Monday, October 30, 2017

Of Naturalists and Natural History

Sundew, a carnivorous plant, which is very tiny and sparkles in the sunlight.
Lichens, trees, and stubbly bushy plants display very attractive patterns and colors, but I've never become very interested in understanding their classifications and relationships. Obviously if I had to live off the land I would have a different view. Or if I were a botanist. As things stand, I usually prefer to look at the birds or animals.

Dennis Cornejo photographing sundews and showing them to the passengers.
While listening to talks by Dennis Cornejo, the most botanically interested naturalist on the National Geographic Explorer, though, I became more and more interested in the colonies of tiny plants and lichens that covered rocks and bare ground.

Dennis was especially passionate about lichens and other small plants, and his enthusiasm was contagious. Here is his description of his search for the sundew from the ship's online daily expedition report:
"The day continues to be beautiful and I have a mission. I know there are sundews (carnivorous plants) somewhere here. I know their associates, soft camp, a strange tiny cushion plant that covers the ground like stiff grass. I cannot see the sundew while standing, so I must crawl across the soft camp. 
"I am lucky that it is sunny making the eighth inch leaves of the sundew sparkle in the light, boldly red. People returning to the landing beach inquire about my mission and undignified posture, and to my surprise become enthusiastic participants in my endeavor." (source)
A naturalist showing us the eggs of a squid.
All the Explorer's naturalist-guides are extraordinary people with wide experience and knowledge. They drive the Zodiac boats, help passengers get on and off safely, and find good locations for photography. Each one is a specialist in some aspect of the territory, but every one of them can identify the plants, animals, birds, and geological features of the landscape. We relied on our guides to help us find and identify birds so that we could photograph them, but we learned a lot of other things too, such as my expanded appreciation of the tiny plants in the landscape.
Lenticular clouds over Torres del Paine

The very long geological history of the mountains and numerous islands with deep channels and fjords at the tip of South America is so complex that I barely understood what was being said. On Zodiac boats, we sometimes heard brief lectures about the many types of rock and how they formed under the extreme pressure at the bottom of the ocean and were pushed up by the grinding of the continental plates.

Several other natural history topics captured my attention. Clouds, for example. One day in Torres del Paine National Park the naturalists from the hotel pointed out lenticular clouds, a particular formation that appears only in mountainous areas.

In addition to talks about botany, geology, and so on, the ship's naturalist who specialized in local peoples gave a highly entertaining talk about the gauchos and gaucho culture as it still exists. Another lecture on local lore included a clip from the film "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" since these two notorious bank robbers fled to Patagonia where they had further adventures, including maybe robbing a bank.

Califate bushes were in bloom everywhere as we walked in Torres del
Paine National Park. The berries will be ripe in November, I believe.
As always, food is one of my deep interests. We didn't get to try much local food or local produce -- except for the berries of the calafate plant, similar to blueberries, which were served in the hotel in Torres del Paine. It tasted more or less like blueberries: I guessed they had frozen some of the berries from last year, as we saw only flowers. Legend has it that one who eats this berry will return to Patagonia.

Accounts of a couple of early expeditions to Tierra del Fuego contributed to what I know about this vast and complex place, including a little about the diet eked out by the natives of this hostile region.

Explorer Julius Popper, who traversed the area in 1886, wrote of locally available foods, both plants and animals, which -- from necessity -- he ate:
"Bill of fare for breakfast:
  • Wild celery soup with English sauce. 
  • Kaiken* eggs with seal oil. 
  • Chloephaga Magellanica with Worcestershire sauce. 
  • Guanaco steak with Fuegian celery. 
  • Coffee without sugar."
-- Julius Popper, The 1886 Exploration of Tierra del Fuego, Kindle Locations 288-293.
Popper also wrote: 
Fortunately, towards the south of Cape San Sebastian the land was more lavish of its gifts. We found wild celery and kaiken* and duck eggs at every step, and also guanacos, but not so wild as in the north. We killed a seal which supplied us with a good quantity of oil for culinary purposes."
--Kindle Locations 597-599
*NOTE: Kaiken is another name for South American geese, including upland geese, kelp geese, and ashy-headed geese. It's now mainly remembered as the name of a winery in Argentina.

Title page of The Voyage of the Beagle, published in
4 volumes including Darwin's and FitzRoy's accounts.
Darwin's account of the voyage to Tierra del Fuego offers an impression of local foods:
"Whenever it is low water, winter or summer, night or day, they must rise to pick shellfish from the rocks; and the women either dive to collect sea-eggs, or sit patiently in their canoes, and with a baited hair-line without any hook, jerk out little fish. If a seal is killed, or the floating carcass of a putrid whale is discovered, it is a feast; and such miserable food is assisted by a few tasteless berries and fungi. They often suffer from famine."
-- Darwin’s Journal: Tierra del Fuego, Kindle Locations 185-188.
Darwin also described how local people viewed the Englishmen's ship diet:
"At dinner-time we landed among a party of Fuegians. At first they were not inclined to be friendly; for until the Captain pulled in ahead of the other boats, they kept their slings in their hands. We soon, however, delighted them by trifling presents, such as tying red tape round their heads. They liked our biscuit: but one of the savages touched with his finger some of the meat preserved in tin cases which I was eating, and feeling it soft and cold, showed as much disgust at it, as I should have done at putrid blubber."
-- Kindle Locations 266-270. 

1 comment:

Tina said...

Fascinating trip, keep the photos and info coming! That carnivorous plant was simultaneously beautiful and scary.
I have never seen a ventricular cloud but my husband said it looked like a spaceship, very good photo.