Along the coast of northern California, so close that one is closer to Oregon than San Francisco, lies a little county that has become infamous for its marijuana cultivation. At one time Humboldt county was known for its timber exports, its fishing industry, and the beauty of its coast and redwood forests. Today, although many know Humboldt county for its illegal grow operations of cannabis and its thriving cultural community, many don’t know the origins of the county’s name or why it was named after someone who has never even traveled this far north of the equator.
He’s been called the father of modern geography and it’s even been said that he was called ‘the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived’ by Charles Darwin. He discovered the Humboldt Current off the coast of South America, was the first person to make accurate drawings of the Inca ruins in Peru, and realized the importance of using bat guano in agriculture. His name is Alexander von Humboldt.
Alexander von Humboldt, a German naturalist and explorer, was born September 14, 1769 in Berlin and was christened with the weighty moniker of Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt. As a young child he enjoyed collecting plants, shells, and insects and labeling them. He was expected by his wealthy family to go into finance, but after a vacation in 1789, in which he traveled up the Rhine doing scientific explorations, he know he would never be involved in the world of money.
In an 1834 letter von Humboldt wrote on the subject of his observations and studies, he stated the following:
I have the crazy notion to depict in a single work the entire material universe, all that we know of the phenomena of heaven and earth, from the nebulae of stars to the geography of mosses and granite rocks–and in a vivid style that will stimulate and elicit feelings. Every great and important idea in my writing should here be registered side by side with facts. It should portray an epoch in the spiritual genesis of mankind–in knowledge of nature. But is is not to be taken as a physical description of the earth: it comprises heaven and earth, the whole of creation.
Von Humboldt went on to make botanical and geological expeditions through Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and almost all of Latin America. On these voyages his discoveries and observations of the natural world contributed greatly to the emerging scientific world of interrelatedness between all the physical sciences. He did visit the United States briefly when he met with President Thomas Jefferson in the nation’s capitol. He wrote many papers and books about the natural world, but his most famous is Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe.
Besides Humboldt county being named in honor of Alexander von Humboldt, other places, species, geographical features, and institutes of learning are also named after Humboldt. These include the Humboldt Glacier in Greenland; the Humboldt Sink ( a dry lake bed in Nevada); Hacienda Humboldt in Mexico; Humboldt, Minnesota; the Humboldt squid; Humboldt University of Berlin; and Humboldt Elementary in Portland, Oregon.