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Your Humble Naturalist

By Luke Noble

December 26, 1831, Plymouth

Let me begin by establishing the purpose of this journal, and indeed of this enterprise – if it can be said to have a single coherent aim – which one could well be forgiven for considering godforsaken from the very beginning given the interminable series of disruptions and delays that have beset it from all conceivable quarters (material, administrative, personnel and natural). I should say at the outset that I do not mean to imply I am anything other than deeply grateful for the opportunity that has landed in my humble, ill-prepared lap, only that I will not be taken completely by surprise if in the future at some time I may come to regret it, if the fortunes of the past three months are any prediction of those to come. I must admit though, as I write from the already cramped quarters of what will be my home, office, laboratory and storehouse for the next who-knows-how-many years, certainly at least two and perhaps as many as five, that I am acutely colored at present by these upsets, as surely as the relentlessly heaving sea and foul winds have troubled my constitution and lead to all manner of palpitations and ill humor.

So, you see, I have even been inclined to think, at my bitter lowest, that my father may have been right all along to object so strenuously to this foolhardy expedition, if, as I have worried already, the level of general incompetence and of nature’s malevolence is indicative of anything meaningful. But I am not so low as to feel so at this particular moment, among the countless possibilities recollected behind me and the many more, unknown possibilities spread out before me like some distantly perceived diorama from a strange and foreign land that I have dreamed of for so long — at once familiar and unknown, set with creatures, peoples and landscapes only heard second-hand and embellished beyond all recognition or utterly imagined. Yes, it is this that has brought me here and I can still, even now, green-hued and bowels beset, summon something of the excitement I felt last August upon hearing that my name had been put forward for the voyage, with the possibility that I might, finally, see these wonders with my own eyes, and in some small way add to the little we know of our expanding world and its varied inhabitants.

So, to return to the beginning, I am beginning this journal, while still at port waiting for fair weather, as something of a mental exercise, something of a diversionary outlet with which to preserve one’s sanity in the face of frustration, and as somewhere to record and organize my thoughts and experiences and observations, if this expedition is ever to be realized. I suspect that all three purposes will be vigorously exercised. Captain Fitz Roy, it seems, very nearly denied me this opportunity based purely on some physiognomistical notion of the influence of the familial nose upon my supposed capacities as a naturalist, so I can only imagine that any semblance of scientific discussion over the waters to come will be tedious at best. To return to that other aim, not of this journal but of the voyage that necessitates that this journal’s author be confined to quarters, queasy, yet a short carriage ride from where I was formerly accommodated in relative comfort but last week, writing this journal.

First of all, the object of this expedition is a complete survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. By complete, to be perfectly clear, I should explain that we will be building on the fine work of Captain King undertaken in 1826 to 1830, thereby completing a thorough chronometrical measurement of Chile, Peru and a number of Pacific islands of potential naval strategic importance. The presence of your humble naturalist on this voyage is largely a matter of chance, it being considered prudent to take this opportunity to further our knowledge of foreign flora and fauna and perhaps even put to the test some of the newer geological theories being put forward by Professors Lyell and Sedgwick and others, with which the preceding delays have at least had the salutary effect of allowing me to become better acquainted, and not forgetting, I should say, Revd. Jenys, to whom this post had first been suggested, now being busy with parish duties and unable to commit to such a lengthy undertaking.

I have just been informed that preparations are finally complete, again; that weather appears permissive, again; and that we would set sail, yet again, tomorrow morning at first light, if only the crew could be roused or indeed located, since it appears that all, to the last man, are either drunk or missing, or quite likely both.


March 4, 1835, Concepción, Chile

In the urgency and tumult of the last two weeks since the great earthquake I regretfully have not had the time to set down these events in fullest detail and will finally do so here, lest my observations and thoughts be lost in memory, as so easily happens during the now familiar pattern of intense bouts of utter novelty punctuated by the solitude of time at sea.

The witnessing of this event and its devastation — it was said by the oldest person in Valdivia to be the most severe earthquake in memory — has been powerfully mirrored in my subsequent thoughts as I now see that such activity, given only sufficient time, in full accordance with Lyell’s proposal, could be of such significance to have gradually raised even the Andes from beneath the sea, and indeed continues to do so to this day as I have now seen with my own astonished eyes. But once again I am ahead of myself and must return in my mind to the woods in which I was taking rest outside Valdivia at the time the earthquake struck. I was, without exaggeration, fully unseated by the unanticipated disturbance as I reclined beneath a magnificent tree, quite at peace after a very fruitful afternoon of collecting and surveying along the coastline, a survey which was to prove the greatest contrast to that which I undertook only hours later after the earthquake had struck. As I have already related, first on the Eastern coast of this continent more than three years ago now, a span which boggles the mind as it seems to hold more novelty, wonder and delight, and, yes, hideous sickness and disgust and misery either experienced directly or witnessed first-hand, than the previous thirty years of my life, yes, as I have said, I find the great forests to be most soothing and transporting. When I stretch my mind back over this expanse of rich memory I find that no such recollection exceeds in sublimity the primeval forests unmarred by the hand of man, temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature, where no one can stand unmoved and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. It was in such a state of reverie and the most complete solitude from which I was torn as the ground shook for what seemed many minutes, I later found out to be no more than three, so that I had difficulty in returning upright without being made giddy in the process, my deep calm and contentment quite shattered.

You may well think I overplay my discomfort yet I can only point out that I had at this stage no notion whatever of the devastation wrought upon the nearby township that I was soon to behold, such that barely a building was left unscathed and the harbor was filled with the flotsam of countless lives. The raw power of the earthquake was brought home to me the completeness of the devastation observed, as I have already noted, in the following hours and days inspecting the coastline and collecting newly unearthed bones around Valdivia and later Talcuhano, and now Concepción. But it was on the island of Quiriquina that I saw most plainly the great expanses of rock shelf, obviously of recent marine origin, sheared and splayed, thrust out from the tidal shallows many feet above sea level, and the conclusion seemed to me inescapable that the earth must be of very ancient age indeed.

Tomorrow we are to see about the purchase and fitting of a new anchor, and other provisions and repairs, during which I plan to organize a second expedition into the Andes, after which it will be on to Peru and thence the Galapagos Islands, which I am very anxious to see as I think both the geology and zoology shall prove most interesting.

[In the style of Italo Calvino]


Luke Noble is a postdoctoral researcher in evolutionary quantitative genetics at New York University’s Center for Genomics and Systems Biology. He studies the genetic bases of gene expression, growth and behavior, and how these traits evolve.