How does a person come to be interested in the exact height at which he or she sees a fly? How does he or she begin to care about a piece of moss growing on a volcanic ridge ten inches wide? In Humboldt’s case, such curiosity was far from spontaneous: his concern had a long history. The fly and the moss attracted his attention because they were related to prior, larger and—to the layman—more understandable questions.
Curiosity might be pictured as being made up of chains of small questions extending outwards, sometimes over huge distances, from a central hub composed of a few blunt, large questions. In childhood we ask, ‘Why is there good and evil?’ ‘How does nature work?’ ‘Why am I me?’ If circumstances and temperament allow, we then build on these questions during adulthood, our curiosity encompassing more and more of the world until at some point we may reach that elusive stage where we are bored by nothing. The blunt large questions become connected to smaller, apparently esoteric ones. We end up wondering about flies on the sides of mountains or about a particular fresco on the wall of a sixteenth-century palace. We start to care about the foreign policy of a long-dead Iberian monarch or about, the role of peat in the Thirty Years’ War.
The chain of questions that led Humboldt to his curiosity about a fly on the ten-inch-wide ledge of Mount Chimborazo in June of 1802 had begun as far back as his eighth year, when, as a boy living in Berlin, he had visited relatives in another part of Germany and asked himself, ‘Why don’t the same things grow everywhere?’ Why were there trees near
On descending to the base camp below Mount Chimborazo, I Humboldt washed his feet, had a short siesta and almost immediately began writing his ‘Essai sur Ia geographie des plantes’, in which he defined the distribution of vegetation at different heights and temperatures. He stated that there were six altitude zones. From sea level to approximately 3,000 feet, palms and pisang plants grew. Up to 4,900 feet there were ferns, and up to 9,200 feet, oak trees. Then came a zone that nurtured evergreen shrubs (Wintera, Escalloniceae), followed, on the highest levels, by two alpine zones: between 10,150 and 12,600 feet, herbs grew, and between 12,600 and 14,200 feet, alpine grasses and lichens thrived. Flies were, he wrote excitedly, unlikely to be found above 16,600 feet.
Humbolt’s excitement testifies to the importance of having the right question to ask of the world. It may mean the differencebetween swatting at a fly in irritation and running down a mountain to begin work on an ‘Essai sur la geographic des plantes’.
Unfortunately for the traveller, most objects don’t come affixed with the question that will generate the excitement they deserve. There is usually nothing fixed to them at all; when there is something, it tends to be the wrong thing. There was a lot fixed to the Iglesia de San Francisco el Grande, which stood at the end of the long traffic-choked Carrera de
The walls and ceilings of the church are decorated with nineteenth-century frescoes and paintings, except those in the chapels of saints Anthony and Bernardino, which date from the eighteenth century. The Capilla de
The information gave no hint as to how curiosity might arise. It was as mute as the fly on Humboldt’s mountain. If a traveller was to feel personally involved with (rather than guiltily obedient towards) ‘the walls and ceilings of the church decorated with nineteenth- century frescoes and paintings. . .‘, he or she would have to be able to connect these facts—as boring as a fly—with one of the large, blunt questions to which genuine curiosity must be anchored.
For Humboldt, the question had been, ‘Why are there regional variations in nature?’ For the person standing before the Iglesia de
A danger of travel is that we may see things at the wrong time, before we have had an opportunity to build up the necessary receptivity, so that new information is as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connecting chain.
The risk is compounded by geography, in the way that cities contain buildings or monuments that may be only a few feet apart in space but are leagues apart in terms of what is required to appreciate them. Having made a journey to a place we may never revisit, we feel obliged to admire a sequence of things which have no connection to one another besides a geographic one and a proper understanding of which would require a range of qualities unlikely to be found in any one person. We are asked to be curious about Gothic architecture on one street and then promptly fascinated by Etruscan archaeology on the next.
The visitor to Madrid, for example, is expected to be interested both in the Palacio Real, an eighteenth-century royal residence famed for its chambers decorated with lavish rococo chinoiserie by the Neapolitan designer Gasparini, and—a few moments later—in the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, a whitewashed gallery devoted to twentieth-century art, whose highlight is Picasso’s Guernica. Yet the natural progression for someone deepening his or her appreciation of eighteenth-century royal architecture would be to ignore the gallery altogether and head for the palaces of
Travel twists our curiosity according to a superficial geographical logic, as superficial as if a university course were to prescribe books according to their size rather than subject matter.
Towards the end of his life, his South American adventures long behind him, Humboldt complained, with a mixture of self-pity and pride, ‘People often say that I’m curious about too many things at once: botany, astronomy, comparative anatomy. But can you really forbid a man from harbouring a desire to know and embrace everything that surrounds him?’
We cannot, of course, forbid such a thing; a pat on the back feels more appropriate. But our admiration for Humboldt’s journey may not preclude our feeling a degree of sympathy for those who, even in the most fascinating cities, have occasionally been visited by a strong wish to remain in bed and take the next flight home.