Brief Book Review: "Darwin Slept Here"

I know this is brief, but I’m pressed for time and I liked the book and wanted to say something about it here.

Eric Simons, a graduate of UC Berkeley’s graduate program in environmental and science writing, recently published Darwin Slept Here. In contrast to the plethora of books on Darwin marking the bicentennial of his birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species, which tend to focus on the development of the science and the mature man, Simons’ book asked ‘What was it like for Charles Darwin, a young guy just out of college, to visit all those places that were so foreign to him and the culture in which he had been raised?’ Could a 21st century Californian, not much older than Darwin’s age at the time, recapture some of the feelings Darwin recorded himself as having in his Beagle Diary if he trekked up as far as he could toward the headwaters of the Rio Santa Cruz, as Darwin, Fitzroy, and some crewmen of the Beagle did? Would Tierra del Fuego elicit the same feelings of revulsion and fascination? Is the inland of Patagonia really that barren? And was that really Charles Darwin, aboard the Beagle called “Philosopher,” traveling overland on horseback for weeks with a party of gauchos, sleeping rough every night with a saddle for a pillow, meeting a revolutionary general and talking his way through hostile lines to get into town? Who is that cowboy anyway?

And did anyone in those places Darwin visited know that he was there?

Simons didn’t track Darwin’s travels slavishly, but in separate trips to the east and west coasts of South America visited a number of the places and repeated a number of the inland trips Darwin recorded in his Beagle diary (linked above). Simons climbed some of the peaks Darwin climbed, seeing (more or less) the same views that impressed Darwin, and followed some of the rivers Darwin followed inland.

Throughout the book Simons notices the changes – and in some cases the lack of changes – from Darwin’s day. He tries to find the witch cave on Chiloe, a legend that Darwin had missed, but only experiences the island’s miserable winter weather of which Darwin remarked “We were all glad to leave Chiloe; at the time of year nothing but an amphibious animal could tolerate the climate.”

I will skip over Simons’ description of “The Adventure of the Beagle,” a musical in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. You have to read it yourself, or perhaps imagine it with your Monty Python goggles on. I’ll reproduce just the chorus from one song sung by the crew:

We’ll fight the roaring seas
We shall face no defeat
All across the Seven Seas
The Beagle will succeed.

Simons climbs the highest peak of Ceros Tres Picos alone, a peak spotted from 50 miles away by Captain Fitzroy aboard the Beagle, whereas Darwin, also climbing alone, took a wrong turning due to an informant’s bad instructions and failed to reach the top of the highest of the three peaks. Simons got better instructions from a local physical education instructor, but he sympathizes with Darwin’s clear frustration at failing to make the highest peak, as recorded in his diary.

Following the course of the Rio Santa Cruz in a rental car, Simons sees essentially the same environment Darwin saw, but Simons has an advantage: He knows that the river that had turned frustratingly tortuous for Darwin and Fitzroy would straighten soon. They didn’t know that, and running low on rations and energy from laboring upstream for three weeks, all hands toiling along the river’s bank hauling their boats upstream with towropes, the Beagle expedition turned back and didn’t reach the headwaters of the river. Both Fitzroy and Darwin were disappointed.

Late in the book. describing a scene along the Rio Claro near where Darwin sought its confluence with the Rio Elque, Simons wrote what I think is the best short summary of Darwin the man that I’ve read. He wrote

There’s a danger in labeling someone a genius; it makes them inaccessible. Darwin the Genius is beyond the reach of sympathy. But Darwin the person–the one who stood and watched the sunset over this same river, the one who would happily join in with Josh and I in skipping rocks–well, he was a lot like us. He was us. His career-crowning idea of evolution by natural selection is a triumph of human achievement that sprang from the perfectly achievable endeavors of careful observation, meticulous note-taking, and joyous, boundless curiosity. (p 224)

This is not a heavy book. It’s an easy and enjoyable read, but it nevertheless brings into clearer view what it must have been like for Darwin the young English man to see exotic sights he could never have imagined when he was Oxford, Alexander von Humboldt’s travel narrative notwithstanding. Darwin read von Humboldt, but he lived the voyage of the Beagle and Simons gives us a flavor of what that must have been like.

Added in edit: Simons has a photo essay about his travels on the Web for Seed Magazine.