Vol. 19, No. 33

June 8, 2000

Geographer featured in BBC documentary on Humboldt

When Edmunds Bunkse, geography, wrote an essay in the 1970s on the career of explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt, the UD professor had no idea that it would lead to a part in the making of a documentary on the life of the famous German scientist.

Bunkse, along with Sir David Attenborough, is one of the presenters in the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) film series,Wilderness Men.

The one-hour segment on which Bunkse appears, Alexander von Humboldt: Natural Traveller, will be aired in England June 14, on BBC Channel 2.

Filmed on location in North and South American locales, with dramatizations filmed in the BBC's London studios, the film is produced and directed by Peter Nicholson.

"About one year ago, I received a message from Peter Nicholson,who told me he was doing a film on Alexander von Humboldt," Bunkse said. "Nicholson had discovered I had written an essay on Humboldt and wanted to know if I would like participating in the film."

The offer came as a complete surprise to Bunkse, who said he had not touched on the work of Humboldt for more than 20 years.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is considered one of the most famous thinkers of the Napoleonic era for his contributions to the study of the natural sciences.

"Humboldt was the last great scientist to combine art and science in his work," Bunkse said. "He also was the most famous scientist before Charles Darwin, and he actually died in 1859, the year Darwin published his famous work, The Origin of Species."

In fact, the film begins with a quote from Darwin: "I formally admired Humboldt, now I almost adore him."

In 1799, with his friend, the botanist Aime' Bonpland, Humboldt embarked on a five-year odyssey among the rain forests and mountainous regions of the South American continent.

In a journal entry just before his departure, Humboldt stated his goals, which included the collection of plants and animals, analyzing heat and electricity and the measuring of magnetic content.

His true purpose however, was to "study the interaction of all the forces of nature.... I must find out about the unity of nature."

On the expedition, the pair did study the plant and animal life of the llanos and rain forests along the Orinco River, and they eventually reached the common waters of that river and the Amazon.

It was on this trip that Humblot and Bonpland confirmed the existence of the Cassiquaire, a natural canal linking the mighty Amazon to the Orinco River.

Despite nearly perishing in the tropical rain forests, they survived to climb Mount Chimborazo, (19,286 feet), setting a world record that lasted for 36 years.

After reaching the west coast of South America, Humboldt traversed the coastline, measuring the temperature of the Pacific Ocean current now named in his honor.

After their South American sojurn, the scientists visited Cuba and Mexico before reaching Philadelphia in 1804, where Humboldt sent a letter to President Thomas Jefferson, who invited him to Monticello.

"Humboldt was a great admirer of American democracy," Bunkse said. "He also hated slavery and supported small revolutions in Europe during 1848, something unusual for members of his class."

Humboldt's accomplishments include the discovery that the Earth's magnetic force decreases in intensity from the poles to the equator. However, his most important contribution was the idea of "unity in the variety of nature," a concept that was a precursor to ecologic thought.

Bunkse's contribution to the film involved shooting a segment in a television studio in Washington, D.C., about five blocks east of the U. S. Capitol Building

Nicholson's crew arrived in the nation's capital, still smarting from scores of insect bites they had received on location in the rain forests of Latin America.

"It was tough going for me, being in front of the camera," Bunkse said. "The crew had me talk about several themes, and they did a good job of getting me through this."

Feeling like a college student who overstudies for a final exam, Bunkse said he spent several months after the session worrying about his performance until a message from Nicholson put him at ease. He added that "Previews of the film by BBC staff had received enthusiastic reviews.

"For myself, I did not like my performance the first time I saw it on the tape," Bunkse said. "After watching it several times, I think I did just fine."

In addition to coming to terms with his stint before the camera, Bunkse said he was pleased with the way the director managed to convey the eloquence of Humboldt's writings and the magnitude of his scientific discoveries.

"This film shows a step in the development of modern science," Bunkse said, "it recreates the excitement of the heroic explorations that occurred during the late 18th and early 19th centuries."

Although the Wilderness Men documentary reestablished his connection to Humboldt, Bunkse said the main focus of his scholarship during the past decade has been on events taking place in Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Bunkse described these efforts in a 1999 article, "Reality of Rural Landscape Symbolism in the Formation of a Post-Soviet, Postmodern Latvian Identity," published in Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift-Norwegian Journal of Geography.

In addition to his classroom duties, Bunkse is working on a new book, Geography and the Art of Life, for Johns Hopkins University Press.

When teaching, Bunkse said he tries to instill in students a desire to examine the complex relationship between society and the environment in an age where supra-national organizations and forces tend to blur political and cultural boundaries.

"My role is to bring to students the notion that there is more to an education than learning to solve problems," Bunkse said. "While that is important, we also need to know what moves us as human beings and how this affects our relationship to our environment."

— Jerry Rhodes