Posted by: Rob Viens | March 5, 2012

The Beauty of Tropical Agriculture

Today, March 5th, Darwin was off “naturalizing” (his word) with young Midshipman King. He seems to be pleased to be out of the city and back in “nature”:

“Some of the valleys were even more beautiful than any I have yet seen. — There is a wild luxuriance in these spots that is quite enchanting.” (Mar 5)

I am particularly captivated today by Darwin’s acute awareness of the overlap between the “natural” and human world – namely in how he finds beauty in human agriculture:

“One of the great superiorities that Tropical scenery has over European is the wildness even of the cultivated ground. Cocoa Nuts, Bananas, Plantain, Oranges, Papaws are mingled as if by Nature, & between them are patches of the herbaceous plants such as Indian corn, Yams & Cassada: & in this class of views, the knowledge that all conduces to the subsistence of Mankind, adds much to the pleasure of beholding them.” (Mar 5)

Banana’s shading coffee (from the Thanksgiving Coffee Co. web site):

Bananas shading coffee

This statement has so many facets to it.  First, it offhandedly explores the line between humans and nature – Darwin clearly sees nature and humanity as something separate (at least at this point in time).  Enough so, that when they intermingle, something “superior” is created.

Secondly, it is a great description of blended crops (a “polyculture”) – intergrowing different crops in the same field.  This style of agriculture is often very beneficial to the crops themselves, since it helps with pest management and nutrient control.  Since it also more labor intensive, however, many crops today are grown as monocultures instead – acre after acre after acre of identical rows of the same crop (such as never-ending corn fields). Not nearly as beautiful as what Darwin describes and much less “natural”.

Thirdly, it describes a practice in tropical agriculture that is making a reoccurrence – growing crops within the forest, rather than clear cutting to make room for the crops.  Think about shade-grown or songbird-friendly coffee. Typically this is not only better for the forest and its inhabitants, but it also produces a superior crop.

Bird-friendly certification from the Smithsonian:

Bird Friendly Certification Logo

And lastly, I love the final line of this part of the entry – where he notes his sheer pleasure of seeing the source of our food in the wild.  So many of us are disconnected from agriculture.  Yet, who does not enjoy at least visiting a farm or eating tomatoes from their own garden?

The day was not all about bananas and yams though. Darwin collects some of his favorite things – beetles and rocks:

“During the walk I was chiefly employed in collecting numberless small beetles & in geologizing. — King shot some pretty birds & I a most beautiful large lizard.” (Mar 5)

Alas, I can’t find any reference to lizard specimens from Bahia in the reptile volume of the Zoology of the Voyage of the HMS Beagle. I would find it hard to believe he shot it without a purpose. Perhaps it was dinner.

The day’s entry ends with another Darwin gem:

“It is a new & pleasant thing for me to be conscious that naturalizing is doing my duty, & that if I neglected that duty I should at same time neglect what has for some years given me so much pleasure.” (Mar 5)

The man loved his work.  This “naturalizing” is exactly what he did for fun as a kid when he collected rocks and beetles. Now, and for the next five years, this was what he was expected to do every day. I’ve always thought that your true salary should be calculated as the number of hours a week you don’t like you job, divided by your weekly pay.  In a sense, you are being paid for the part of your job you have to do – the rest is just gravy.  Darwin was not actually being paid to be on the Beagle (in fact he – or actually his father – was paying his way).  But the nature of the job was such, that Darwin’s “salary” was more than enough to get him through the day. (RJV)

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