Posted by: Rob Viens | May 21, 2013

“A Rambling Course” and a “Miserable House”

On May 11th Darwin’s journey across the countryside continued. It turned out to be a day riding amid marble slabs, and “sailing” rheas (which, if you recall, Darwin referred to as ostriches):

“In the morning we pursued rather a rambling course; as I was examining several beds of marble. — We crossed some fine plains abounding with cattle, here also were very many Ostriches. — I saw several flocks of between 20 & 30.— When seen on the brow of a hill against the clear sky they form a fine spectacle. — Some of them are very tame; if, after approaching close, you suddenly gallop in pursuit. —it is beautiful to see them, as a sailor would express it, “up with their helm” & make all sail, by expanding their wings right down the wind.” (May 11)

This last image – comparing a running rhea to a ship with its sails out – is one of my favorites. Here is a modern photo of a rhea in motion from (though I think I like Darwin’s “image” better):

running rhea

(For more on rheas and other ratites see A Wish for Wings that Work.)

That night the group spent the night at the house of a wealthy man who raised cattle in the area around Minas. Darwin’s description of the stay leaves something to be desired:

“At night we came to the house of Don Juan Fuentes, a very rich man, but a stranger to both my companions. — Upon arriving we entered the room where the Signora and Signoritas were sitting, & after talking on indifferent subjects (which I observe is always the formula) for a few minutes; permission was asked to pass the night there. — As a matter of course this is granted to all strangers; & a room allotted to us. — We then unsaddle our horses & bring the recon’s &c into the room. — this latter was not so good as cowshed, but it contained beds, & for bed-clothes the cloths belonging to the recon are used. — Shortly after our arrival one of the great herds of cattle was driven in. The cattle having so much space to wander over are very wild & it is necessary several times in the week to drive the herd into a Corral or enclosure of stakes, for the night. — & thus accustom them to one central place. — About a dozen Gauchos on horseback drove them in & near to the house separated a few for the purpose of killing them. — This afforded a very animated chace, for the cattle run nearly as fast as a horse, & the poor beasts know full well the fatal Lasso. — After seeing such a herd & such a number of horses the miserable house of Don Juan was curious. — The floor is hardened mud; there are no glass windows, a few of the roughest chairs & stools & two small tables was all the furniture in the room. — For supper there was a huge pile of roasted meat & another boiled with some pumpkin. — in the centre was a mug of cold water. — there were scarcely forks, plates or spoons sufficient, & every thing, table-cloth &c filthily dirty. — there was no bread, salt, or vegetables, or anything more than water to drink. — & this the house of a large landed proprietor. — The evening was spent in smoking & with a little impromptu singing accompanied by the Guitar. — All the women remained huddled up in one corner & did not sup with the men. — And such are the luxuries which wealth here purchases!” (May 11)

It is interesting that tradition dictated that no one could refuse a traveler – probably a good idea in the remote countryside. But it is ironic that the tradition did not dictate the quality of the provisions – even from the wealthy. Darwin, in this case, got to stay in the barn.

A zapallo – a local “pumpkin” or gourd for sale in Montevideo – that was probably very similar to the one Darwin ate (from


Next: Bird watching and geologizing in Uruguay… (RJV)

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