Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin's Lost Notebooksby Lyanda Lynn Haupt
By focusing mostly on the birds Charles Darwin observed, and by brilliantly mining his lesser-known writings, Haupt pens a startlingly fresh exploration of the man's genius that invites readers to look at the world with new eyes.
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Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent
By Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Little, BrownCopyright © 2006 Lyanda Lynn Haupt
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDarwin's Bump of Reverence
Himantopus, legs rose pink. This bird is very numerous, in small; & sometimes in tolerably large flocks. On the great swampy plains and fens between the Sierra Ventana & B. Ayres. The genus has been wrongfully accused of inelegance; the appearance of one of these birds when walking about shallow water, which appears to be its favourite resort, is far from awkward. - Ornithological Notes, maldonado, May 1833
Darwin watched Black-winged Stilts on the wide, swampy fens of Maldonado, near Buenas Ayres on the east coast of South America. "Legs rose pink" are the first words set down in his notes on the species. Though the bird's slender body and long neck are a vivid, contrasty black and- white, it is the legs of the bird that demand a watcher's first attentions, for they are improbably long - nearly sixteen inches long, with just a few inches of bird perched on top. The eyes are ringed in the same lipstick-rose pink that colors the legs and bill, giving the bird a gentle, wide-eyed look. Though Darwin was sure that he was seeing a species of the genus Himantopus, he was not positive about its specific name. When Darwin returned to London at the close of his journey, the ornithologist John Gould helped himto determine the name current in his time, Himantopus nigrocollis, water bird with a black neck, which today is called Himantopus himantopus. The North American variant is the Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus.
The Himantopus stilts are loud. "Their cry," Darwin scribbled in his notes describing the collective flock, "is curiously alike to a little dog giving tongue when in full chace." In the Zoology, Darwin's imagery is still more vivid: "When I travelled across the plains, I was more than once startled, when lying awake at night, at the distant sound, and thought the wild Indians were coming." After one such poor night's sleep, Darwin watched the stilts some more. He saw that they gathered most often in small flocks, but sometimes in fair numbers; that they waded in shallow waters, picking invertebrates from the muddy substrate; that their necks curved and reached - long, smooth, and delicate.
Earlier writers had been taken in by the long legs and their seeming disproportion alongside the species' slender body. Stilts were considered gawky and maladroit. But this is not what Darwin saw. Directly belying much better-known ornithologists, Darwin wrote that the stilt's gait is "far from awkward," that it had been "wrongfully accused of inelegance."
When I set off down the interstate, heading from my home state of Washington toward my first year of graduate studies in Colorado, I had never seen a Black-necked Stilt, and this was something of an embarrassment. I was supposed to be an active birder, and stilts actually nest in Washington State, albeit very locally and in small numbers. In 1977 drought conditions in California and Nevada, where stilts are much more common, forced the birds northward into Oregon and Washington. Irrigation of Washington's central basin had recently created a mosaic of small ponds hospitable to the stilts during their breeding season. And though I loved shorebirds above all others and would often go far out of my way to observe them, as far as stilts were concerned, I had simply never been in the right place at the right time. So when I saw a group of seven Black-necked Stilts just off the highway in central Utah, I swerved, stopped, jumped out, and pulled my spotting scope from the trunk, truly thrilled and astonished.
The species is common in Utah, but stilts were the furthest thing from my mind on that wide, rocky, golden expanse of earth, hot in the August sun in my un-air conditioned Subaru. I was trying to enjoy the astonishing landscape but was hopelessly distracted and believed I was melting. A child of northwest forests, I was a complete heat wimp. I had rigged a beach towel to cover the sunroof, trying to get some shade, and it kept falling on my head. I was hungry, headachy, and pathetic. Then, suddenly and incomprehensibly, there were the stilts, lifting their thin red legs up and down around a tiny, mysterious puddle. I couldn't figure this puddle out. It didn't seem deep enough to survive five more minutes of the sun without evaporating into the ether. And it was surrounded by a small but depressing heap of garbage. All of it was incongruous in the midst of this rocky world that, except for the birds, was entirely the same color of gold.
This, I was sure even at the time, was a know-nothing attitude. Surely the gold surrounding me must not be simply gold but shades of red, brown, and other colors with names I do not even know. Just as natives of the far north have several names for snow, and just as I, incredulous at a friend from the East Coast who, on a walk through the Olympic rain forest of coastal Washington, said to me, "All these birds are boring, and brown," raised my eyes in mock horror, asking "Boring? Brown?" Good heavens, let us forget the extravagant and obvious example of the yellow-black-and-white Townsend's Warbler and consider the exquisite subtlety of the Winter Wren, Fox Sparrow, Swainson's Thrush, Spotted Owl, and Marbled Murrelet, all arrayed in the splendor of fawn, beige, taupe, olive, brick, tawny, ocher, and cedar, all twining seamlessly with the soft damp of their enormous surroundings.
So I saw stilts - startling white, black, and rose against bright, hot gold - and I watched them, smiling, with sweaty wetness covering my body and running down the center of my back. Though the shoulder of the highway was wide and I was far out of the way of traffic, cars and semi trucks honked noisily at me, as if they could not comprehend such stupidity. A freckled waif standing on the side of the road, watching a heap of litter with a telescope. I took a lesson from the stilts, who were entirely unfazed, stepping neatly over the garbage, lifting glittery wet feet out of their round, simple puddle. Soon I entirely forgot the cars, my nearly empty gas tank, the tickle of sweat, and even the wild gold of Utah. One of the stilts looked straight at me. "He was right," I whispered, "you are elegant."
These days it is common for writers to speak of the longnecked waders as possessing a certain grace. But Darwin's mentors did not see the birds this way, and for his time Darwin's outlook was fresh, and full of poetry. Once he got his bearings on the Beagle, moving beyond his initial tentantiveness and beginning a new life as a naturalist in his own right, Darwin was never afraid to step beyond, or even completely trample, anything that had been written before him. Fifty years later he would list this tendency as one of his most favorable personal characteristics. "I am not apt," he wrote in his slender memoir, "to follow blindly the lead of other men."
Where his teachers saw a shorebird perched unceremoniously upon too-long legs, why did the young Darwin see elegance? Why, I could just as easily ask, did Darwin come to see evolution by natural selection where the best scientists of his time saw a heap of mockingbird specimens, a mess of organisms covering the earth, living discrete, unconnected lives? The first question is simpler, but I am inclined to believe that the answers are alike.
Darwin first observed Black-winged Stilts in May 1833, one and a half years into his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle. The bird he killed for his scientific collection at Maldonado was specimen number 1,221 in a running list that included rocks, insects, fossils, marine invertebrates, birds, fish, reptiles, and some mammals. It was the sixty-ninth bird skin Darwin had prepared. Each specimen was carefully preserved, named to the best of his ability at the time, described in as much detail as his observations would allow, and pondered in the recesses of his seasick head. And though in his continuing conversion as a naturalist Darwin came to rely above all on observation of the living animal, he would eventually amass and describe over five thousand specimens. He was careful, attentive, and rigorous and seemed truly born to this kind of work. Still, by the time he packed away his stilt skin to be shipped to London for further study, Darwin was impressed, perhaps even stupefied, by his own industry. And so was everyone else.
When Charles presented his rather imposing father with his opportunity to join the HMS Beagle as a naturalist on its journey around the world, Dr. Robert Darwin was unimpressed. It merely reinforced the belief he had been nursing since Charles's shunning of the medical career he had been groomed for, that the desultory youth was "interested in nothing but shooting and dogs." (It wasn't entirely fair, of course-young Charles was also an accomplished beetle collector!) He had essentially squandered his time in medical school at Edinburgh. He had transferred to Cambridge to prepare for the clergy-a respectable occupation for a member of the landed gentry and one that would afford Darwin plenty of time for naturalist endeavors and the comfortable raising of a family. At Cambridge Darwin pursued his natural history interests and made a mentor of the brilliant botanist John Henslow. His grades were admirable, but he remained intellectually indifferent to studies outside the natural sciences. It is little wonder that his father was concerned.
"You will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family," Robert Darwin told the son who would one day be royally entombed at Westminster Abbey. The doctor composed an imaginative list of objections, amusing in hindsight, that, for all their disapproval, betrayed a sincere affection for Charles. The voyage was a "wild scheme," a "useless undertaking," and "disreputable" to Charles's character as a clergyman. Not only that, but being on a ship was just like being in a "gaol," "with the disadvantage of being drowned."
Charles Darwin was a respectful son (and besides, he needed Dr. Darwin's funding to make the trip), and, shattered by his father's lack of support, he immediately composed a letter refusing the post. Darwin's uncle Josiah Wedgwood, whose famous porcelain graced the table of the queen, was much more jovial and down-to-earth than the doctor. Charles took his father's list of objections to his uncle, and they went through it together, Josiah writing his own letter refuting the list point by point. The clincher was rather philosophical. Certainly the voyage would be "useless as regards his profession," Uncle Jos wrote to his brother-in-law, "but looking upon him as a man of enlarged curiosity, it affords him such an opportunity of seeing men and things as happens to few." The doctor, respectful of Josiah's common sense and perhaps aware of his own tendency toward overreaction and rigidity, relented. I doubt that he stopped nursing his certainty of Darwin's ultimate failure, but at least he managed to mask his concerns with doctorly advice: "For seasickness, eat raisins."
Darwin boarded the Beagle at the invitation of Captain FitzRoy, who was hoping to find some "well-educated and scientific person" who might offer insight into the geological and biological dimensions of the journey. Though he was only twenty-six years old, and though he suffered severely from the manic depression that seemed to be a family trait, FitzRoy was an accomplished sailor. Darwin's rather aimless studies at Edinburgh and Cambridge contrasted sharply with FitzRoy's fastidious industry. Even so, Darwin came strongly recommended by the Cambridge network, and FitzRoy was desperate for a companion, one whom he might relate to as a gentleman rather than as a naval officer. Such a person might alleviate some of the loneliness that inhabits a naval captain's post. FitzRoy was well aware of the suicide in his family history- in the throes of a deep depression his maternal uncle had slit his own throat. Even harder to dismiss was the unshakable image of the Beagle's previous captain, who, unable to withstand the stress and desolation of running a ship for years at sea, stood in the captain's quarters and shot himself in the head. I imagine FitzRoy stepping into that cabin alone after taking possession of the Beagle. It had been scrubbed and fitted with gleaming new mahogany. Still, he is a young Lady Macbeth, rubbing compulsively at blood that is not there but that refuses to disappear. FitzRoy moved the captain's quarters to the other end of the ship.
In their meetings before the voyage, Darwin and FitzRoy generally thought well of each other. Darwin was uncharacteristically enthusiastic, perhaps in an effort to allay his father's fears. "Cap FitzRoy is in town and I have seen him," Darwin wrote in a letter home. "It is no use attempting to praise him as much as I feel inclined to do, for you would not believe me.-One thing I am certain of nothing could be more open and kind than he was to me." Darwin had no idea that although FitzRoy quite liked him, he almost dismissed Darwin as his choice companion because of the shape of his nose.
Phrenology, the belief in a relationship between a person's character and the morphology of the skull, was trendy in the nineteenth century, rather like astrology in the 1970s. Everybody had heard of it, most knew a little something about it, many were very knowledgeable, and a few were entirely taken in by it, planning their lives and choosing their friends according to the various bumps on their heads. Like most in his social milieu, Darwin was in the "knew a little something about it" group, but even as a young man he possessed a no-nonsense sort of intelligence that kept his bemused awareness from progressing into any deeper kind of interest or belief. Captain FitzRoy, though, was a bit of a phrenology aficionado
* * *
Darwin's nose had always been quite bulbous. He was well aware of this, had never liked his nose, and considered it his least attractive physical feature. (In his younger days, this was probably an accurate assessment, but as he grew older and his brow bulged farther out over his eyes, the entire shape of his face was disconcerting. Eventually he grew a nice soft beard, which balanced things out.) At their first dinner, Captain FitzRoy, eager to approve of Darwin, could not help taking surreptitious note of Darwin's head shape in general, and his nose in particular. Large, soft, a bit drooped - this was a lazy nose. And as any phrenologist knew, the nose was an indicator of the capacity for personal industry and overall sturdiness of character. In light of the arduous journey that lay ahead, Darwin's nose boded ill.
But Mr. Darwin seemed such a good, upstanding fellow! From a decent family, and clearly a gentleman! A rare chap who could share the young captain's love of geology and Jane Austen! The departure date was approaching, and three other potential companions had turned the position down. FitzRoy would overlook the nose and hope for the best.
In the first weeks of the journey he surely wondered over his choice. Darwin had no sea legs whatsoever, and he required instruction on the smallest of details. He couldn't even get into his hammock without help, and once he did get in, he scarcely got out again, racked as he was by the headaches and nausea of perpetual seasickness. Darwin was too sick even to drag himself up on deck to see the first bit of land approached by the Beagle, the shores of Tenerife, one of the places he most longed to visit. He confessed to his father, "The misery I endured from sea-sickness is far far beyond what I ever guessed at." Poor Darwin lay in his hammock day and night, nibbling raisins.
Excerpted from Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent by Lyanda Lynn Haupt Copyright ©2006 by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Excerpted by permission.
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