Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Nonfiction RC #15

I read this book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2014.

A Naturalist in the Amazons - Henry Walter Bates, 1863

This is the most famous book by the Victorian self-taught naturalist and travel writer. It became a classic description of landscape, wildlife, and inhabitants because of its blend of entomology, ornithology, primatology, and anthropology in the participant observer manner. Because of his work on insects, he contributed to the support of the theory of natural selection. He is not a well-remembered as his colleagues Wallace, Huxley, and Galton, perhaps because he had an extremely modest personality and lacked university credentials.

In 1848, at the age of 23, he sailed with Wallace in order to collect objects of natural history, with a special emphasis on beetles and butterflies. In his eleven years in the Amazon, he collected over 14,000 species, of which 8000 were new to science. He financed his research by sending back to the UK specimens that his agent sold to museums and eager affluent amateurs. He loved the forest and preferred the society of the locals to Europeans to the extent that he considered staying in Brazil permanently. But as he grew older, the discomforts and privations took a toll on his health and he returned to England. Though he published research papers and corresponded much with Darwin, he did not make a scientific career, becoming an official with the Royal Geographical Society.

Bates wrote large sections of the book at different times, in different places. Thus, the structure of the book feels strange, though prose in almost always interesting and readable. The first quarter or so spends much time on his initial months around Belém. In fact, it’s quite enjoyable to read of his sense of wonder at the beauty of the forest, calling to mind Lafcadio Hearn’s wide-eyed essay “My First Day in the Orient.” Then, he describes the regions of Ega and Santarém in a closely-observed fashion. Once he reaches the upper Amazon, he is back to writing in diary form.

The Dover edition I read retained the illustrations from an edition released in the 1870s. In one Bates is pictured looking very 1970s in a checked shirt and trousers. His large round glasses, too, make him look like unique if quiet and unassuming, a modest guy whose done extraordinary things. He writes like that too: modest, not in the way of his own prose (like Burton), saying, “Isn’t this wonderful?”

A great variety of other beautiful and curious insects adorned these pleasant woods. Others were seen only in the sunshine in open places. As the waters retreated from the beach, vast numbers of sulphur-yellow and orange coloured butterflies congregated on the moist sand. The greater portion of them belonged to the genus Callidryas. They assembled in densely-packed masses, sometimes two or three yards in circumference, their wings all held in an upright position, so that the beach looked as though variegated with beds of crocuses. These Callidryades seem to be migratory insects, and have large powers of dissemination. During the last two days of our voyage, the great numbers constantly passing over the river attracted the attention of every one on board. They all crossed in one direction, namely, from north to south, and the processions were uninterrupted from an early hour in the morning until sunset. All the individuals which resort to the margins of sandy beaches are of the male sex. The females are much more rare, and are seen only on the borders of the forest, wandering from tree to tree, and depositing their eggs on low mimosas which grow in the shade. The migrating hordes, as far as I could ascertain, are composed only of males, and on this account I believe their wanderings do not extend very far.

Readers interested in botany, entomology, the Amazon, intrepid Victorians or great travelers will like this book.

1 comment:

  1. (Still) Hopping over from the Nonfiction Reading Challenge...

    I get a kick out of Victorian botanists. I read a novel this year that was interesting in that vein -- A Flower for the Queen by Caroline Vermall

    Joy's Book Blog