28 June 2009

'An aweful & solemn sound'

It wasn't all plain sailing on Darwin and FitzRoy's Beagle voyage. The ship frequently sailed into unknown territory. Her crew were on their own, many days from help.

One-hundred and seventy-five years ago today, Beagle's crew buried one of their colleagues at sea. Darwin recorded the event in his Beagle diary:

On the 27th [June, 1834] the purser of the Beagle, Mr Rowlett expired; he had been for some time gradually sinking under a complication of diseases; the fatal termination of which were only a little hastened by the bad weather of the Southern countries. Mr Rowlett was in his 38th year; the oldest officer on board; he had been on the former voyage in the Adventure; & was in consequence an old friend to many in this ship; by whom & everyone else he was warmly respected. — On the following day the funeral service was read on the quarter-deck, & his body lowered into the sea; it is an aweful & solemn sound, that splash of the waters over the body of an old ship-mate.

It seems incredible that the oldest officer on board Beagle was just 37 years old. Great responsibility was placed on young shoulders in those days. I suppose it still is.

175 years after his untimely death, I sit at my computer screen and raise a glass to poor George Rowlett (1797–1834).

18 June 2009

Twelve days

...is far, far too much time between blog posts, for which we apologise, dear readers and blogpeeps.

My fellow Beagle bloggers will, no doubt, have their own very good excuses; as for me, though, you can direct your ire squarely in the direction of twitter. I've been bit by the twitter bug, big time, swept off my feet in a frenzied flurry of blue feathers.

But this twelve days thing is a wake up call. I've gone too far to the microblogging extreme and it's time to seek balance before I forget how to write paragraphs. So, with hand on heart, I promise to resist the 140-character siren song long enough every week to post something substantive here.

...uh, well, except for next week when I'll be away on a technology-free holiday in the mountains - you know, those big, pointy, rocky things you sometimes see when you go outside in certain parts of the world.

7 June 2009

"My Dearest Catherine" (Part III)

Simmons Buntin has kindly agreed to let us reproduce his series of three poems as imagined letters from Darwin to his sister Catherine when he was aboard the Beagle. They are published in his book of poems Riverfall (Salmon Poetry, Ireland, 2005). They also appeared in MIT Press's anthology on evolution and progress. We've already posted the first and second; here is the third:

Letter from Charles Darwin to His Sister, Catherine

Simmons B. Buntin

9 October, 1835
My Dearest Catherine,

We have sailed from the anarchy
of Lima and Peru
for the drier anarchy of the Galapagos,
where volcanic craters burn
without lava—
their regular forms jutting
from the archipelago
like the great iron-foundries
at Staffordshire.
And though there are no plumes,
the slight vapour blends
with low sky so that once again
the world is gray.

It is gray in the mutinied captain’s
skull found among salt-green
succulents, in the oppressive
heat of absent wind, and
in dusky hues of equatorial finches.
Perhaps it is my mood which is truly
gray, as Fitzroy turns
madder with the days
and crewmen yearn for British seas.

Yet we are here, among these
curious rocks, and surely there is hope
in their exploration.

25 October, 1835
What joy in the cloudless skies,
in these barren isles! Though I have found
few species, it is their rarity
which excites. On Albemarle,
the largest island, I have tossed
a remarkable lizard by tail into the sea.
And always he returns!
On Chatham Island
I have balanced unsteadily
upon the giant back of a tortoise grazing
the sweet red fruit of cactus!
And of thirteen species
of finch, where I was drowning
in the dullness of feather,
I now sail on the varied waves
of their beaks!
Come sail with me
Catherine—take the wind west
to these juvenile isles and dance
among the gray feathers
that make up the brilliance of life.
If I appear too drunk to write
with steady hand and level mind
it is because I am too
undernourished not to go on.
Though sailors laugh
as I sketch the remarkable shapes
flourished since just one finch
lit upon Indefatigable’s jagged
beach, I am aware only of life’s
ability to persevere,
and evolve.

But in man’s own wilderness,
void of cottages and cobblestone
and into the saline deck
of navigator’s ship, perseverance
usurps evolution, discarding it quite
entirely. No, you should not dance here.
Dare say that I should not, either—
but for these birds and vines
and islands. And the faint memory
of a distant home.

In loving passage,