Posted by: Rob Viens | May 30, 2012

My Dear Old Fox Part II

Today (May 30th) Darwin took another trip up Corcovado Mountain – he sure did like to ride, hike and climb.  I’ll touch on this a little more tomorrow, but for now I’d like to finish up with the second part of the William Darwin Fox story…

Throughout the voyage (and through the remainder of their long lives) Darwin and Fox wrote to each other regularly. As in the letters he sent to his family, this is where the real personal side of Darwin comes out.  In general, he is pretty good and making impartial observations, and he is careful not to be too emotional in his formal writing. But in his letters, he lets it all out.  It is a gift that many of these letters have survived, for they really give us a complete picture of Darwin the man.

Below are a few excerpts from the letter Darwin wrote in May 1832 to his cousin. As this is his first letter to Fox, Darwin starts with a quick recap of the voyage so far:

“I have delayed writing to you & all my other friends till I arrived here & had some little spare time.— My mind has been since leaving England in a perfect hurricane of delight & astonishment. And to this hour scarcely a minute has passed in idleness.— I will give you a very short outline of our voyage. We sailed from England after much difficulty on the 27th of December & arriv’d after a short passage to St Jago.— I suffered exceedingly all the first part, the snowy peak of Teneriffe by convincing me I was well on the road to see the world first put fresh life into me.— At St Jago my Natura Hist: & most delightful labours commenced.— during the 3 weeks I collected a host of marine animals, & enjoyed many a good geological walk.— Touching at some islands we sailed to Bahia, & from thence to Rio, where I have already been some weeks.” (Correspondence to William Darwin Fox, May 1832)

While we are at it – here is a map of the voyage so far:

Atlantic Map

He goes on to discuss their mutual love of beetles, and all the types he has been finding in the New World (see An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles), but raves about the best part of the trip – the geology:

“But Geology carries the day; it is like the pleasure of gambling, speculating on first arriving what the rocks may be; I often mentally cry out three to one Tertiary against primitive; but the latter have hitherto won all the bets” (Correspondence to William Darwin Fox, May 1832)

Primary (what Darwin called “primitive”), Secondary, Tertiary and Quaternary are old names used to describe the relative ages of layers of rock (and are partly based on the assumption that age and rock type are closely linked). The terms were coined in the 18th century by Italian geologist Giovanni Arduino who divided the history of the Earth into four stages. By his scheme Primary rocks are the oldest and  consisted of crystalline (intrusive igneous and metamorphic) rock, such as granite and gneiss. Secondary and Tertiary rocks were the sedimentary rock layers (one on top of the other) found on top of (or on the flanks of) the Primary rocks. And the Quaternary was used to describe the loose sediment at the Earth’s surface (which had not become rock yet). Although Primary and Secondary were abandoned long ago (as the concept was too simplified) the terms Tertiary and Quaternary were incorporated into the “new” (19th century) geologic time scale and refer to the most recent periods of geologic time. However, even now they are slowly being phased out and replaced by the Paleogene and Neogene time periods (of the Cenozoic Era). I’ll have to come back to the time scale at a later time, but as a one-time “Quaternary geologist” I have to be a least a little miffed that such a thing no longer exists … In any case – it is clear Darwin was excited by the geology he encountered – regardless of what it was called!

Giovanni Arduino:
Giovanni Arduino

Darwin’s growth as a globe-trotting adventurer is also beginning to come out in his letters. He writes:

“In other respects things are equally flourishing, my life when at sea, is so quiet, that to a person who can employ himself, nothing can be pleasanter.—the beauty of the sky & brilliancy of the ocean together make a picture.— But when on shore, & wandering in the sublime forests, surrounded by views more gorgeous than even Claude ever imagined, I enjoy a delight which none but those who have experienced it can understand— If it is to be done, it must be by studying Humboldt.” (Correspondence to William Darwin Fox, May 1832)

In addition, his letter is quite emotional – expressing a clear affection for a dear friend on the other side of the ocean. First, he reminisces about the past:

“At our antient snug breakfasts at Cambridge, I little thought that the wide Atlantic would ever separate us; but it a rare priviledge, that with the body, the feelings & memory are not divided.— On the contrary the pleasantest scenes in my life, many of which have been in Cambridge, rise from the contrast of the present the more vividly in my imagination.— Do you think any diamond beetle will ever give me so much pleasure as our old friend Crux Major.— Can we ever forget our few days at Whittlesea Meer with little Albert?f3 It is one of my most constant amusements to draw pictures of the past, & in them I often see you & poor little Fan—Oh Lord, & then old Dash poor thing!— do you recollect how you all tormented me about his beautiful tail.” (Correspondence to William Darwin Fox, May 1832)

FYI – Fan and Dash were William and Charles’ dogs.

Next, Darwin asks for a letter in return (you have to love his metaphors – more evidence of how he sees himself as an explorer):

“Do as I have done, & tell me all about yourself how contrive to live on such a stationary, slow sailing craft as a Parsonage: what you are, have, & intend doing.— Remember minutiae become more not less interesting, as the distance increases.” (Correspondence to William Darwin Fox, May 1832)

Lastly, Darwin looks to the future and makes a personal connection across the miles that separate the two men:

“I suppose I shall remain through the whole voyage, but it is a sorrowful long fraction of ones life; especially as the greatest part of the pleasure is in anticipation.— I must however except that resulting from Natur— History; think when you are picking insects off a hawthorn hedge on a fine May day (wretchedly cold I have no doubt) think of me collecting amongst pineapples & orange trees; whilst staining your fingers with dirty blackberries, think & be envious of ripe oranges.— This is a proper piece of Bravado, for I would walk through many a mile of sleet, snow or rain to shake you by the hand, My dear old Fox. God Bless you.” (Correspondence to William Darwin Fox, May 1832)

Remember – no email, texting, Facebook, video conferencing, etc..  The only link between the two friends were letters that took months to travel from one side of the ocean to the other, and even then, they had to “find” Darwin as he was constantly on the move. These letters must have been Darwin’s lifeline to reality.

In any case, from the tone of his letters, I suspect that Darwin would have been a good friend. (RJV)


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