Scholar among Romantics, Romantic among scholars: the multiple lives of poet-explorer-botanist Adalbert von Chamisso

French expat in Germany, Romantic poet, and Pacific-Arctic explorer, he wrote the first-ever book on Hawaiian grammar in 1837, figured out how coral atolls are formed, and Deforest Kelley – Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy – starred in an American TV adaptation of his magical realist novel. Adalbert von Chamisso led one of the most extraordinary lives of all time. His astonshing discoveries in ecology have never been discussed in English until now.

A digression into the history of ecology and colonialism. Usually this blog covers current environmental issues in Germany that should be of interest in any country. But recently I asked Germany’s largest conservation organization for examples of anything good the Berlin administration is doing to protect its rivers and water supply and they said there aren’t any. Hence a look back.

In 2019, when the Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton conglomerate bought the building housing the Waikiki branch of the First Hawaiian Bank, they were intending to demolish a 100-foot-long mural in it that was painted in 1951 by a French-Mexican artist from the circle of Diego Rivera.

The mural, titled Early Cultural Exchanges Between Hawaii and the Outer World, depicted among other events another French artist in Hawaii, in 1816, painting the only existing portrait from life of King Kamehameha I, the first to unify the Hawaiian islands and Hawaii’s “national” hero. Continue reading “Scholar among Romantics, Romantic among scholars: the multiple lives of poet-explorer-botanist Adalbert von Chamisso”

What plant is that? Ingenious efforts to make identification easier


One symptom of our society’s decreasing connection with nature is that hardly anyone knows the names of plants any more. Until a few decades ago, significant portions of the population knew their local flora because people spent more time outside and had more contact with the natural world, and the subject was taught in schools. Today, plant identification and local flora have not only all but disappeared from schools but even from universities – even from botany departments. I have Masters in botany and a Ph.D. in ecology and received barely any training at all in field skills – it was pretty much all lab science. Birding is still widely popular of course, and is even attracting a newer, younger, urban generation of enthusiasts. But plant identification is having no such resurgence.

Plant identification is hard. There are 40 times more species of plants than birds in the world so the pool to be narrowed down is much larger. You’d think plants would be easier to identify than birds because they don’t move and you can get as close as you want to them, for as long as you want. Sadly, that’s not much help.

This post is about how botanists have tried to make plant identification easier and in the process created small masterpieces of information design. Continue reading “What plant is that? Ingenious efforts to make identification easier”

Book Report: Early nature conservation in Germany

Two remarkable finds from a flea market last week are fascinating evidence of how the interactions between people and nature were recognized very early on in Germany, at least in comparison to other Western cultures including the United States, despite its early accomplishments in nature protection. (Interesting, this recognition is meagre in Germany nowadays but that’s beyond our scope here.) These are two books for popular audiences, from 1921 and 1939, that combine ecology, geography, botany and cultural history in a way that, to the best of my knowledge, didn’t appear in the U.S. until some decades later.

Continue reading “Book Report: Early nature conservation in Germany”