Ecology on the Ground and in the Clouds

Aimé Bonpland and Alexander von Humboldt

By Andrea Nye

Subjects: Environmental Philosophy, History, Public Policy, Postcolonial Studies
Series: SUNY series in Environmental Philosophy and Ethics
Hardcover : 9781438487014, 372 pages, January 2022
Paperback : 9781438487007, 372 pages, July 2022

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Table of contents


Part I: Setting Out

1. Close Encounter at a Paris Boarding House

2. A Walk across Spain and a Climb Up a Volcano

Part II: The Voyage

3. Aerial Views, Nocturnal Birds, and Wild Indians

4. The Eel Ponds of the Llanos

5. Riverworlds

6. The Mountain

7. The Changing of the Gods

Part III: The Return

8. Coming Home

9. Tales of Three Cities

10. Botany on Demand

11. Taking Leave

Part IV: Worlds Apart

12. A Lost Friend

13. Warlords and Kings

14. Cosmos and Microcosm

15. A Last Exchange of Gifts

16. Scattered Remains

Afterthoughts: A Bonplandian Ethos

Primary Sources

Follows Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland as they travel together in South America and then go their separate ways, in the process illustrating two very different ways of understanding humanity's place in the natural world.


In Ecology on the Ground and in the Clouds, Andrea Nye raises a question: In a time of climate change and environmental crisis, where should we look for inspiration? Is it to Alexander von Humboldt, the "inventor of nature" who viewed the cosmos from the lofty peak of Mount Chimborazo? Or is it to Humboldt's travel partner, the botanist Aimé Bonpland, who left Europe behind for forty years of conservation, agroforestry, and cooperative farming in the newly independent Republic of Argentina? For Bonpland, order and harmony are not unveiled with European reason and insight; they are made on the ground by intelligent, honorable, and diverse working men and women. Cosmos is not a hidden balance of nature; it is order in thought and action that ensures what we do is coherent and for the common good. It is fair and efficient government, just adjudication of disputes, and good management. It is loving attention to intricate "cogs and wheels" of natural processes at the same time as imagining new forms of beauty and stability in human communities and working landscapes.

Andrea Nye is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She is the author of many books, including Socrates and Diotima: Sexuality, Religion, and the Nature of Divinity.


"Well-researched and deeply nuanced, this book presents a wealth of substantive material on the relationship between Aimé Bonpland and Alexander von Humboldt. Nye offers a fresh alternative to works that understate Bonpland's role, restoring his life and work to the foreground. The book's binding theme—the contrast between Bonpland's pragmatic proto-environmentalism and Humboldt's 'cosmic' idealism—richly deserves our attention. At times stirring and poignant, Nye's account is relevant for those seeking to understand the deep roots of sustainability thinking." —Curt Meine, author of Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work

"Andrea Nye significantly augments and balances biographical scholarship on Alexander von Humboldt. By properly crediting Humboldt's travel companion and coauthor Aimé Bonpland, Nye's book corrects and enriches the often singular recognition of Humboldt. Moreover, Ecology on the Ground and in the Clouds successfully compares the two men's respective styles of research to refine our thinking about the very nature of environmentalism." — Nicolaas A. Rupke, author of Alexander von Humboldt: A Metabiography