Monday, February 18, 2013

Staying awake

The day has passed delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feeling of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration….To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again.
It is an iconic passage, written on February 29, 1832, by young Charles Darwin, near the beginning of his history-making circumnavigation, recounted in The Voyage of the Beagle. This episode in the rain forest was reproduced stirringly in I think it was Episode 2 of the brilliant 1978 BBC miniseries "The Voyage of Charles Darwin." Can someone find it on the internet?

I first read The Voyage of the Beagle in about 1965, as I started out as a teacher. It was an inspiring read. I had no illusions that I possessed Darwin's intellect or strength of character, but I did hope to cultivate something of that sense of awakening that happened to him in the forest, that sense of suddenly being alive to the world. Perhaps I would never made it to Brazil (Panama is as close as I got); my domesticated Path would be my rainforest. The key was to stay awake.

And if I could stay awake, maybe I could share my wakefulness with my students, and they in turn would stimulate my wakefulness, helping me to stay awake for the decades that were to come.
In my last walk, I stopped again and again to gaze on these beauties, and endeavored to fix in my mind for ever, an impression which at the time I knew sooner or later must fail…they will leave, like a tale heard in childhood, a picture full of indistinct, but most beautiful figures. (August 1836)