As a young man Darwin read about Humboldt’s adventures in the tropical forests (see Darwin on Humboldt). With his friends back in England he plotted a trip to the Canary Islands to revel in it’s lush forests . He dreamed about trees and longed for dense greens, as he chipped away at rocks in the grassy Cape Verde Islands or trekked on mantle rocks in the barren islets of St. Paul’s Rocks. In Fernando de Noronha he got a taste of their potential beauty. But on February 28th, Darwin’s dreams finally came true.
I can picture the call of “land ho” in the early morning, and Darwin running up on deck and watching the horizon turn from a thin line, to a hazy green blob, to a defined coastline with trees, birds, rocks, etc. I’ve not sailed in the tropics, but have approached more northern coastlines in the haze of morning light and watched as the forest slowly comes into focus.
This was the first time in his life that Darwin set eyes on the tropical forests of the New World and it was wonderful. Any homesickness he might have been feeling seemed to evaporate away (at least in the pages of his journal). His very first description reads:
“About 9 oclock we were near to the coast of Brazil; we saw a considerable extent of it, the whole line is rather low & irregular, & from the profusion of wood & verdure of a bright green colour.” (Feb 28)
Nothing about these forests was ordinary to Darwin – he had never seen anything like them before. Even the words he chose to describe them were not ordinary. He could just call them green, but instead chooses to use the word “verdure” , which means ” the greenness of growing vegetation” or interestingly, ” a condition of health and vigor” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). You might even say that after weeks of seasickness, Darwin himself displayed a “youthful verdure” as he marveled in the “verdure of a bright green color”.
Yet he goes on to imply that the true beauty of these forests cannot be captured in words, or even in paintings. (I dare note even corrupt his imagery with a photo today.) He writes:
“It would be difficult [to] imagine, before seeing the view, anything so magnificent. — It requires, however, the reality of nature to make it so. —if faithfully represented in a picture, a feeling of distrust would be raised in the mind” (Feb 28)
And even more amazingly, he notes that not even Humboldt, his idol, could not do them justice;
“I believe from what I have seen Humboldts glorious descriptions are & will for ever be unparalleled: but even he with his dark blue skies & the rare union of poetry with science which he so strongly displays when writing on tropical scenery, with all this falls far short of the truth.” (Feb 28)
Even the city of Bahia (Salvador today), is made more beautiful by being a part of the forest. He notes:
“The town is fairly embosomed in a luxuriant wood & situated on a steep bank overlooks the calm waters of the great bay of All Saints. The houses are white & lofty & from the windows being narrow & long have a very light & elegant appearance. … in short the view is one of the finest in the Brazils. ” (Feb 28)
Though ever the naturalist, Darwin has to add, “But their beauties are as nothing compared to the Vegetation”.
In the end, Darwin’s excitement and sense of wonder speak for itself, so rather than say more, I’ll end today’s post in his own words – his own “rare union of poetry and science” on being in the New World at last:
“The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind. —if the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butter-fly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect one forgets it in the stranger flower it is crawling over. — if turning to admire the splendour of the scenery, the individual character of the foreground fixes the attention. The mind is a chaos of delight, out of which a world of future & more quiet pleasure will arise. — I am at present fit only to read Humboldt; he like another Sun illumines everything I behold.” (Feb 28)