Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons (2009)

Part III. DISCOVERY

Chapter 12. VALDIVIA

The Apple Story

The uniformity of a forest soon becomes very wearisome; this West coast makes me remember with pleasure the free, unbounded plains of Patagonia; yet with the true spirit of contradiction, I cannot forget how sublime is the silence of the forest.

—BEAGLE DIARY, FEBRUARY 12, 1835

DARWIN SAILED NORTH IN FEBRUARY 1835 from Chiloé to Valdivia, a small town snuggled onto a bend at the confluence of two rivers, roughly ten miles inland from the coast. The Beagle anchored at sea under the ruins of some old Spanish fortresses, and Darwin rode in a smaller boat up the river to the town. He reported that the scenery, apart from a few Indian huts, “is one unbroken forest.” When they arrived in the town itself, Darwin found it “completely hidden in a wood of Apple trees; the streets are merely paths in an orchard. I never saw this fruit in such abundance.”

Josh and I took the bus north from Chiloé and arrived in Valdivia in a hammering rainstorm. We’d been lucky with the weather in Chiloé. We were not in Valdivia.

I read out loud from Darwin’s diary as we passed through cleared farms and into the outskirts of a university town of about 120,000 people. “It seems like it’s added a few buildings since Darwin’s time,” Josh said. Instead of unbroken forest and apple orchards we saw farmhouses, meadows, and then dusty warehouses and electronics superstores as we moved through the city. Active clues to the forest’s disappearance swayed along the road in front us—a series of logging trucks crept through the rain, hauling long, telephone-pole-sized logs behind them.

We drove through town and found a hostel with a nice view of the river. The Argentine owner had studied journalism for a year at San Francisco State University and invited us over to his riverfront house for pisco sours. He told us that he’d love to show us around, but he was leaving for Tibet in a day and had to pack.

I questioned him briefly about Darwin’s visit, without much luck, so I switched to Valdivian history. “Where did all the apple orchards go?” I asked him. Darwin, in addition to labeling Valdivia one big orchard, had penciled an intriguing side note in the margin of his diary: “apple story.” I wondered whether he meant something specific that had happened to him? A local legend about apples? The Chilean version of Johnny Appleseed? Like the cows on the beach, though, we seemed destined to be stymied in our quest for explanations.

“What apple orchards?” Lionel the hostel owner asked.

“There used to be apple trees everywhere here,” I said. “That’s what Darwin wrote.”

He shrugged. “Maybe you can ask at the museum?”

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The next morning, I woke up early and went downstairs and found Josh already standing at the door. “I can’t wait to go out,” he said morosely as he stared out at the rain. We sat down for breakfast while the rain drummed on the roof. “We used to have days like this in Santa Barbara,” Josh said, “and no one would leave their house. No one would go to class. We would just take a rain day.” He pulled his tea mug closer to him and wrapped his hands around it. He looked up at me, determination written in his clutching embrace of the tea.

“I’m just going to have a leisurely breakfast,” he continued.

“OK,” I said. I was just as determined that we were going to go ask about apples at the museum. Eventually, I felt, this constantly getting referred to someone else would pay off. But there was no point in starting an argument. Yet.

After another hour, Josh ran out of tea, and defiance, and we set off for the museum, a converted mansion with downstairs rooms devoted to the more famous personalities in Valdivia’s lengthy history. The most outsized of these personalities seemed to be Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane, a Scottish lord whose gold-tipped cane rested national-archive-style on a plush red velvet pillow. Cochrane had led an assault on the Spanish stronghold at Valdivia as part of the Chilean war of independence.

“This port is well known from Lord Cochrane’s gallant attack when in the service of La Patria,” Darwin wrote upon arriving. Cochrane and his troops pillaged Valdivia, and the new Chilean government punished the town for its Spanish loyalties by not rebuilding. By the time Darwin visited, it had shrunk in size and its economy was stagnant. A number of escaped English convicts from Australia had recently landed in Valdivia and were welcomed with open arms. (Darwin noted that they all were married within a week of arriving). “The fact of their being such notorious rogues appears to have weighed nothing in the Governors opinion,” Darwin wrote, “in comparison with the advantage of having some good workmen.” Lithographs from 1835 showed a church plaza and a few scattered houses overwhelmed by a thick band of forest. The once-impregnable forts seized by Cochrane were rotting into the ocean. Darwin visited one called Niebla, where the cannons appeared in such bad shape that they would probably disintegrate after one shot.

The museum was empty and quiet. The only other person was a museum guard who stood outside, under an awning, watching the rain. His desire for society did not extend to telling wild-eyed, dripping strangers about apples. He told us that maybe we could come back tomorrow. We asked him how to get to Niebla. Yes, of course, he said, buses, just down at the street and stand at the stop-light and certainly you’ll find one, won’t be long at all. Josh looked peeved. Something no doubt about the steady succession of people who had, for the better part of the last twenty-four hours, been keeping him from his tea and the hostel fireplace, and instead leading him ever onward so that he could stand around waiting in the downpour.

“Somehow,” Josh said as we left, “I think that guy is behind us cackling like mad.” We bent over and leaned into the wind and splashed toward the street. A fire alarm went up across the river, followed by cathedral bells ringing.

“I wonder if the cathedral is on fire,” I said.

“I think anything on fire would be pretty quickly put out in this weather,” Josh said.

“I was thinking we might warm up first.”

Josh switched to his radio voice, a more melodious, rhythmic version of his normal wisecracking. “And about halfway through the trip,” he joked, “Eric came out in favor of church burning.”

We waded down the street to the corner, where a bus for Niebla promptly picked us up. The bus radio played Lionel Richie’s “Dancing in the Streets.” We drove along the river, gray and confused, with whitecaps like the ocean. The rain slammed the side of the bus so hard we couldn’t see out the windows. At the end of the line, the driver indicated we should get off. “Where’s the fort?” I asked.

“Oh, just up the road a bit,” he said, without any hint of the malice such understatement implied. He jerked a thumb back where we had come from.

We set off walking. “I think he meant just a block or two,” I said, trying to keep Josh’s confidence up. After two blocks, I said I figured it would only be a short bit more. After a short bit more, we ducked inside a convenience store to ask directions and linger for a bit while drying off. I looked at Josh. He hadn’t brought a hood with him—“I thought it would be too much of a hassle to pack,” he explained—and water had collected in a pool on the collar of his jacket and was running down the back of his neck. His thin, nylon pants stuck to his legs, defining the contour of his knobby knees. Water rushed inward from there and drained down into his waterproof hiking boots. He had his head down and wore the same expression as a horse when it’s waiting out a storm in an open pasture. Little drops of water dripped off his nose and beaded around his cheeks. He looked absolutely miserable.

It was my turn to cackle. “Just at the top of this hill,” I promised.

We found the fort on a high bluff overlooking the river and ocean. It looked about the same as it would have in Darwin’s time, except that one of the stone buildings had been converted into a museum. A guard, huddling away from the rain at the entrance, took our entrance fee and asked us not to walk on the ruins. We promptly crossed over to the old guard house, skipping most of the fascinating but wet outdoor foundations. Inside, we found maps and flags and a small replica frigate. Although it mentioned nothing specific about Darwin’s visit, a text display suggested the fort had been mostly left alone from the time of Cochrane’s assault until restoration efforts in the 1900s. An elderly eight-pound cannon rusted in place, still pointing out at the spot near the opposite riverbank where the Beagle had anchored. We watched through slits in the walls as the wind and rain sped by like jet blasts. A few feet of grassy bluff beyond the fort tumbled into the heaving gray ocean, which dissolved into the equally gray sky.

“I saw a painting once that looked like this,” Josh said. “It was called ‘Vert igo’ and it had a naked woman standing at the end of a pier, and the ocean and sky blended together. ”

“Well,” I pointed out, “they don’t blend together perfectly because you can see the whitecaps on the ocean.”

Josh looked around forlornly. “And I don’t think a naked woman would survive very long out here,” he said.

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Josh appeared to need some cheering up, or at least dry socks and a boisterous night out. Back at the hostel that evening, we found a group of recent college grads from Vermont who were celebrating a birthday and talked them into dinner at the Kunstman Brewery—the proud location of the original brewery started by a German immigrant named Philip Andwandter in 1850, where they had been making the best beer in Chile uninterrupted for the last 150 years. The brewery’s menu promised beer that was pure, great-tasting, and “nutritious,” made in accordance with the strict purity laws of Wilhelm IV. We took a taxi.

We ordered two columnas, three-foot-tall lab-style graduated cylinders filled to the 2.5-liter mark with beer. Each had a half-foot-tall wood base and a tap, and measurement markings up the sides.

“Did Darwin visit the brewery?” the graduates wanted to know.

“It wasn’t here when he was here,” I explained. “Although he might have, if it had been.” I shared my conflicting views, which I’d been pondering since Buenos Aires, on Darwin the prude versus Darwin the partier. By most accounts, Darwin was a bit of a boring guy when it came to the social scene. He didn’t like to dance and wasn’t particularly lively or glib. Much more Mr. Darcy than Mr. Wickham. On the other hand, he’d had a sort of unspoken engagement understanding with a girl back in England before he left. She used to write him rather suggestive letters and talk about making a “beast” of herself in the strawberry beds with him. Then he’d sailed away and reached Brazil a few months later where a letter from his sister was waiting for him that said, hey, you know that girl Fanny—guess what? She’s getting married! So Darwin was upset for a while, had a good cry in the rainforest, and then he was single for the next five years. A twenty-three-year-old on a long voyage with frequent city visits in the company of a bunch of sailors. But then, I told the Vermonters, Darwin wasn’t a sailor. He was a gentleman. He was along on the trip primarily because FitzRoy needed another aristocrat to talk to.

“I mean,” I said, “he was English.”

“I had always kind of pictured him dropping his monocle in his wine,” said one of the grads. “‘I say old chap,’ that kind of stuff.”

“He was never like that, I don’t think,” I said. “He walked down the streets of Buenos Aires making jokes about the ‘signoritas.’”

In fact, Darwin did mention drinking in Valdivia. “An old man illustrated his motto that ‘Necessidad es la Madre del invencion’ by giving an account of how many things he manufactured from apples,” he wrote. “After extracting the cyder from the refuse, he by some process procured a white & most excellently flavoured spirit (which many of the officers tasted); he also could make wine.” No hints though as to whether he had dropped his monocle in it and said “I say old chap.”

And once again, apples.

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Josh showed little inclination the next morning to face the rain again, so I set off alone to find out what I could about Valdivia’s disappeared apple orchards. The museum guard had told me to come back and ask, but had mysteriously neglected to mention that the museum was closed for the day. I puzzled for a while at the locked doors, thinking, but he told us to return! The locked doors appeared unsympathetic. I started back toward the hostel. As I stumbled across the river bridge in the rain, I looked down and saw the big-top tent of Valdivia’s fluvial market. Sea lions barked and begged for fish at the edge of it, but in the middle, I was fairly certain, there were produce vendors. I wandered in and found a man selling apples, and bought two.

“I read a book that says all of Valdivia used to be covered in apple orchards,” I said. “What happened?”

The vendor stared at me blankly. “What?”

“Where are all the apple trees?” I asked.

“Oh,” he said. “They’re just outside the city now.” He waved off into the distance.

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On February 20, 1835, Darwin decided to take a nap in one of those forests in the distance. He settled down and suddenly, the earth started shaking. According to his diary, he behaved in a manner becoming an English scientist, coolly rising to his feet to measure the direction of the earthquake. “There was no difficulty in standing upright; but the motion made me giddy,” he wrote in his journal. “I can compare it to skating on very thin ice or to the motion of a ship in a little cross ripple.”

Darwin didn’t realize the extent of the quake until he returned to town. In the forest, he had been isolated and far from buildings, and as he recorded it, the breeze stirred the trees and the earth rumbled and that was that. “It was a highly interesting but by no means awe-exciting phenomenon,” he wrote. In Valdivia, however, the houses had shaken violently until many of the nails had come out, and seeing the dread on residents’ faces convinced Darwin that it was considerably more awful in town. But Valdivia had been lucky. Further north, near the epicenter, an entire city lay in ruins. In what would turn out to be a considerable understatement, Darwin wrote, “I am afraid we shall hear of damage done at Concepción.”

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