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TRAVELING NATURALISTS


The “traveling naturalist,” a person who wandered in search of natural wonders to see and collect, was a type that flourished in the nineteenth century. Before that time an individual was hard-pressed to travel independently: Logistical arrangements were daunting and political permissions hard to come by, especially in colonial Latin America. By the advent of the twentieth century, scientific specialization and institutionally sponsored expeditions had rendered the services of individual naturalists largely obsolete, and tourism had made foreign travel available to most anyone, robbing the wanderer of his sense of being an exotic. Although traveling naturalists departed from all over Europe, England was the place where wanderlust took hold most urgently, spurred by the local passion for natural history and made feasible by the far-flung connections of the British Empire.

The travelers fell roughly into three categories: wealthy men who could indulge their whims as they saw fit; less wealthy men who enjoyed the patronage of a wealthy sponsor; and freelancers who supported themselves by the sale of the specimens they collected and shipped home, usually to agents, who in turn sold the collections to individual and institutional collectors. To be a proper traveling naturalist, one had to be more or less alone, without the support of an expedition-style force; one had to have adventures, with people and animals, and suffer the expected hardships; and, of course, one had to get out alive, and be able to write. One of the earliest and best examples of the traveling naturalist is Charles Waterton, a famously strange man who rated a chapter all his own in Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics (1933). He made four trips to the New World – three to British Guiana, one to the United States and the Antilles. The first was devoted to uncovering the secrets of making curare, the Indians’ potent poison, which Waterton called “a gloomy and mysterious operation” (Waterton 1825, 56). The second was spent collecting specimens of birds (often using a blowgun and curare-tipped arrows); the third encompassed general natural history, with a special emphasis on pests – “quadrupeds, serpents, and insects”; the fourth was a general kind of wander, in both of the Americas, at one end featuring a foot bath in Niagara Falls, at the other a brief ride on the back of a caiman. Waterton’s account of his travels is a prototype of the genre: Titled Wanderings in South America, the North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the Years 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1824, the book is described by Waterton’s biographer as “an anthology of notes made while travelling. The people, the creatures, even the trees that are met along the way, crowd into the text in almost chaotic profusion, and the words follow the traveller’s eye as he gazes at one thing and then another, always ready to be distracted, always ready to move on” (Blackburn 1997, 41). Waterton would not have disagreed. He wrote in one of his essays, “To tell the truth I have no natural science in me. I merely look at art and nature as I pass along, and I pen down that which gives me most delight” (ibid., 137). By contrast, the most famous of all English traveling naturalists, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates, had a lot of science in them.

They set off together for South America in the fall of 1847, two young men enthralled by the natural world.  They traveled together along the lower Amazon for a time but then separated, Bates continuing up the Amazon, Wallace turning north up the Rio Negro. They intended their journey to be self-financing, paid for by the specimens they shipped back to England. Wallace’s trip did not end well; on the return crossing in 1852 his ship caught fire and sank, costing Wallace his remaining specimens and most of his journals. After several miserable days in a boat he and others were picked up by another ship bound for England, but it, too, was scarcely seaworthy, and the sea trip ended up taking eighty days (outbound had taken thirty).  Undeterred, Wallace soon departed England for the eastern tropics, where he made enormous contributions to science, both theoretical (evolution and the distribution of animal life) and practical (specimen collecting in the Eastern Archipelago). Bates, on the other hand, stayed on in South America until 1859. Primarily an entomologist, he returned to England with over 14,000 insect specimens, 8,000 of which were new to science. He contributed to evolutionary theory the concept known as Batesian mimicry, which explains how some organisms use resemblance to other, less appetizing, species to avoid predators. He was also among the first to note the paradox of rainforest fauna: It is extremely diverse but seldom plentiful in any given spot. These facts, however, do not do full justice to Bates’s book, which has the pitch-perfect title The Naturalist on the River Amazons, a Record of Adventures, Habits of Animals, Sketches of Brazilian and Indian Life, and Aspect of Nature under the Equator, during Eleven Years of Travel.  Bates wrote it at the urging of Darwin, and on publication Darwin wrote to Bates, “It is the best work of Natural History Travels ever published in England . . . It is a grand book, and whether or not it sells quickly, it will last” (Shoumatoff 1988). It did sell quickly, and it has lasted. Unlike Wallace, however, Bates was tired of travel, and at the conclusion of his book he poignantly describes his departure from Amazonia: “The desire, however, of seeing again my parents and enjoying once more the rich pleasures of intellectual society, had overcome the attractions of a region which may be fittingly called a Naturalist’s Paradise.  During this last night on the Para river, a crowd of unusual thoughts occupied my mind.  Recollections of English climate, scenery, and modes of life came to me with a vividness I had never before experienced, during the eleven years of my absence. Pictures of startling clarity rose up of the gloomy winters, the long grey twilights, murky atmosphere, elongated shadows, chilly springs, and sloppy summers; of factory chimneys and crowds of grimy operatives rung to work in early morning by factory bells; of union workhouses, confined rooms,artificial cares, and slavish conventionalities. To live again amidst these dull scenes, I was quitting a country of perpetual summer, where my life had been spent like that of three-fourths of the people – in gipsy fashion – on the endless streams or in the boundless forests. I was leaving the equator, where the well-balanced forces of Nature maintained a land-surface and climate that seemed to be typical of mundane order and beauty, to sail towards the North Pole, where lay my home under crepuscular skies somewhere about fifty-two degrees of latitude.  It was natural to feel a little dismayed at the prospect of so great a change; but now, after three years of renewed experience of England, I find how incomparably superior is civilized life, where feelings, tastes and intellect find abundant nourishment, to the spiritual sterility of half-savage existence, even though it be passed in the Garden of Eden” (Bates 1863, vol. 2, 416).