Galapagos: World’s End!
Our book today is a genuine corker: Galapagos: World’s End by William Beebe, his 1924 account of the trip he took in 1923 with the Harrison Williams Galapagos Expedition to travel in the footsteps of of Charles Darwin’s expedition there with the Beagle in 1835. Beebe was already a prominent scientist and natural history expert when his book came out, and it sold like griddle cakes and lodged on the bestseller lists for months and months.
Its success was hardly a surprise – Beebe is such a smart and chummy writer that every one of his books makes the same kind of jumpingly lively reading. But even his normally vivid prose glows a little brighter when he’s playing his adventures off against the far more famous adventures that Darwin wrote about in his own (also delightful, it should be remembered) book. Beebe’s book parallels Darwin’s in several intriguing ways, including sometimes ways that even after many re-readings I still think are unconscious. For example, Beebe can no more resist than Darwin could the temptation to be a royal pain in the ass to some of the Galapagos’s most famous inhabitants:
To test the acquisition of fear, I caught an iguana of medium size, jerked him into the air, played with him for a few minutes and then loosened the noose and set him free. He ran of a few feet, turned and looked at me and offered no resistance to being again caught and swung through space. Six times I repeated this, and if anything he was tamer after the rough treatment than before, in the face of a series of experiences which would have driven any ordinary wild creature insane with fright.
(I’ve been to the Galapagos Islands twice, and on neither occasion did I feel the slightest urge to play tilt-a-whirl with the basset-sized lizards who live there – or to chuck them into the sea and watch what they do, as Darwin did; maybe it’s a weird quirk isolated to naturalists?)
Another parallel with Darwin is Beebe’s deep and persistent feeling of inquisitive awe at the largely unknown natural world around him. Every one of his observations feels as fresh as a sunrise, and his always-eloquent prose reflects that no matter what he’s writing about, from the mechanical intricacies of the Panama Canal to the surprisingly cutthroat world he observed
just beneath the gorgeous surface f the Pacific:
Fish savagery is always a striking feature of sea-fishing. Large fish are wary of attacking other large fish, but the moment either one seems to be in trouble or incapacitated he immediately becomes a victim. The attack seems more savage than the kill of the jungle, and the smell of blood arouses much the same instinct among fish as it does among jungle carnivora. The struggle for existence – for food – that takes place in the black depths of the sea is more fierce than that on land.
I was naturally quite pleased when I came across this old Dover paperback of Galapagos: World’s End at the Brattle last week; I’d forgotten the first-rate job Dover used to do with its line of nonfiction reprints. This volume, printed in 1988, is full of the color and black-and-white illustrations the author included in his original edition nearly a century ago, and it’s remarkably sturdy for a paperback – which is a very good thing when it comes to William Beebe, since anybody who reads him will certainly be re-reading him before too long.