Feb 042009

Charles Darwin is known more for his detailing of finches on the Galapagos than of his work with hawks (if any), but hawks and Darwin are on my mind this week and next.

First, we had a Cooper’s hawk visit our yard the other day:

He started at the bird feeder, which I had just filled for the first time in weeks.

Then he flew to the back wall by the alley.

I couldn’t set up my tripod to get a clean shot — in part because there wasn’t time and in part because it was out in the car — so this is the sharpest I could crop the second photo above to get a closer look at those sharp eyes.

As for Darwin, the University of Arizona is throwing a 200th birthday celebration on the famed scientist’s birthday: February 12. That also happens to be Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (same year, too; pretty solid birth year for two of the most important men in modern world history). And 160 years later, that happens to be the day I was born, too!

I’m excited for the celebration not just because I share the birthday of a man I so admire, but also because I’ll be one of a half-dozen poets reading in the celebration. I’ll be reading my series of three poems, “Letter from Charles Darwin to His Sister, Catherine.” That begins at about 2:45, and I’m the first reader (so don’t be late!).

Seems appropriate to close with my first Darwin poem, then:

Letter from Charles Darwin
to His Sister, Catherine

21 January, 1832

My Dearest Catherine,

Passage to the Cape Verde Islands,
a minor stopover for the Beagle,
but a major one for myself.
Oh, if you could have seen my face—
the color of stitched linen at Downs
(where last I have seen either you or Susan).
How can I explain my misery at that time?
The tormenting waves, the incessant rocking,
always rising and collapsing
as my stomach did the same.
Fitzroy is a fine man,
as he would look in on me while
I lay idle at sick bay;
But Wickham, his first mate,
knew no friendship for me.
My quarters fare little better—
I share the poop cabin,
and have my drawers; the two others
(officers both) have lockers.

16 March, 1832

Finally it is Spring—
it seems as if even these vast seas
know the changes. They are richer,
though I knew well before we reached the mainland
we were there. A single leaf, a barkless twig,
a clod of saturated grass, still living—all signals.
No beauty exists in all the world
such as in these tropical lands.
In all my days of studying,
under Henslow or even Sir Adam Sedgwick,
I was never prepared for the absolute
numbers and grand diversity of life—
of species. I have been able to collect,
though I must have killed
hundreds of insects, small mammals, and birds.
(Do not worry, Catherine, I know how
you love life. These species are too numerous
for my sampling to harm.)
One butterfly must be named for you—
its wings are the majesty’s blue blazoned
with scarlet, violet, and even silver.
How much it reminds me of your favorite brooch.
These lands have too many more to describe,
the brilliantly colored parrots, the gay
primates swinging on twisted branches…
Father must accuse me
of lizard-catching now, as well.

Yet in all of this beauty, one thing
remains disturbing. Here
on Bahia, on the Northeastern coast
of Brasil—chiseled into the delirious
greenness of rainforest—
man holds man captive.
Nothing plays enchanting in blood
mixing with sweat on the whip-cuts
of the negroes. Nothing enchanting
in the deep brown skin
chained with iron coils.
You must see the difference.
I collect a few specimens for knowledge,
for all—it is my passion, no man sees harm.
But these men, vulgar and cruel,
they act as if they transcend the Creator,
though He who created such solitudes
surely must not agree.

We depart for the South
in but a short while. I cannot say
I will be home soon—the Beagle
shelters my bed now, much as
the tropical canopy is secure in the mist.
You cannot know
unless you see these forests
and breathe this air…

With loving passage,

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