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

Part I. EXPLORATION

THE CHANGING LAND ON THE EAST COAST

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Chapter 1. BRAZIL

A Chaos of Delights

I do not know what epithet such scenery deserves: beautiful is much too tame; every form, every colour is such a complete exaggeration of what one has ever beheld before. If it may be so compared, it is like one of the gayest scenes in the Opera House or Theatre.

—BEAGLE DIARY, JUNE 1, 1832

BRAZIL IS THE KIND OF PLACE where you feel something’s happening that’s absolutely delightful and fascinating and completely foreign to everything you know, only you can’t quite grasp what it is. That weird paranoia is amplified by the stunningly disorienting scenery of places like Rio de Janeiro, where huge, smooth cones of rock swoop up and down, clad in a thriving blend of palms, ferns, cactuses, and scrubby bushes, while the glittering jumble of city runs right up to—even into—famous mountain landmarks rising out of the water.

I started my voyage with Brazil because that’s where Darwin started his and because it was that exhilarating landscape that stood out most in his mind as he reflected on his trip later, as an old man. Also, as I soon found out, there was an easy comparison to make between Darwin’s take on the new nature around him and my own adrenaline-fueled excitement at Brazil’s crazily, incomprehensibly, wonderfully different city landscape.

The feeling I was missing something only increased as I tried to adjust to Brazilian social life. A functional grasp of Spanish couldn’t get me beyond “Hello, how are you?, The dog is green” conversations in Portuguese. I was bunking down in a cramped youth hostel in Botafogo and had trouble connecting with my hostel mates, who tended to divide into camps of 1) fluent Portuguese speakers from Europe and North America who had immersed themselves in Brazilian life and did things like teaching in schools and looking down upon us ignorant gringos, 1a) not-yet-fluent Portuguese speakers who were dating Brazilians and looked down on us ignorant gringos, and 2) blissfully ignorant gringos whose knowledge of Brazil started and stopped with an aesthetic appreciation of the thong bikini.

For dorm roommates I had drawn a preening, chiseled German and an aloof Frenchman. The German liked to strut around the room in a Speedo and, while admiring his rippling bronzed abs, lecture us about the club scene in heavily accented Tarzan-style English. “So there is this place I went to last night where the cover was 120 reales,” he told us. The Frenchman raised an eyebrow at the cost, to which the German quickly added, “But you can drink up to 100 of it. And it is worth it just to see it. They have the most beautiful girls there.”

The floor near the German’s bed was littered with wrinkled-up napkins used to capture names and phone numbers. “Flavia,” whose napkin had blown over in my direction and lay face up on the floor, had taken the time to write hearts around her number.

When the German took an interest in what I was doing in Brazil, however, I left him baffled by saying I wanted to go to the Tijuca National Park.

“What’s that?”

“Hiking,” I said. “In the rainforest, in the mountains. Want to come?”

“Oh no,” he said. “Not for me. I’m going to the beach again. Have you seen the girls on the beach?” He clicked his tongue and gave me a thumbs-up.

Both roommates were asleep—Tarzan sprawled out in his briefs, sheet pushed away—when I tiptoed out early on a gray, humid Thursday morning. Botafogo was a one-time suburb of Rio where Darwin had taken a cottage to use as a peaceful base for trips into the surrounding jungle, and it had since vanished—along with Rio’s other suburbs—under an onslaught of humanity and cinder block. I boarded a bus headed north, to Tijuca, where I expected to find not just a Darwin site, but a remnant of tropical forest, and a much-needed dose of natural tranquility. We lurched and honked our way along in a cloud of exhaust, past vendors and flapping flags emblazoned with the Brazilian national motto, “Order and Progress.”

Order did not exist here the way it does in other countries. Sidewalks all over town blinked in and out of existence like a demonstration of quantum theory, ending abruptly, sometimes starting again a few blocks later, but certainly following no predictable pattern. Houses of various and dissonant architectural styles leaned on one another. Glass medical centers clung to the gabled offices of massage therapists, which cast their shadows on brown adobe liquor stores. Street vendors hawked batteries, scissors, pirated DVDs, cell phones, peanuts, coconuts, electric sanders, and leather-covered steering wheels, in case drivers wanted to pimp their ride mid-commute. And then the Brazilians—tanned, lean people in shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops everywhere, all on their way somewhere. (I suppose, given the national motto, they were on their path to progress.) The hum of conversation mixed with the cries of the vendors, the rumble of idling motorcycles, the drone of airplanes and sightseeing helicopters, and the whines and sighs of trucks braking to stops and moving on again. Blasts of exhaust, sweat, grime. and dust joined the humidity to create a suffocating cloud. In the shade of the omnipresent buses, manic taxis, scooters, policemen, pushcarts, and bicycle delivery riders for “Bob’s Burgers” competed for space on the street. One messenger company that dispatched riders to sites around the city was called, in English, “Boy Delivery.”

While I struggled with a radically different version of social order, Darwin confronted in Brazil a radically different version of the natural world. Darwin hailed from a country that, after thousands of years of cultured habitation, had essentially become one big garden. A big cultivated garden in a cold climate. A two-month boat ride and he found himself sweating and marveling at an intensity of color he had never encountered outdoors before. Vegetation grew uncontrollably, in a way that seemed a direct challenge to a stiff-upper-lip-loving Englishman’s sense of the universe, and his reaction to virgin forest pretty much mirrored my German roommate’s reaction to the girls on the beach: “Delight is however a weak term for such transports of pleasure” and “I can only add raptures to the former raptures.” He concluded his diary entry from his second day in Brazil with “Full of enjoyment one fervently desires to live in retirement in this new & grander world.”

In the 1830s, Rio de Janeiro amounted to a whole lot of neat monolithic rock formations with jungle covering everything in between. Twelve million people later, the city forced its will on what little natural spaces remained, presenting its own profusion of growth—an urban mirror to the bursting vegetation of Darwin’s day. Now tall, clean skyscrapers rose above all else, lifeless towers of cement and steel punctuating the swarming, sweltering, steamy mess below, competing for attention with forest-clad mountain peaks in the background. It was the pure state of nature, still—just the “nasty, brutish and short” Hobbesian version.

After my forest-bound bus had lurched through that tumult for more than an hour, crammed streets gave way to a shadier, quieter neighborhood. The road climbed a winding hill, with thick tropical foliage hanging over the road. Gated driveways led to fantastic houses overlooking the skyscrapers and curving white sand beaches below. (“On the road, the scenery was very beautiful,” Darwin declared from the same spot, “especially the distant view of Rio.”) At the top of the hill, in a tranquil neighborhood called Alto da Boa Vista, another long gated driveway curled into the Tijuca National Park like the entrance to a wonderful tropical mansion. A creek and verdant forest, infused with the pure smells of tropical flowers and wet soil, quickly surrounded everything.

A guide introduced himself as Jean Marx Muñiz Belvedere and politely broke into my reverie to invite me on a walk through the forest. To get him talking in English, which he claimed to be uncomfortable with, I asked what he had done before he came to the park. “I was an artist,” he said. “How you say, trapezista?”

He swung his arms and flashed a sly half-grin.

“A trapeze artist?” I said.

“Yes,” he said matter-of-factly. “That’s right.”

To him, this was perfectly normal. This was one of those times when I felt I was missing something. When you finally do find someone to talk to in Brazil, he makes it sound like everyone local just happened to have a past that involved circus performances.

Jean the former trapeze-artist looked stereotypically Brazilian—tanned olive skin, hirsute, toned limbs, a head of short, dark, curly hair, and a perpetual humid-jungle fog on his thin-rimmed glasses. I asked what he knew about Charles Darwin, and he asked me how much time I had for the answer.

It turned out he didn’t ask because he was a Darwin expert, but because the best thing he could think of to do with my question was to take me hiking to the highest peak in the park, the 3,400-foot-tall Pico Tijuca. “It’s where we traditionally take visitors,” he said. “The ones who can walk. You can walk?”

There wasn’t much in Darwin’s own account to follow. On June 16, 1832, he left his cottage in Botafogo early in the morning to see the waterfalls in “Tijeuka.” “Neither the height or the body of water is anything very imposing,” he wrote, “but they are rendered beautiful, by the dampness so increasing the vegetation, that the water appears to flow out of one forest & to be received & hidden in another below.”

Now the park’s largest waterfall is the 115-foot-tall Cascatinha Taunay, and the main pathway into the park crosses a bridge directly below the falls. The rainy season was coming to a close and the waterfall was flowing fast, probably more so than in Darwin’s time. Moss and jungle plants clung to life on the sheer rock face supporting the falls, while vines and creepers webbed their way over the top of the waterfall. From the top, water cascaded into a small pool, flowed downhill into a larger, calmer pool, and then joined the creek running down toward the entrance to the park.

I asked Jean how the waterfall might have looked in Darwin’s time, and he surprised me. He said the park, in its present incarnation, was actually more jungly now than it was in 1832. Modern-day Parque Nacional Floresta Tijuca, Jean told me, was the result of a bold and successful environmental engineering project—one that dated to just after Darwin’s visit. Rio de Janeiro’s early history runs along the usual lines—backwater town booms when resources get discovered—but with a bit of a twist. The entire Portuguese royal family moved to the capital of their Brazilian territory when Napoleon invaded Portugal in 1808. The population of Rio boomed, and it kept expanding, carving rapaciously into the surrounding jungle in search of more land for plantations and suburbs. The entire forest where we stood admiring hundred-foot-tall trees that appeared ancient had been burned to the ground and turned into a coffee plantation. “Naked,” Jean said, staring off into the jungle. “This entire spot was naked .”

In the mid-1810s, King John, who continued living in Rio after Napoleon’s defeat, began to worry that the destruction would harm the city’s water supply and issued orders that the land around streams be replanted with trees to guarantee a potable water supply. His commands went ignored until the springs that provided fresh water for the city went dry and Rio suffered four massive droughts. Darwin, who visited in 1832, missed these—the last had happened in 1829, and the next would hit in 1833—and he didn’t mention any water supply troubles. But the most severe dry spell, which occurred in 1844, finally convinced the government to act. By that time Brazil was independent from Portugal, and the country’s new rulers decided to put some money and thought into conserving the forests and waterfalls of Tijuca. In this case, conserving meant replanting.

In 1861, Manuel Gomes Archer was named administrator of the Tijuca Forest project, and together with six slaves, he began to replant the forest. Archer had no formal training but was considered a local expert, and he decided to replant the area with native plants in roughly the same ratio he had seen in other Brazilian forests. Over the next twelve years, Archer’s six slaves planted 72,000 trees. The springs, according to a report Archer prepared near the end of this administration, regained and retained their former water levels.

Jean told me that our trail was called the Major Archer trail. On the way into the park, I had seen a sculpture at the visitor’s center of a man holding out a fresh, live bromeliad, and Jean explained that it honored the six slaves who returned Tijuca to the forest.

“Do you know what the word ecologia means?” Jean asked.

“Ecology? Sure. Why?”

“What does it mean?”

“I don’t know. The study of ecosystems—plants and animals and the environment.”

“No,” Jean said, “what does it mean? What does eco mean?”

“Oh. I don’t know. Environment?”

Eco is Greek for house, home. Logia is Greek for study. Ecologia, ecology, is the study of your home. And what does economia mean? Eco—home—and onomia means organization. I give this talk to our volunteers the other day. I explain to them, how can you have your home organized if you do not study it?”

Jean was clearly at home in the forest. He hiked at a blistering pace, nimbly dodging fallen trees and leaping over creeks and, all the while, prattling merrily about flora and fauna and the kinds of things that might be lying in wait behind the rotting tree trunk I was using to pull myself up the muddy trail.

“Oh, yes, many snakes here,” Jean said. “Only one very poisonous though.”

“Oh,” I said. “Ah.”

“But she is—she don’t like us. She knows we are more dangerous to her. She recognize the most dangerous animal on Earth.” He chuckled at this line, and its English delivery, rubbing his hands in self-satisfaction.

Jean mentioned jacarei—crocodiles—which used to live in the swamps around Rio but now were gone except for the huge natural area in southwestern Brazil known as the Pantanal. He was sad about this. “Jacarei, they not want to eat you. Jacarei, they are good people.”

And what about sharks, I wanted to know. I’ve long had a soft spot for the world’s most feared apex predators.

“I like sharks,” Jean agreed. “Sharks, they are good people too.”

After about an hour, Jean called for a rest. I was panting, sopping with sweat. Jean’s glasses had now fogged over completely. He indicated the ruins of a small brick house, buried in the jungle, and we wandered over there and sat down on the remains of a windowsill. Moss covered the outside, and the doors and windows were long gone. A landslide had pushed through the back window, and a banged-up refrigerator had taken root in the middle of the room. Jean told me that someone had lived in the house and had disappeared. His ghost supposedly roamed the forest. We looked out at the canopy.

“It’s just a story,” Jean said, misinterpreting my silence.

While he sprawled on the cool, mossy brick, I pulled out my copy of the Beagle diary and read out loud Darwin’s account of the road up to Tijuca. In his typical style he had written: “As a Sultan in a Seraglio I am becoming quite hardened to beauty. It is wearisome to be in a fresh rapture at every turn of the road. And as I have before said, you must be that or nothing.”

“Yes,” said Jean, nodding as I explained the word rapture. “Very beautiful.”

He pointed out some small lichens on a tree, little splotches of green with a bright pink outline. “They only grow where there is no pollution,” he said. “The air here is good.”

I told him that I felt suffocated by the city’s constant commotion within hours of arriving, and mentioned my German roommate, who was no doubt at that very moment lying on the Copacabana in his Speedo, attracting girls like a Bob’s burger set out for hungry seagulls.

“I understand,” Jean said. “It was like that in the circus.” Seer-coos, he said.

“Party all night, sleep during the day. For a long time, that was my life. Like so many people in Rio. I met this Italian guy a few weeks ago, who had been coming here every year for the last twenty years. He had married a girl here. And he had never heard of the Tijuca Forest. He just comes here every year to go to the beach. He told me, ‘I don’t like it here in the forest. It’s too green. I feel suffocated here.’”

We both looked up at the light filtering through the canopy, hundreds of feet above our heads, and then back at the little fresh-air lichens. “It is funny,” Jean said, “how people do not perceive what is right near them.” He looked up again. “I like it here. Now, I work when everyone else rests, but is OK. I could not work in some room with four walls.”

We started hiking again and moved upward through the wearisome raptures of the forest for another hour or so. (With all respect to Darwin, plodding up switchbacks in 85-degree, 85-percent humidity is far more wearisome than endless greenery.) As we neared the peak, the trail leveled out into an overlook of white rooftops and the d i stant Pão de Açúcar. The Pão is one of Rio’s most identifiable landmarks—the jungle-covered rock that rises from the water in postcards—and a distinctive reminder that, even if the interior jungle looks like tropical jungle elsewhere, from this overlook you are now incontrovertibly looking at Rio de Janeiro.

Of course, there are other things that can do this. “There’s the Maracanã,” Jean said, pointing at the world’s largest soccer stadium. He was, unsurprisingly, a soccer fan. (“I taught Ronaldhino how to play,” he insisted, smiling. “Everyone says he’s the best player in the world. He’s just the best player playing professionally.”) Other than the Maracanã, he pointed out no other buildings in the city. I think he felt unsettled by the city intruding so aggressively on his forest—his home. For the last few hours he had named every plant and bird and identified every rustle in the bushes, but faced with the sprawling, honking complexity below, he went silent.

Instead, he pointed out a vulture with white wingtips, circling high over the city. “People don’t like them,” he said, “but they are very beautiful at flying. Scientists say that vultures fly only to find food, but I’m not sure. I believe they are flying for fun.”

We pushed through a few small clumps of grass and trees and emerged atop the second-highest peak in the park, the ground falling away below us into a breathtaking 300-degree view of Rio, splayed out on the coastal plain around the glittery silver Guanabara Bay. “I could sleep up here,” Jean said. “This is my favorite view in the whole park.”

“The cidade maravilhosa,” I said. Rio de Janeiro’s nickname: the Marvelous City.

“Yes,” Jean said. He repeated, sadly, “Cidade maravilhosa.”

“Sometimes,” he said, “I’m not so sure. I like to come up here and think what it would be like if the Portuguese had never come.” He looked away from the city, over the jungle stretching out toward the ocean to the south. He shrugged and wandered off for a minute.

“Just like everywhere,” I said when he returned. “Brazil and California are similar. Many of the Indians are basically gone.”

“And with them, all the knowledge,” Jean added. The topic seemed to depress him. “They knew about ecology. How to organize their home.”

He asked whether I wanted to climb the rest of the way to Tijuca Peak. I said yes, of course—Darwin wouldn’t have settled for the second-highest peak with the highest peak in such plain sight. Its bald dome rose from a densely forested ridge connected to where we were standing. The trail wound through the jungle to the base of the summit, then turned to climb 1,020 stairs that had been cut into the rock specifically for the King of Belgium in 1921. The president of Brazil had hoped to please the king, a renowned climber, by allowing him to access the difficult summit. The king saw the stairs and took it for the novice route, so he made his own way, rock-climbing to the top.

“It was a huge shame,” Jean said.

Park workers had driven iron spikes into the rock around the stairs and strung thick metal cable between the posts as a swaying handhold. The way the posts poked out at odd angles, some of them leaning temptingly over sheer cliff edge, it looked safer to try and hang onto the steps themselves. After ten minutes of climbing, we hauled ourselves up onto a small grassy knoll that marked the top and looked down through the thin layer of smog. Below us to the east, the winding Guanabara Bay glittered in the afternoon sun, and the city of Nitteroi, on the opposite shore, appeared faint in the coastal haze. To the south, dramatic posts of jungle-covered rock cut into our view of the famous white sand crescents of Copacabana and Ipanema. In the north, planes took flight from the airport, and teeming slums climbed up the hillsides until the forest took over. The view west encompassed nothing but forest, rolling, tumultuous green hills stretching into haze.

The spectacular view left me exhilarated. I thought back to Darwin, who wrote in his first letter home from Brazil, “The exquisite glorious pleasure of walking amongst such flowers, & such trees cannot be comprehended, but by those who have experienced it.” The contradiction between his repeated attempts to describe the forest, and his inability to pick enough adjectives to adequately communicate it, had been much on Darwin’s mind in Brazil. His rainforest accounts were heavily influenced by a travelogue written just before his birth by the famed wandering German Alexander von Humboldt, a man who liked his descriptors. (Darwin really took to him, writing at one point, “He like another sun illumines all I behold.”)

Darwin’s infatuation with von Humboldt lasted for several months and extended to his writing style, so that at one point his oh-so-very-English sister wrote him a letter asking him to knock off with the “flowery French expressions,” and stick more to “your own simple straight forward & far more agreeable style.” Gradually, he did. Almost exactly three years later, Darwin climbed a mountain peak in the high Andes and compared the view to “watching a thunderstorm” or “hearing in full Orchestra a Chorus of the Messiah.” That’s not just better and more mature writing, it’s a sign that Darwin was starting to realize that actually, you can comprehend the glorious pleasure of a mountain peak or a Brazilian forest without experiencing it. The scenery had given him an adrenaline shot, but, he realized, perhaps you’ve got your own soul-awakener somewhere else, at the art museum, or the beach, or even (why not?) the football stadium. Now, as Jean and I stood there, with the entire world seemingly arrayed below us in a tossed mixture of greenery, rock, cement, sand, and ocean, I felt like I had earned a taste of Darwin’s Brazilian chaos of delights.

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