Posted by: Rob Viens | June 11, 2012

John Edmonstone and the Curious Naturalist

June 11th and Darwin was back out hunting for curiosities in the forest – this time with a young boy as his guide:

“Rode to the place where I was the other day hunting with the Padre; having put up my horse, I started for the woods.— A mulatto & a little Brazilian boy accompanied me;—the latter was quite a child, but dressed in the same manner as I described the eldest son.— I never saw anything at all equal to his power of perception.— Many of the rarest animals in the most obscure trails were caught by him.— I should have as soon expected a beetle to have turned traitor & been my coadjutor, as to have found so able a one in this little fellow.— It really was like what one reads of the talent of observation which the Indians possess, my eyes with years of practice were not at all on a par with this childs.” (June 11)

Darwin seems to learn something from everyone he meets – regarless of their class or status.  For example, he learned to keep a field journal from aristocratic Robert FitzRoy (see Learning to Keep a Field Journal). But he also had no problem befriending (and speaking highly of) John Edmonstone, a freed black slave from Guyana who taught Darwin the fine art of taxidermy while he was at the University of Edinburgh.  Edmonstone also told Darwin stories of the tropics – yet another person who probably played a role in Darwin joining the Beagle in the first place. And I would not be surprised if he played some role in informing Darwin (in his early years) about the injustice of slavery. Edmonstone was one of many who helped train Darwin as an exceptional naturalist.

Today, Darwin seemed to be watching and learning from the keen observation skills of his young guide – still developing his “toolbox” of skills.

John Edmonstone teaching Darwin taxidermy (from the Russian State Darwin Museum exhibit which includes the works of Mikhail Yesuchevskii (1880-1928) and Viktor Yevstafiev (1916-1990s) – posted on the Rough Guide to Evolution Blog)

John Edmonstone

Sometime later in the day, Darwin gets to spend some time alone in the rainforest. He writes:

“My companions left me & I proceeded on my scramble into the interior of the forest. A profound gloom reigns everywhere; it would be impossible to tell the sun was shining, if it was not for an occasional gleam of light shooting, as it were through a shutter, on the ground beneath; & that the tops of the more lofty trees are brightly illuminated.— The air is motionless & has a peculiar chilling dampness.— Whilst seated on the trunk of a decaying tree amidst such scenes, one feels an inexpressible delight.— The rippling of some little brook, the tap of a Woodpecker, or scream of some more distant bird, by the distinctness with which it is heard, brings the conviction how still the rest of Nature is.” (June 11)

Ah – the sound (or lack thereof) of being in the quiet, dark, damp understory of the forest. Any hiker knows what it s like to stop along the trail and just sit and listen.  It is one of the allures of being out in the natural world – especially when in a remote location.

I can distinctly remember working in the Alaskan temperate rainforest for several weeks. There comes a time (maybe a week or so out) that your brain begins to process it all.  At first, you might hear a stream in the distance, and think that you are hearing an airplane overhead or a boat over the next hill. But eventually the tables are turned. You hear an airplane fly overhead and think that it is a stream.  This to me is the point at which you have become fully immersed in nature. That realization is spiritual, and it strikes me as the feeling Darwin has while he sits in the understory of the forest alone – just taking it all in.

Brazilian Forest by Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) (from Wikipedia Commons):

Brazilian Forest by Martin Johnson Heade

At the end of the day Darwin returns home to the opposite end of the spectrum – a large (and most likely noisy)  feast.  You can’t help but appreciate how Darwin becomes the center of attention:

“The many contrivances for catching animals which my large pockets (not the least subject for surprise) contained, afforded ample grounds for curiosity & wonder. In both of which, with a great deal of good-nature they most freely indulged.— They assuredly thought me a greater curiosity than anything their woods contained.” (June 11)

I can just picture Darwin pulling item after item out of his coat pockets during dinner – excited about each an every one.  A jar of bugs, a strange plant, some worms… And all the while, the surrounding dinner guests all laugh and poke fun at this odd Englishman. Somehow I think he liked it…(RJV)


  1. I’ve had the pleasure and astonishment of being around two people of the kind that Darwin describes here. At age 14 I got to work with a family friend for two summers in the Uintah and Wasatch Mountains of Utah trapping (live “have-a-heart”traps”) small animals for the Disney movie “Perry the Red Squirrel”. The family friend was a true naturalist whom had a geology degree from the University of Utah. “Blackie” as we all knew him would walk a ways in the forrest with me following and then stop and ask me, “well, what did you see”? Often I’d have seen the ground, rocks and trees, but there were always some special tracks or plants, or even an unusual bug. Another of these people was Dr. Walt Wright, one of America’s best field paleobotanists. He would lecture (as we walked or drove along) on all of the plants, rocks, strata, animals and etc. that we passed, to the point of nearly exploding my brain as I would try to relate to what he was saying. I’ve spent a number of trips with him in the Southwest U.S. hunting for petrified wood and would often have to tell him, “please Walt, if you tell me one more fact, my head will explode”. How some people develop such minds and memories has always made me feel inferior yet hungry for more information.

  2. […] Charles Darwin was an experienced taxidermist. He learned his craft at Edinburgh University from John Edmonstone, an expert who also taught Darwin about what to expect in South America. Edmonstone had once been […]

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