidal mountain rising from
Rainey (2nd ed. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979); A. Reifenberg, The Struggle Between the
Desert and the Sown. The Rise and Fall of Agriculture in the Levant (Jerusalem: The Jewish
Agency, 1955); Daniel Hillel, Out of the Earth: Civilization and the Life of the Soil (New York:
Free Press, 1991); and the well-illustrated book by David Attenborough, The First Eden: The
Mediterranean World and Man (Boston: Little, Brown, 1987).
2 Though I have borrowed the concept from Eliade (Cosmos and History, trans. Willard R. Trask
[New York: Harper & Row, 1959], pp. 12ff.), I have chosen a cruder term than his axis mundi.
Eliade, by the way, makes no distinction between “cosmic mountains” that are real mountains
and “cosmic mountains” that are fakes. “The names of the Babylonian temples and sacred
towers themselves testify to their assimilation to the cosmic mountain,” he writes, which is true
enough as far as it goes.
For examples of World Mountains and other world-poles, see ibid.; E. A. S. Butterworth, The
Tree at the Navel of the Earth (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1970); Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God (4
vols. New York: The Viking Press, 1959-69), vol. 1; as well as the splendidly illustrated book by
Edwin Bernbaum, Sacred Mountains of the World (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1990).
2001 E. Eisenberg 111
the cosmic ocean. It sits on a sunken cushion of gold, which in turn sits
on a tortoise. The cannibals of West Ceram, an island near New Guinea,
say that the nine families of humankind emerged from the banana trees
of Mount Nunusaku. The Norse Eddas sing of the great ash tree
Yggdrasil on whose trunk the heavens spin and whose roots clutch the
netherworld. The tree is a hive of activity: a great eagle perches on its
crown, four stags romp and browse in its branches, a great serpent
gnaws on its roots, and honeydew trickles from its bark. In the Zoroastrian
Avesta, a mountain called Hara stands at the center of the world.
From its peak flow all the world’s waters, which course through the sea
Vourukasha and water the seven regions of the world. Purified by the
earth, they rise to the peak of Hara and start the cycle again.
What do all these places have in common?
As a rule, the world-pole is the source of life. Although I have used
“world-pole” because it is plainer than Eliade’s axis mundi, I would
almost rather say “world-pipe,” for the act of connecting heaven and
earth would be meaningless if stuff could not move from one to the
other. Like the trunk of a tree, the world-pole is something through
which life flows. It is at once phallus and vulva, ram’s horn and cornucopia.
It is the uterus from which all creatures crawled and the teat from
which they continue to suck. If a man or woman — a shaman, a hero, a
prophet — would ascend to the heavens or descend to the underworld,
here is the stairwell. Here the adept can powow with gods and animals,
even merge with them, as all of us used to do at the beginning of time.
The fact that Canaan — the region now occupied by Israel, Lebanon,
and Syria — contains the lowest dry land on the planet (the shore of the
Dead Sea) as well as deserts, coastal plains, and steppe only makes its
great mountains the more imposing.3
It is no surprise, then, that in Canaanite poetry both the elder god El
and the younger god Baal have their houses or tents on mountaintops. So
does Baal’s sister and bride, the goddess Anat. El lives at “the source of
3 To avoid the political freight, as well as the imprecision in an ancient context, of such terms as
Israel, Palestine, Syria, and Syro-Palestine, I use the most ancient name for the region that still
means something to modern ears. Several thousand years of bad press in Hebrew and Latin
sources have helped keep the Canaanites, and their cousins the Phoenicians and Carthaginians,
from getting the serious study they deserve. For general treatments, see Donald B. Harden, The
Phoenicians (rev. ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980) ; John Gray, The Canaanites (London:
Thames and Hudson, 1964); Emmanuel Anati, Palestine Before the Hebrews (New York:
Knopf, 1963); Moscati, The World of the Phoenicians, trans. Alastair Hamilton (London:
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968). Canaanite texts are translated by H. L. Ginsburg in James B.
Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (3rd ed., with
Supplement. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969); short selections are translated, and
discussed, by Frank Moore Cross, Caanite Myth and and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1973,) and Richard J. Clifford, The Cosmic Mountain in the Old
Testament (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972).
112 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1
the Two Rivers, in the midst of the Pools of the Double-Deep.” Baal’s
mountain is called Mount Zaphon (or Sapanu), from a root meaning “to
look out” or “spy out.” That it is a place where heaven and earth
fruitfully meet is hinted at in a message he sends to Anat:
Pour out peace in the depths of the earth,
Make love increase in the depths of the fields...
The speech of wood and the whisper of stone,
The converse of heaven with the earth,
Of the deeps with the stars...
Come, and I will seek it,
In the midst of my mountain, divine Zaphon ... 4
To say that the world-pole is a mountain is to state, in mythic
shorthand, an ecological fact. There are certain places on earth that play
a central role in the flow of energy and the cycling of water and
nutrients, as well as the maintenance of genetic diversity and its spread
by means of gene flow. Such places provide many of the services that
keep the ecosystems around them (and the biosphere as a whole) more
or less healthy for humans and other life forms. They help control
flooding and soil erosion. They regulate the mix of oxygen, carbon
dioxide, water vapor, and other ingredients in the air and keep its
temperature within bounds. They are spigots for the circulation of wildness
through regions made hard and almost impermeable by long human
use. All such places are more or less wild; many are forested; many are
mountainous, and from them great rivers flow.
The real lesson of the Mountain, though, has nothing to do with any
particular mountains, or even with mountains as such. It has to do with
The point is that manmade landscapes, from the wheat fields and
vineyards of ancient Canaan to the strip malls of New Jersey, survive
only by the courtesy of the wilderness around them and the wildness that
remains in them. Energy flows, water and nutrients circulate, climate is
kept within bounds, the ingredients of the air are kept in balance, the soil
4 Clifford, p. 68. Most extant Canaanite poems are found on clay tablets from Ugarit in
northern Syria (the modern Ras Shamra) that date from about 1400 B.C. But the myths they
relate may be far older. It now seems likely that the Canaanites were autochthonous — that
they grew from the soil of Canaan. They were offspring of the first farmers in the region (the
first in the world, as far as we know), probably of the first proto-farmers (the Natufians,
whose villages were supported by the harvesting of wild grains), and possibly of the first
modern humans. The seeds of the myths that bloomed so profusely in late Bronze Age Ugarit
may have been planted by farmers of the late Stone Age. While the myths of Mesopotamia
are far older in their written forms than those of Canaan, it seems likely that those of Canaan
represent an older way of life.
For a more detailed consideration of Canaanite myth, see Evan Eisenberg, The Ecology of Eden
(New York, Knopf, 1998), chap. 7.
2001 E. Eisenberg 113
is made fertile. All these things are matters of life and death for us. All
are done for us free of charge, in ways we do not fully grasp. Even if we
knew how these jobs are done, we would be unwise to try and take them
over. For we would then spend most of our time trying desperately to
manage what used to be managed for us.5
As the postmodernists never tire of telling us, wilderness is a myth.
What they fail to tell us, because they do not comprehend it, is that it is
a necessary myth — necessary because, on a biological level that mutely
resists deconstruction, it is deeply and urgently real.
Yes, wilderness is a social construction. So is the guardrail at the
edge of a cliff.
Now let us move from the highlands to the great river valleys.
At the heart of every Mesopotamian city was a sacred precinct, and
at the heart of every sacred precinct was a ziggurat, a stepped pyramid
of mud brick. Every great temple claimed to stand on the axis mundi
or elevator shaft of the cosmos, offering the gods a way station between
the upper and lower worlds. The creation epic Enuma Elish
assigns to Babylon the role of divine motel and convention center, a
role that seems to have been competed for and claimed by other cities
at other times.
It is a sign of the Mesopotamians’ pride that they drew the gods —
and paradise itself — down from the mountains and into their own
cities. Giddy with prosperity and progress, they came to think they had
done it all themselves. Instead of recipients, they came to think of
themselves as the source of life and plenty. They controlled the waters,
tapped the great rivers like kegs of beer. It was easy to forget that the
water came from somewhere. They had agriculture down to a science. It
was easy to forget that it had arisen among the savages of the hills. The
storehouses spat out grain; the markets were littered with dates and
slippery with oil. Surely the city was the source of all life.
5 “And, by the way, who estimates the value of the crop which Nature yields in the still wilder
fields unimproved by man?” To the question posed by Thoreau in Walden (The Bean-Field),
a first effort at an answer was recently made: a systematic attempt to estimate the annual
economic value of the earth’s (more or less) natural ecosystems. Though the researchers cast
their net wide — taking in such varied things as recreation value, pollination services, forest
timber, the effect of wetlands on shrimp harvests, and the role of the oceans in regulating
atmospheric carbon dioxide — plenty of things slipped through, among them nonrenewable
fuels and minerals and the merits of such relatively unstudied ecosystems as deserts, tundra,
and urban parks. Despite its conservative assumptions, the study came up with an annual
value of $33 trillion. By contrast, the GNPs of all nations on earth total about $18 trillion. In
short, the Mountain has challenged the Tower on its home turf, economics, and bested it
nearly two to one. See Robert Costanza et al., The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services
and Natural Capital. Nature 387 (1997): 253-60, as well as the comments by Pimm in the
same issue, pp. 231-2; see also Gretchen C. Daily, Nature’s Services (Washington, DC:
Island Press, 1997).
114 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1
Today southern Mesopotamia is once again the patchwork of swamp
and desert it was when the first settlers arrived. 6 The main difference
(apart from the fact that the wildlife is gone) is that much of the soil is no
longer even potentially fertile.
In arid climates, the groundwater is often brackish. As long as it stays
below the level to which the roots of crops penetrate, it is no problem; but
when a field has been used for a while, irrigation without proper drainage
can raise the water table. Crops can filter out some of the salt when they
drink, but in so doing they make the remaining water that much saltier.
Eventually it catches up with them. Pots dug up in southern Mesopotamia
suggest that from 3500 B.C. onward the ratio of wheat to barley in the
harvest steadily shrank. By 1700, no wheat was grown at all. Why? Well,
as befits a poor cousin, barley is on the whole less finicky than wheat
about where and how it grows. In particular, it is far more tolerant of salt.
Given the crust of salt that covers so much of Mesopotamia today, and the
half-comprehending references to the problem that can be found in
ancient texts, it has been suggested that salt must have caused failures of
the wheat crop, forcing a shift to barley. Estate records from the period
show a steady decline in yields of wheat and a lesser but vexing drop in
yields of barley. As the soil turned to salt, the economic base of Sumer
fissured and slowly crumbled. This helped make it vulnerable to the
growing power of its northern neighbor, Akkad.7
6 On the unpromising natural endowments of ancient Mesopotamia, see Hillel, chapter 11;
Samual Noah Kramer, The Sumerians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963). On
ancient Mesopotamia generally, see Kramer, op. cit., and History Begins at Sumer (New York:
Doubleday, 1959); A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization
(rev. ed., compl. Erica Reiner. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1977); Harriet E. W. Crawford,
Sumer and the Sumerians (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1991). Sumerian, Akkadian, and
Babylonian texts are translated in Pritchard, as well as in the cited books by Kramer; Thorkild
Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness (New Haven: Yale, 1976); Clifford; Helmer Ringgren,
Religions of the Ancient Near East, trans. John Sturdy (London, S.P.C.K., 1973), and
Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1951)
and The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (2nd ed. Chicago: University of
7 Thorkild Jacobsen and Robert McC. Adams, Salt and silt in ancient Mesopotamian agriculture,
Science, vol. 128 (1958), pp. 1251-1258. First proposed by Jacobsen and Adams in 1958,
the theory has intermittently been attacked (for example, by M. A. Powell, Salt, seed and yields
in Sumerian agriculture: A critique of the theory of progressive salinization, Zeitschrift der
Assyrologie, vol. 75 , pp. 7-38) and defended (for example, by Michal Artzy, and Daniel
Hillel, A Defense of the Theory of Progressive Soil Salinization in Ancient Southern
Mesopotamia, Geoarchaeology 3, no. 3 : 235-238.) in the years since. What is in
question is not the fact that salinization occurred, but whether Mesopotamian farmers had
effective methods to arrest, reverse, or soften its effects. Most recently, the trend has been to
explain the vicissitudes of farming in various parts of Mesopotamia, and the attendant fates of
cities and empires, in terms of climate change: see, for example, H. Weiss et al., The Genesis
and Collapse of Third Millennium North Mesopotamian Civilization, Science 261 (1993): 995-
1004. While no single factor can explain the whole course of Mesopotamian history, my own
(lay) hunch is that salinization played a major role.
The best account of ancient Mesopotamian irrigation is in Hillel, Out of the Earth, chapter 11.
See also Robert McCormick Adams and Hans J. Nissen, The Uruk Countryside (Chicago:
University of Chicago, 1972).
2001 E. Eisenberg 115
No one can say “I told you so” to the Mesopotamians. No one told
them so. What they did was done for the first time on earth. It seemed a
good idea at the time, and in many ways it was. Then the edge of
civilization moved on, leaving a desert behind it.
There were, I said, two broad types of culture in the ancient Near
East, broadly matched to two types of agriculture: that of the irrigated
river valleys and that of the hills. The first is typified by the
Mesopotamians, the second by the Canaanites, including the Israelites.
The more we know about the Israelites, the clearer it is that they
were Canaanite hill farmers who practiced a sophisticated and fairly
sustainable mixed husbandry of grains, vines, livestock, and trees
yielding fruit, nuts, and oil.8 They were neither desert nomads mistrustful
of nature, nor proud hydraulic despots lording it over nature.
They were good farmers living frugally on the margins and using the
best stewardship they knew. They were dependent on rain and groundwater,
neither of which was overabundant, and on thin and rock-
For a reading of various Mesopotamian myths and epics that brings out their ecological
significance — linking, for example, the Sumerian poem Enki and Ninhursag to the problem of
soil salinization — see Eisenberg, chap. 11. And see chap. 27 of that book to correct the
impression I may have given here that I am somehow opposed to cities. To summarize my later
It is easy to chide the Mesopotamians for making the city the world-pole, yet it was a necessary
step. They would not have been able to do the remarkable things they did if they had not been
able to abstract human culture from nature to some degree. The same can be said of the
Western civilization they helped shape. To view human culture as having its own logic, its own
map, its own font, and its own channels is both useful and true — up to a point. If a child does
not assert its independence from its mother, it does not grow up. True independence may be an
illusion but it is a useful one.
Despite Arcadian cant, the city is not a place you must escape from if you want to live a fully
human life. Cities are natural. Even their unnaturalness is natural, for it springs from our
nature and (if kept within bounds) can meet our quirky needs without doing nature too much
harm. And it turns out that the Tower, which figures in this essay as a bastard pretender and
enemy of the Mountain, can be its best friend and staunchest defender. Ideally, it concentrates
both the warm bodies of humans and their steamy cultural energies in a small, bounded,
insulated place, so that wild nature need not take the heat.
8 In the first half of the twentieth century the German school of Alt and Noth predominated: this
school denied the historicity of the Bible, and spoke of gradual infiltration of Canaan by
seminomadic tribes, which in time formed a loose confederation. About mid-century a
counterattack was led by Albright and the more radical Kaufmann, who propped up the
patriarchal stories, and those of the conquest of Canaan, with sherds and other evidence newly
unearthed. In the last couple of decades the winds have shifted yet again, with Dever, van
Seters, Gottwald, and Mendenhall, among others, placing the Israelites more firmly in a
Canaanite context. (Mendenhall goes farthest, making the Israelites out to be downtrodden
peasants of wholly native origin.) For a clear presentation of this general approach, see Robert
B. Coote, Early Israel: A New Horizon (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).
On the ecology and husbandry of ancient Israel, see Yohanan Aharoni, The Land of the Bible: A
Historical Geography, Trans. and ed. A. F. Rainey (2nd ed. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979);
David C. Hopkins, The Highlands of Canaan: Agricultural Life in the Early Iron Age (Sheffield,
England: Almond, 1985); Oded Borowski, Agriculture in Iron Age Israel (Winona Lake, Ind.,
Eisenbrauns, 1987); Reifenberg; Hillel; and the eccentric but interesting works of Nogah
Hareuveni, founder of the biblical landscape garden Ne’ot Kedumim.
For a fuller version of my argument here, see Eisenberg, chaps. 9 and 12.
116 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1
strewn soil, and had to use their wits to conserve both. They were not
so different, perhaps, from other peasants of the Mediterranean basin,
past and present.
Being Canaanites — if Canaanites of a rather peculiar sort — the
children of Israel might be expected to have some notion of a World
Mountain. So they did. It took several forms, but foremost among them
Today it is not common to think of Eden as a mountain. But in earlier
times — from at least the sixth century B.C., when Ezekiel prophesied,
to the seventeenth century A.D., when Milton wrote Paradise Lost — it
was very common.10
Although the Bible never specifies Eden’s elevation, the fact that it
is the source of four great rivers speaks for itself. Armed with the
knowledge that water does not flow uphill, scholars from Philo’s time to
the present have placed Eden in the mountains of Armenia, or other
mountains vaguely north of Mesopotamia.
Like many world-poles, Eden crowns its mountain with a Tree of
Life. According to the rabbis, this means “a tree that spread its canopy
over all living things. ... All the primeval waters branched out beneath
it.” To walk around its trunk would take a man five hundred years.11
Eden is the source of life in another sense, too. It is the navel of the
world — the first home of all creatures, both human and nonhuman. It is
even a home of sorts for God, who walks in the garden in the cool of the
day. But while God and plants and animals get to stay in Eden, humans
get the boot. And this, too, is a hint that what we are dealing with is
nothing less than the Mountain of God.
Modern scholars tend to picture Eden as a formal garden in the
Mesopotamian style, irrigated to a fare-thee-well. But while some of the
sources of the Eden story may have had that squared-off and straightlaced
shape, others were a good deal wilder and woolier. In the Mountain
of God, even the Garden of God, we have a vision of paradise as a
forested peak — the summa and last resort of wildness in a region
chock-a-block with cities, fields, canals, herds, and armies. While the
Hebrew word gan usually means an enclosed vegetable garden or fruit
9 On Eden as the Mountain of God, see Jon Levenson, Theology of the Program of Restoration
of Ezekiel 40-48 (Cambridge, Mass.: Scholars Press, 1976), and Sinai and Zion (San Francisco:
Harper and Row, 1985).
10 This was the received opinion in Philo’s day, though Philo himself was unconvinced.
Questions and Answers on Genesis, cited by Frank E. Manuel, Fritzie P. Manuel, Utopian
Thought in the Western World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1979), p. 43. Those modern
scholars, such as Speiser and Zarins, who take the four rivers to be tributaries, and situate the
Garden at the point where their joined waters debouch — that is, at the head of the Persian
Gulf — have the weight of ancient tradition against them.
11 Bereshit Rabbah 15.6.
2001 E. Eisenberg 117
orchard, the phrase gan Elohim, “garden of God,” seems to be meant as
a kind of analogy: just as we might call the prairie “God’s lawn,” so the
ancients saw the wooded mountain as God’s private garden.12
Such wild places were not paradises for humans, but for gods. They
were not meant for humans at all.
The cosmic center is not always thought of as a nice place for
humans to live or even to visit. Nevertheless it is the source of life.
“All the world is watered with the dregs of Eden,” the Talmud says;
and the dregs are as much as it can take.13 Humans cannot see God’s
face and live.
If God is the heart of nature, then to say that we cannot stand pure
godhead is to say that we cannot stand pure wildness, except in small
doses. We can stand (if sometimes just barely) the electric blue of the
sky, the buzz of bees, the jolt of sex. Uncut, nature is too much for us.
The main lines of wildness make us jumpy — and rightly, for an
instantaneous surge can kill.
To think of living in Eden is to deny the primal sundering of heaven
and earth, of god and animal and human. The world-pole is the one place
where the sundering has not happened, or has been repaired. We must
revere it, draw sustenance from it, keep it alive, keep the channels of
wildness open. But to think of living in it — why, it’s like wanting to
live in the sun.
Nowadays most people (as opposed to scholars) like to imagine
Eden as a wild place: a rainforest rife with orchids and lianas, a savanna
rumbling with game. Conversely, they like to stick the words “Eden”
and “garden,” like Sierra Club stamps, on any wilderness that is not
unlivably frigid or arid, especially if they have never been in it themselves.
And while they are right to imagine Eden as a wild place, they
are wrong to think that such places are still paradises for us. A brief
backpacking trip is about as much of real wilderness as most of us can
stand, and even that will seem like paradise only if nothing goes wrong:
no rain, no grizzlies, no marmots eating our boots. After a week or two,
we are glad to be expelled. And if we were to stay — to become settlers,
pioneers — we would soon transform the place, or at least our immediate
patch of it, into something wildly different.
The World Mountain is a paradise only when seen from a distance,
or with the moist eye of memory. Once, wilderness was our home.
Looking back, we endow it with all the longed-for comforts of home.
We see a garden: a place wholly benign, a place of harmony and plenty.
12 True, the word midbar, when used to mean desert — an arid or desolated place — is sometimes
set in opposition to Eden; but to conclude from this (as, for example, Roderick Nash does in
Wilderness and the American Mind [3rd ed. New Haven: Yale, 1982]) that Eden and wilderness
in the more general sense are opposites in Hebrew thought is a misunderstanding.
13 Taanit 10a.
118 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1
We forget that the harmony, such as it was, was possible only because
we were still animals, and the plenty only because we were scarce. As
soon as we become fully human, we begin to “fill the earth and subdue
it.” We begin to destroy Eden, and thereby expel ourselves.
If the two images of Humboldt mentioned earlier have hovered in
your mind while you were reading, you can now ask yourself: was
Humboldt a man of the Mountain, or of the Tower? Did he place his
faith, ultimately, in nature’s wisdom or in man’s?
Humboldt has been called a pioneer of ecology. If this is so, it is so in
the scientific sense of the word, not the political. In the scientific sense,
he was a pioneer of a sort of ecology that is still being pioneered as the
twenty-first century begins: the sort that sees nature whole, as a complex
and dynamic system of interractions between living and nonliving
things. As he wrote to his friend Freiesleben from the Pizarro, en route
to South America, “I shall try to find out how the forces of nature
interract upon one another and how the geographic environment influences
plant and animal life. In other words, I must find out about the
unity of nature.”14 In the direction of his gaze, as much as in the specific
facts he discerned, he was a forerunner of Vernadsky and his biosphere,
even of Lovelock and Margulis and their Gaia Hypothesis. (Is it sheer
coincidence that the next person to call a book Cosmos was Margulis’s
ex-husband, Carl Sagan?)
The belief in the unity of nature, Humboldt himself called “a reflex
of monotheism,” and it may be that his own ideas were shaped in part by
his contact with Jewish thinkers such as Marcus Herz. (While nature
philosophers like Hegel were attacking Judaism as somehow inimical to
nature, Humboldt was making just the opposite case: another reason I
dare to invoke him as patron of my own historical musings.15) Goethe
and the Romantics may have been an influence, too, on Humboldt’s
sense that “ONE breath, from pole to pole breathes ONE single life into
rocks, plants and animals, and into the swelling breast of man.” Whether
that sense took the form, scientifically, of a fascination with galvanism
and electromagnetic storms, or of an interest in the role of the “animalcules”
and “infusoria,” it clearly foreshadows twenty-first century science.
But if Humboldt believed in the unity of nature, it was unity under law
— law that human intelligence could grasp and thereby bend nature to its
will. “[F]or thousands of years, man has labored ... to recognize the
14 Quoted in Douglas Botting, Humboldt and the Cosmos. New York: Harper & Row, 1973, p.
15 Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos. Trans. E. C. Otte. 5 vols. London: H. G. Bohn, 1849–58,
vol. 2, pp. 411-13.
2001 E. Eisenberg 119
invariability of natural laws, and has thus by the force of mind gradually
subdued a great portion of the physical world to his domain.”16 Humboldt
was a progressivist, very much a man of his time. Though he saw more
clearly than most of his contemporaries that human meddling sometimes
mangled nature’s workings, he was not led to question (as did, for
example, George Perkins Marsh or Henry David Thoreau) his era’s
conviction that human meddling was, on the whole, a magnificent thing.
A few examples. In Cuba, Humboldt regrets the deforestation
wrought by sugar boilers who use wood as fuel when bagass (crushed
cane) would serve just as well.17 He notes that the “imprudent haste” of
forest clearing has depleted lakes, dried up springs, and encouraged
floods in regions as far-flung as Lombardy and Lower Peru. Yet he
looks forward to a time when the “inhabitants of the banks of the
Orinoco and the Atabapo will behold with delight populous cities enriched
by commerce, and fertile fields cultivated by the hands of free
men, in those very spots where, at the time of my travels, I found only
impenetrable forests and inundated lands.”18
The particular balance Humboldt strikes is best seen, perhaps, in his
comments on the gathering of tortoise eggs on the banks of the Orinoco.
“Before the arrival of the missionaries, the Indians profited much less
from a production which nature has supplied in such abundance. Every
tribe searched the beach in its own way; and an immense number of eggs
were uselessly broken, because they were not dug up with precaution,
and more eggs were uncovered than could be carried away. It was like a
mine worked by unskillful hands. The Jesuits have the merit of having
reduced this operation to regularity; and though the Franciscan monks,
who succeeded the Jesuits in the Missions of the Orinoco, boast of
having followed the example of their predecessors, they unhappily do
not effect all that prudence requires. The Jesuits did not suffer the whole
beach to be searched; they left a part untouched, from the fear of seeing
the breed of arrau tortoises, if not destroyed, at least considerably
diminished. The whole beach is now dug up without reserve; and accordingly
it seems to be perceived that the gathering is less productive
from year to year.”19
“Like a mine worked by unskillful hands”: this reminds us that
Humboldt got his start in mining and that, for all his enlightenment, the
darkness of the mine never quite left him.
16 Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 1–2.
17 Humboldt, The Island of Cuba. Trans. J. S. Thrasher. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1856, p.
18 Humboldt, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America in the Years
1799–1804. Trans. Thomasina Ross. 3 vols. London: H. G. Bohn, 1852–53, vol. 1, p. xxii.
19 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 189.
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It is tempting to see Humboldt as the last universal man, or the last
Renaissance man, or the last great encyclopedic mind of the Enlightenment.
To readers of Patrick O’Brian, Humboldt may evoke the world of
Aubrey and Maturin — a world of passionate amateurs and generalists,
in which scientific instruments are as neat and elegant as pocketwatches
and the greatest scientists have French names. (Indeed,
Humboldt’s trek across South America was a model for Maturin’s in
The Wine-Dark Sea.) But Humboldt’s long, anticlimactic afterlife
makes him rather a figure of the Victorian era than of the Regency. His
versatility as explorer, geologist, botanist, zoologist, astronomer, and
master of the humane letters that were his brother’s province is plain,
but so is his role in inventing the professional man of science —
organizer of international meetings, fundraiser, hired gun of government
and industry, tireless self-publicist (“blowing one’s own horn,” he
once wrote, “is part of the job”).
More to the point, he is a pioneer of the kind of geography that sees
nature and culture as an economic unit, the kind whose main interest is
in natural resources and their exploitation. Here his influence moved
briskly from the printed page to the real world: witness his role in the
discovery of diamonds in the Urals and in the British speculation in
Mexican silver mines.
Humboldt was ahead of his time in his view of nature’s tightly
woven, all-encompassing intelligence, but also in the systematic replacement
of that intelligence by man’s. These two foreshadowings of
our time cancel each other out, making Humboldt very much a man of
his own time: a man of the Tower whose visits to the Mountain were
meant to extend the Tower’s reach.20
20 The central part of this paper is adapted from my book, The Ecology of Eden (New York:
Knopf, 1998; Vintage, 1999), in which interested readers will find my argument refined and