Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America

Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America

by Eric Simons

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This entertaining combination of history, biography, and travel adventure is “a bracingly fresh portrait [of] Darwin . . . Nothing less than exhilarating” (Michael Pollan, New York Times–bestselling author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma).
One snowy day in Ushuaia, Argentina, Eric Simons picked up a copy of Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle. Simons had just hiked the mountains overlooking Beagle Channel, and found himself engrossed in Darwin’s surprisingly relatable account. Like Simons, Darwin had been in his mid-twenties when he traveled to South America in search of adventure. Inspired, Simons went further into South America, exploring the histories, legends, and people that had fascinated Darwin himself two centuries before.
In Darwin Slept Here, Simons journeys in the footsteps of one of the fathers of modern science, introducing readers to “a refreshingly different Darwin: a twenty-something traveler fond of hurling iguanas into the sea and charging up any tall peak he could find” (Outside Magazine).
“Hard to put Simons’ book down—lighthearted adventures that keep a reader wanting more.” —San Francisco Chronicle

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590205426
Publisher: ABRAMS (Ignition)
Publication date: 01/22/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 685,791
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Eric Simons is a contributor to NPR's Radiolab and lives in San Francisco.

Read an Excerpt



A Chaos of Delights

I do not know what epithet such scenery deserves: beautiful is much too tame; every form, every colour is such a complete exaggeration of what one has ever beheld before. If it may be so compared, it is like one of the gayest scenes in the Opera House or Theatre.


BRAZIL IS THE KIND OF PLACE where you feel something's happening that's absolutely delightful and fascinating and completely foreign to everything you know, only you can't quite grasp what it is. That weird paranoia is amplified by the stunningly disorienting scenery of places like Rio de Janeiro, where huge, smooth cones of rock swoop up and down, clad in a thriving blend of palms, ferns, cactuses, and scrubby bushes, while the glittering jumble of city runs right up to — even into — famous mountain landmarks rising out of the water.

I started my voyage with Brazil because that's where Darwin started his and because it was that exhilarating landscape that stood out most in his mind as he reflected on his trip later, as an old man. Also, as I soon found out, there was an easy comparison to make between Darwin's take on the new nature around him and my own adrenaline-fueled excitement at Brazil's crazily, incomprehensibly, wonderfully different city landscape.

The feeling I was missing something only increased as I tried to adjust to Brazilian social life. A functional grasp of Spanish couldn't get me beyond "Hello, how are you?, The dog is green" conversations in Portuguese. I was bunking down in a cramped youth hostel in Botafogo and had trouble connecting with my hostel mates, who tended to divide into camps of 1) fluent Portuguese speakers from Europe and North America who had immersed themselves in Brazilian life and did things like teaching in schools and looking down upon us ignorant gringos, 1a) not-yet-fluent Portuguese speakers who were dating Brazilians and looked down on us ignorant gringos, and 2) blissfully ignorant gringos whose knowledge of Brazil started and stopped with an aesthetic appreciation of the thong bikini.

For dorm roommates I had drawn a preening, chiseled German and an aloof Frenchman. The German liked to strut around the room in a Speedo and, while admiring his rippling bronzed abs, lecture us about the club scene in heavily accented Tarzan-style English. "So there is this place I went to last night where the cover was 120 reales," he told us. The Frenchman raised an eyebrow at the cost, to which the German quickly added, "But you can drink up to 100 of it. And it is worth it just to see it. They have the most beautiful girls there."

The floor near the German's bed was littered with wrinkled-up napkins used to capture names and phone numbers. "Flavia," whose napkin had blown over in my direction and lay face up on the floor, had taken the time to write hearts around her number.

When the German took an interest in what I was doing in Brazil, however, I left him baffled by saying I wanted to go to the Tijuca National Park.

"What's that?"

"Hiking," I said. "In the rainforest, in the mountains. Want to come?"

"Oh no," he said. "Not for me. I'm going to the beach again. Have you seen the girls on the beach?" He clicked his tongue and gave me a thumbs- up.

Both roommates were asleep — Tarzan sprawled out in his briefs, sheet pushed away — when I tiptoed out early on a gray, humid Thursday morning. Botafogo was a one-time suburb of Rio where Darwin had taken a cottage to use as a peaceful base for trips into the surrounding jungle, and it had since vanished — along with Rio's other suburbs — under an onslaught of humanity and cinder block. I boarded a bus headed north, to Tijuca, where I expected to find not just a Darwin site, but a remnant of tropical forest, and a much-needed dose of natural tranquility. We lurched and honked our way along in a cloud of exhaust, past vendors and flapping flags emblazoned with the Brazilian national motto, "Order and Progress."

Order did not exist here the way it does in other countries. Sidewalks all over town blinked in and out of existence like a demonstration of quantum theory, ending abruptly, sometimes starting again a few blocks later, but certainly following no predictable pattern. Houses of various and dissonant architectural styles leaned on one another. Glass medical centers clung to the gabled offices of massage therapists, which cast their shadows on brown adobe liquor stores. Street vendors hawked batteries, scissors, pirated DVDs, cell phones, peanuts, coconuts, electric sanders, and leather-covered steering wheels, in case drivers wanted to pimp their ride mid-commute. And then the Brazilians — tanned, lean people in shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops everywhere, all on their way somewhere. (I suppose, given the national motto, they were on their path to progress.) The hum of conversation mixed with the cries of the vendors, the rumble of idling motorcycles, the drone of airplanes and sightseeing helicopters, and the whines and sighs of trucks braking to stops and moving on again. Blasts of exhaust, sweat, grime, and dust joined the humidity to create a suffocating cloud. In the shade of the omnipresent buses, manic taxis, scooters, policemen, pushcarts, and bicycle delivery riders for "Bob's Burgers" competed for space on the street. One messenger company that dispatched riders to sites around the city was called, in English, "Boy Delivery."

While I struggled with a radically different version of social order, Darwin confronted in Brazil a radically different version of the natural world. Darwin hailed from a country that, after thousands of years of cultured habitation, had essentially become one big garden. A big cultivated garden in a cold climate. A two-month boat ride and he found himself sweating and marveling at an intensity of color he had never encountered outdoors before. Vegetation grew uncontrollably, in a way that seemed a direct challenge to a stiff-upper-lip-loving Englishman's sense of the universe, and his reaction to virgin forest pretty much mirrored my German roommate's reaction to the girls on the beach: "Delight is however a weak term for such transports of pleasure" and "I can only add raptures to the former raptures." He concluded his diary entry from his second day in Brazil with "Full of enjoyment one fervently desires to live in retirement in this new & grander world."

In the 1830s, Rio de Janeiro amounted to a whole lot of neat monolithic rock formations with jungle covering everything in between. Twelve million people later, the city forced its will on what little natural spaces remained, presenting its own profusion of growth — an urban mirror to the bursting vegetation of Darwin's day. Now tall, clean skyscrapers rose above all else, lifeless towers of cement and steel punctuating the swarming, sweltering, steamy mess below, competing for attention with forest-clad mountain peaks in the background. It was the pure state of nature, still — just the "nasty, brutish and short" Hobbesian version.

After my forest-bound bus had lurched through that tumult for more than an hour, crammed streets gave way to a shadier, quieter neighborhood. The road climbed a winding hill, with thick tropical foliage hanging over the road. Gated driveways led to fantastic houses overlooking the skyscrapers and curving white sand beaches below. ("On the road, the scenery was very beautiful," Darwin declared from the same spot, "especially the distant view of Rio.") At the top of the hill, in a tranquil neighborhood called Alto da Boa Vista, another long gated driveway curled into the Tijuca National Park like the entrance to a wonderful tropical mansion. A creek and verdant forest, infused with the pure smells of tropical flowers and wet soil, quickly surrounded everything.

A guide introduced himself as Jean Marx Muñiz Belvedere and politely broke into my reverie to invite me on a walk through the forest. To get him talking in English, which he claimed to be uncomfortable with, I asked what he had done before he came to the park. "I was an artist," he said. "How you say, trapezista?"

He swung his arms and flashed a sly half-grin.

"A trapeze artist?" I said.

"Yes," he said matter-of-factly. "That's right."

To him, this was perfectly normal. This was one of those times when I felt I was missing something. When you finally do find someone to talk to in Brazil, he makes it sound like everyone local just happened to have a past that involved circus performances.

Jean the former trapeze-artist looked stereotypically Brazilian — tanned olive skin, hirsute, toned limbs, a head of short, dark, curly hair, and a perpetual humid-jungle fog on his thin-rimmed glasses. I asked what he knew about Charles Darwin, and he asked me how much time I had for the answer.

It turned out he didn't ask because he was a Darwin expert, but because the best thing he could think of to do with my question was to take me hiking to the highest peak in the park, the 3,400-foot-tall Pico Tijuca. "It's where we traditionally take visitors," he said. "The ones who can walk. You can walk?"

There wasn't much in Darwin's own account to follow. On June 16, 1832, he left his cottage in Botafogo early in the morning to see the waterfalls in "Tijeuka." "Neither the height or the body of water is anything very imposing," he wrote, "but they are rendered beautiful, by the dampness so increasing the vegetation, that the water appears to flow out of one forest & to be received & hidden in another below."

Now the park's largest waterfall is the 115-foot-tall Cascatinha Taunay, and the main pathway into the park crosses a bridge directly below the falls. The rainy season was coming to a close and the waterfall was flowing fast, probably more so than in Darwin's time. Moss and jungle plants clung to life on the sheer rock face supporting the falls, while vines and creepers webbed their way over the top of the waterfall. From the top, water cascaded into a small pool, flowed downhill into a larger, calmer pool, and then joined the creek running down toward the entrance to the park.

I asked Jean how the waterfall might have looked in Darwin's time, and he surprised me. He said the park, in its present incarnation, was actually more jungly now than it was in 1832. Modern-day Parque Nacional Floresta Tijuca, Jean told me, was the result of a bold and successful environmental engineering project — one that dated to just after Darwin's visit. Rio de Janeiro's early history runs along the usual lines — backwater town booms when resources get discovered — but with a bit of a twist. The entire Portuguese royal family moved to the capital of their Brazilian territory when Napoleon invaded Portugal in 1808. The population of Rio boomed, and it kept expanding, carving rapaciously into the surrounding jungle in search of more land for plantations and suburbs. The entire forest where we stood admiring hundred-foot-tall trees that appeared ancient had been burned to the ground and turned into a coffee plantation. "Naked," Jean said, staring off into the jungle. "This entire spot was naked ."

In the mid-1810s, King John, who continued living in Rio after Napoleon's defeat, began to worry that the destruction would harm the city's water supply and issued orders that the land around streams be replanted with trees to guarantee a potable water supply. His commands went ignored until the springs that provided fresh water for the city went dry and Rio suffered four massive droughts. Darwin, who visited in 1832, missed these — the last had happened in 1829, and the next would hit in 1833 — and he didn't mention any water supply troubles. But the most severe dry spell, which occurred in 1844, finally convinced the government to act. By that time Brazil was independent from Portugal, and the country's new rulers decided to put some money and thought into conserving the forests and waterfalls of Tijuca. In this case, conserving meant replanting.

In 1861, Manuel Gomes Archer was named administrator of the Tijuca Forest project, and together with six slaves, he began to replant the forest. Archer had no formal training but was considered a local expert, and he decided to replant the area with native plants in roughly the same ratio he had seen in other Brazilian forests. Over the next twelve years, Archer's six slaves planted 72,000 trees. The springs, according to a report Archer prepared near the end of this administration, regained and retained their former water levels.

Jean told me that our trail was called the Major Archer trail. On the way into the park, I had seen a sculpture at the visitor's center of a man holding out a fresh, live bromeliad, and Jean explained that it honored the six slaves who returned Tijuca to the forest.

"Do you know what the word ecologia means?" Jean asked.

"Ecology? Sure. Why?"

"What does it mean?"

"I don't know. The study of ecosystems — plants and animals and the environment."

"No," Jean said, "what does it mean? What does eco mean?"

"Oh. I don't know. Environment?"

"Eco is Greek for house, home. Logia is Greek for study. Ecologia, ecology, is the study of your home. And what does economia mean? Eco — home — and onomia means organization. I give this talk to our volunteers the other day. I explain to them, how can you have your home organized if you do not study it?"

Jean was clearly at home in the forest. He hiked at a blistering pace, nimbly dodging fallen trees and leaping over creeks and, all the while, prattling merrily about flora and fauna and the kinds of things that might be lying in wait behind the rotting tree trunk I was using to pull myself up the muddy trail.

"Oh, yes, many snakes here," Jean said. "Only one very poisonous though."

"Oh," I said. "Ah."

"But she is — she don't like us. She knows we are more dangerous to her. She recognize the most dangerous animal on Earth." He chuckled at this line, and its English delivery, rubbing his hands in self- satisfaction.

Jean mentioned jacarei — crocodiles — which used to live in the swamps around Rio but now were gone except for the huge natural area in southwestern Brazil known as the Pantanal. He was sad about this. "Jacarei, they not want to eat you. Jacarei, they are good people."

And what about sharks, I wanted to know. I've long had a soft spot for the world's most feared apex predators.

"I like sharks," Jean agreed. "Sharks, they are good people too."

After about an hour, Jean called for a rest. I was panting, sopping with sweat. Jean's glasses had now fogged over completely. He indicated the ruins of a small brick house, buried in the jungle, and we wandered over there and sat down on the remains of a windowsill. Moss covered the outside, and the doors and windows were long gone. A landslide had pushed through the back window, and a banged-up refrigerator had taken root in the middle of the room. Jean told me that someone had lived in the house and had disappeared. His ghost supposedly roamed the forest. We looked out at the canopy.

"It's just a story," Jean said, misinterpreting my silence.

While he sprawled on the cool, mossy brick, I pulled out my copy of the Beagle diary and read out loud Darwin's account of the road up to Tijuca. In his typical style he had written: "As a Sultan in a Seraglio I am becoming quite hardened to beauty. It is wearisome to be in a fresh rapture at every turn of the road. And as I have before said, you must be that or nothing."

"Yes," said Jean, nodding as I explained the word rapture. "Very beautiful."

He pointed out some small lichens on a tree, little splotches of green with a bright pink outline. "They only grow where there is no pollution," he said. "The air here is good."

I told him that I felt suffocated by the city's constant commotion within hours of arriving, and mentioned my German roommate, who was no doubt at that very moment lying on the Copacabana in his Speedo, attracting girls like a Bob's burger set out for hungry seagulls.

"I understand," Jean said. "It was like that in the circus." Seer-coos, he said.

"Party all night, sleep during the day. For a long time, that was my life. Like so many people in Rio. I met this Italian guy a few weeks ago, who had been coming here every year for the last twenty years. He had married a girl here. And he had never heard of the Tijuca Forest. He just comes here every year to go to the beach. He told me, 'I don't like it here in the forest. It's too green. I feel suffocated here.'"


Excerpted from "Darwin Slept Here"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Eric Simons.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Page,
1. BRAZIL - A Chaos of Delights,
2: PORT DESIRE - Darwin's Rhea,
3: PORT SAN JULIAN - The Patagonian Myth,
4: RIVER SANTA CRUZ - The Terribly Uninteresting Land,
5: ENGLAND - One Last Frozen Image,
6: SALVADOR DA BAHIA - Beginning and End,
7: LA PLATA - In Darwin's Muddy Footsteps,
8: TIERRA DEL FUEGO - Darwin Visited (Near To) Here,
9: BAHIA BLANCA - The Gaucho Lifestyle,
10: SIERRA DE LA VENTANA - Cerro Tres Picos,
11: CHILOÉ - Charming Green Things That Don't Ooze,
12: VALDIVIA - The Apple Story,
13: CONCEPCIÓN - Shaken, Not Stirred,
14: PISCO ELQUI - Demon Cactuses,
15: ANDACOLLO - The Gold Mine,
16: BELL MOUNTAIN - From the Pacific to the Andes,
17: AMOLANAS HACIENDA - Darwin Slept Here,

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Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
JFBallenger on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is an account of the author's adventures retracing Charles Darwin's momentous expedition on the HMS Beagle, and a biographical essay on a scientific figure whose humanity, the author believes, has been obscured by the significance and controversy of his theory of evolution. Each chapter focuses on an important stop on Darwin's journey, comparing the author's experience today with Darwin's account of his voyage in the 1830s. Ultimately the book is refection on the lively sense of adventure that the author believes animates both travel and the exploration of the natural world. Simons account of hist travels are fun, and the glimpses he gives us of Darwin are interesting but shallow. His main point seems to be that Darwin wasn't the stuffed shirt history has made of him, but a fun dude that we'd have a blast with if we could travel with him today. Well, maybe. But Darwin's journey and the ides he forged from it were part of a much larger history. Looking back on Darwin's journey through the experience of a journey through contemporary South American would have been a golden opportunity to examine the complex social and cultural history of scientific knowledge in the European exploration and colonization of the New World. It's as though the author unearthed a great treasure but took only the few coins needed to have a good time.
zwelbast on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A travel book , biography and science work combined in a very enjoyable read. Did not know much about Darwin and this book helped me understand a little of Darwin and his theory in and 'easy' way. South America is descriped how i got to know it. (travelled there a few years ago) Wonderful continent.Recommended!
miamismartgirl09 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As a zoology student, I found Darwin Slept Here to be very interesting. I thought it had both a good balance of science writings, writing about Darwin and his journey and the journey that the author took, following Darwin's journey.Eric Simons took Darwin and made him into something everyone could understand. He made Dawrin loveable. A pleasant read, especially with Darwin's birthday is right around the corner (Darwin was born on 2-19-1809).
oldmanriver1951 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is something that one at first thinks of as an academic read, then laughingly discovers that this is not your father's darwin!. Eric Simons retraces Darwins path of his famous voyage in 1831, attempting to live the daily life that Darwin WOULD have led...except that we are given the nitty gritty of what was going on behind the scenes AFTER a day spent studying, sketching and classifying species...a real eye opener...an evolutionary page turner, if you don't mind a bit of literary liscense....
bluehwys on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book! I'm not too much of a non-fiction reader, but this book sounded interesting so I requested it. I'm happy to report that it was very entertaining! It was fun and funny, as well as being informative. I think this book would be a good jumping-off point to get people interested in Darwin and his works, and to encourage them to seek more information on the subject and to dig deeper. It's also a good, fun and entertaining read even if you don't decide to dig deeper into Darwin.
jjmcgaffey on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It was a very interesting book. The way it was organized - somewhat related in time to Darwin's travels, but not on Simons' timeline (that is, Simons explored the west coast of South America first, but told about it second because Darwin went down the east coast first) - was a little confusing. Also, the parts told out of sequence had all kinds of Darwin-related thoughts mentioned - it makes me wonder if he actually thought them at the time or merely came up with them to tie the older stories in with his Darwin trip. There was also a tendency to accept the myths about Darwin's trip - for instance, that he'd traveled as ship's naturalist (rather than captain's companion and amateur naturalist). I would have been interested to see what the real naturalist thought in some of those odd places. Nonetheless, there were both good stories of Simons' travel and interesting sidelights on and new (to me) knowledge about Darwin's explorations.One other point - I know it's an ARC, and they clearly know it's not finished (there are several bits of art and quotes missing, with notes 'to be inserted later'). Still, there were a lot of typos and slightly scrambled sentences. I hope they have at least a couple more copyediting and proofreading cycles before the book is released in final form.
Kittybee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Darwin Slept Here was an early reviewer book. I misplaced it, so I am a few months late in reading it, but I have finished it and enjoyed it very much. The book follows the author, Eric Simmons, as he flees a boring post graduation existence and travels to South America to travel in Darwin's footsteps and see the things Darwin saw. The light, humorous style of the book was very enjoyable to read and the descriptions of places visited made me want to set off on an adventure of my own.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago