Posted by: Rob Viens | December 24, 2012

“I Can See For Miles”

Unlike me, Darwin had been busy writing for the past few days – filling up several pages of his diary with descriptions of the scenery at the bottom of the world. On the 19th and 20th he ventured out to explore – taking one trip through the thick brush of the beech forests, and another up the highest peaks he could climb.  Since I don’t want to fall too far behind our “botanizing” hero, I’ll let Darwin describe the landscape today, without a lot of modern commentary.  To see Darwin’s complete diary entry,  be sure to click on the “Darwin’s Beagle Diary” link on the sidebar.

On December 19th, Darwin was “determined to penetrate some way into the countryside.  What he found was a thick mass of underbrush that was difficult to traverse, however, he still found poetry in the scene around him:

“There is no level ground & all the hills are so thickly clothed with wood as to be quite impassable.— The trees are so dose together & send off their branches so low down, that I found extreme difficulty in pushing my way even for gun-shot distance.— I followed therefore the course of a mountain torrent; at first from the cascades & dead trees, I hardly managed to crawl along; but shortly the open course became wider, the floods keeping clear the borders.— For an hour I continued to follow the stream, & was well repaid by the grandeur of the scene.— The gloomy depth of the ravine well accorded with the universal signs of violence.— in every direction were irregular masses of rock & uptorn trees, others decayed & others ready to fall.— To have made the scene perfect, there ought to have been a group of Banditti.— in place of it, a seaman (who accompanied me) & myself, being armed & roughly dressed, were in tolerable unison with the surrounding savage Magnificence.” (Dec 19)

Although quite different, I remember trying to traverse old clear cuts in the temperate rainforests of coastal Alaska.  Between the leftover logs and the rapidly growing brush, it took hours to travel a mile.  Not one of my favorite experiences…

Antarctic Beech (from Wikipedia Commons):

Antarctic Beech

Darwin continues to describe the forest, noting the abundance of Antarctic Beech trees (more on those another day) and comparing and contrasting this forest with the tropics:

“Hence the whole lanscape has a monotomous sombre appearance; neither is it often enlivened by the rays of the sun.— At this highest point the wood is not quite so thick,— but the trees, though not high are of considerable thickness.— Their curved & bent trunks are coated with lichens, as their roots are with moss; in fact the whole bottom is a swamp where nothing grows except rushes & various sorts of moss.— the number of decaying & fallen trees reminded me of the Tropical forest.— But in this still solitude, death instead of life is the predominant spirit.” (Dec 19)

In contrast to a day in the underbrush, Darwin spent December 20th seeking some high vantage points in order to take in the scenery from above.  The day’s journey started with the peak Joseph Banks climbed in the late 1760’s – on his way to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus with Captain Cook (see The Transit of Venus).

The Watering place in the Bay of Good Success by Alexandeer Buchan (1769)

painting of Good Success Bay

Darwin was confident that the same tragedy that befell Bank’s party would not be a concern for him in 1832:

“I was very anxious to ascend some of the mountains in order to collect the Alpine plants & insects.— The one which I partly ascended yesterday was the nearest, & Capt. FitzRoy thinks it is certainly the one which Mr Banks ascended, although it cost him the lives of two of his men & very nearly that of Dr Solander.— I determined to follow a branch of the watercourse, as by this means all danger of losing yourself even in the case of a snow storm is removed.— The difficulty of climbing was very great: as the dead & living trunks were so close, that in many places it was necessary to push them down to make a path.— I then gained a clearer place & continued following the rivulet.— This at last dwindled away, but having climbed a tree I took the bearing of the summit of the hill with a compass & so steered a straight course.— I had imagined the higher I got, the more easy the ascent would be, the case however was reversed. From the effects of the wind, the trees were not above 8 or 10 feet high, but with thick & very crooked stems; I was obliged often to crawl on my knees. At length I reached what I imagined to be green turf; but was again disappointed by finding a compact mass of little beech trees about 4 or 5 feet high.— These were as thick as Box in the border of a flower garden.— For many yards together my feet never touched the ground. I hailed with joy the rocks covered with Lichens & soon was at the very summit.— The view was very fine, expecially of Staten Land & the neighbouring hills; Good Success Bay with the little Beagle were close beneath me.” (Dec 20)

After describing some guanacos, Darwin continues up the next peak (man he could cover some miles each day), were he stood on the continental divide:

“After 2 hours & a half walking I was on the top of the distant peak.— it was the highest in the immediate neighbourhead & the waters on each side flowed into different seas.— The view was superb, & well was I repaid for the fatigue.— I could see the whole neck of land which forms the East of Strait Le Maire.— From Cape St Diego as far as the eye could reach up the NW coast; & what interested me most, was the whole interior country between the two seas.— The Southern was mountainous & thickly wooded; the Northern appeared to be a flat swamp & at the extreme NW part there was an expanse of water, but this will be hereafter examined. It looked dirty in the SW & I was afraid to stay long to enjoy this view over so wild & so unfrequented a country. …  nearly all the difficulty was avoided by following a regular path which the Guanacos frequent; by following this I reached in much shorter time the forest & began the most laborious descent through its entangled thickets.— I collected several alpine flowers, some of which were the most diminutive I ever saw; & altogether most throuighly enjoyed the walk. (Dec 20)

I think the over all sentiment of the two days of exploration is summed up well in the end of Darwin’s entry on the 19th:

“The delight which I experienced, whilst thus looking around, was increased by the knowledge that this part of the forest had never before been traversed by man.” (Dec 19)

What a thrill to feel like the first European to walk the countryside.  I had a similar experience in southern Alaska working around the margins of the Bering Glacier.  The glacier had been receded and uncovering ground that had not been exposed in 100’s if not 1000’s of years.  The thought of walking on recently exposed ground that had probably never been walked on before, was exciting. So few places like that exist today. (RJV)


  1. […] Tierra del Fuego (for a few examples see Ascending Corcovado, Ascending the “Mount” and “I Can See for Miles”). So maybe this line should read, “How universal is the desire of Charles Darwin to show he […]

  2. […] bagging” include Corcovado and Pedra da Gávea in Brazil, the Mount of Montevideo, an unnamed peak in Tierra del Fuego, and the the Cerro de las Animas in Uruguay (links will take you to earlier posts on these […]

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