Posted by: Rob Viens | March 1, 2012

Picking Flowers with the Mids

March 1st, and the new month starts with yet another day of delights for Darwin:

“I can only add raptures to the former raptures. I walked with the two Mids a few miles into the interior.” (Mar 1)

After walking alone in the forest for a day, Darwin now has company on his explorations of the New World. The “mids”, I assume, are the midshipmen on board the Beagle – Phillip Gidley King and Arthur Mellersh. Midshipmen are the lowest rank of commissioned officers in the Royal Navy (basically a step below a lieutenant) – by some accounts an apprentice officer.  From what I can tell, if you were a young gentlemen in the 19th century, being midshipmen was your stepping stone to a higher rank.  If you were from the working class, this was likely to be the highest rank you could earn. According to Wikipedia: ” Midshipmen were expected to work on the ship, but were also expected to learn navigation and seamanship.”

I do like how Darwin calls them “Mids”. I’m not sure if that was common usage or his own abbreviation, but it sound like he was taking a walk with his “buds”.

It’s worth pointing out that many of Darwin’s crewmates went on to have distinguished careers.  Arthur Mellersh, for example, ended his career as a retired Admiral in the Royal Navy. King left the navy not long after the voyage, but made his mark in Australia.  Amazingly, King was only 14 years old when the Beagle left England – and more incredibly  he was on the 1st Beagle voyage with is father when he was 9!  (More on these able crewmates later.)

On this particular day it was flowers that caught Darwin’s attention:

“I collected a great number of brilliantly colored flowers, enough to make a florist go wild.” (Mar 1)

I’m not sure what these were – Darwin definitely tended towards the fauna over the flora when it came to making detailed descriptions. The options are plentiful as the rainforest is home to numerous flowering plants, including the passion fruit flower below (from Rhett Butler’s site mongabay.com):

passion fruit flower

Interestingly a search on angiosperm diversity in Brazil brought up a lot of articles on the diverse fossil record of flowering plants found in that part of the world – particularly the older record from the early Cretaceous period. That means Darwin’s flowers (in some form or another) have been growing in Brazil for more than 125 million years.  No wonder it would drive florists wild! (See the 2009 paper Diversity in obscurity: fossil flowers and the early history of angiosperms for lots more details.)

After three days of bliss, Darwin’s homesickness is clearly forgotten.  A few days ago, he was taking about wanting the trip to be over so he could be back to the comforts of home.  Today, retirement in the tropical forest sounds pretty darn good:

“Brazilian scenery is nothing more nor less than a view in the Arabian Nights, with the advantage of reality. — The air is deliciously cool & soft; full of enjoyment one fervently desires to live in retirement in this new & grander world.” (Mar 1)

Interesting choice of words – “with the advantage of reality”.  Today I’m sure that many would say reality is a disadvantage.  That escaping into virtual worlds is more engaging and exciting, heck, at times I would agree. It is nice to be reminded by Darwin himself, that reality is pretty amazing when you really take the time to immerse yourself in the beauty of the natural world. (RJV)

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