Posted by: Rob Viens | February 29, 2012

Stranger in a Strange Land

Not surprisingly, on February 29th, Darwin is still swimming in the wonder of the forests (and this excitement remains prominent in his diaries for several days).  Today was another turning point as he notes:

“The day has passed delightfully: delight is however a weak term for such transports of pleasure: I have been wandering by myself in a Brazilian forest ” (Feb 29)

A stranger in a strange land, out on his own for the first time – it must have felt wonderful. I can still remember the first time I went to Alaska to do field work (after growing up in upstate New York).  Everything, I mean everything, was new and different.  Not more than two hours after arriving I was flying on a bush plane over thin forests, muskegs, and sandy rivers, and after an unbelievable sea plane landing on an iceberg choked lake, I unloaded my gear on a beach in front of a giant glacier (Bering Glacier).  It was surreal and like a dream. And I can still remember, later on that first day in a new land, exploring on my own (a little fearful of bears).  It was exhilarating to suddenly be in someplace so incredibly different. We get so used to the “normal” that we block it out as we  move routinely through our day.  But when everything is not “normal” those filters break down, and it all comes pouring in. The world becomes unbelievably vivid and full. My experience was made even more  abstract by the fact that the day before I was in a huge crowd in the north end of Seattle, watching 4th of July fireworks.  Darwin at least had a couple of months to get used to the idea. None-the-less, I can imagine how amazing he must have felt on his first solo walk through the forest.

He goes on to describe his walk, noting the newness of everything around him:

“amongst the multitude it is hard to say what set of objects is most striking; the general luxuriance of the vegetation bears the victory, the elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers. —the glossy green of the foliage, all tend to this end.”

Darwin’s immersion into this new land was enriched by more than his sense of sight.  I was particularly taken by sounds he describes – again, absolutely nothing like what he had experienced before:

” A most paradoxical mixture of sound & silence pervades the shady parts of the wood. —the noise from the insects is so loud that in the evening it can be heard even in a vessel anchored several hundred yards from the shore. — Yet within the recesses of the forest when in the midst of it a universal stillness appears to reign.” (Feb 29)

You can get a sense of the sounds Darwin heard by listening to this recording from the Amazon Rainforest (posted bu jkilts on YouTube).  It starts somewhat quietly, but if you jump a few minutes in, you can hear how loud it can be. (I listened to the whole thing while I wrote the post – another attempt to connect with how Darwin felt that day.)

His day ends with an event that brings all his senses into play – his firs major tropical rainstorm:

“Before reaching it I was overtaken by a Tropical storm. — I tried to find shelter under a tree so thick that it would never have been penetrated by common English rain, yet here in a couple of minutes, a little torrent flowed down the trunk. It is to this violence we must attribute the verdure in the bottom of the wood.” (Feb 29)

I can picture him coming back on boad the Beagle for dinner – drenched from head to toe – yet grinning with pleasure. You can see that grin shinning through his writing:

“To a person fond of Natural history such a day as this brings with it pleasure more acute than he ever may again experience.” (Feb 29)

And there was so much more yet to come…(RJV)


  1. I continue to delight in Darwin’s poetic writing! For example, “A most paradoxical mixture of sound and silence…” Chuck, you are da man!!!

    I have never been to South America, but I did feel like a stranger in a strange land the first time I visited the Ho Rain Forest. The luxuriant vegetation seemed so overwhelming and surreal. I will need to re-visit some of my journals from that time period, but I’m sure I will not see words ala Chuck (“To a person fond of Natural history such a day as this brings with it pleasure more acute than be ever may again experience.”)

  2. I couldn’t agree more, Jim! I love the poetry of his words and only wish I could write like that.

    I remember my visit visit to the Hoh many years ago. I distinctly remember the tons of moss and lichens hanging from the trees – I never seen anything like it. And I remember the first night camping in the rainforest. It was March, so not many people were there. The night was full of the sound of the creaking trees – it almost seemed liked they were weighted down by the mosses and ready to fall at any minute. In retrospect, it sort of strikes me as being similar to the creaking sound of a wooden ship at night – when the crew is a asleep and the sea is calm.

  3. […] of Brazil (for a couple of examples see Oh verdure New World, that has such forests in’t! and Stranger in a Strange Land) are also filled with a reverence for trees and […]

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