The Tawny-Green Steppe

April 15th, 1832

On the second day of our anchorage at the mouth of the Rio Santa Cruz, I led a party of sailors up to the summit of the hill where I’d stumbled upon an Indian grave. Two large boulders had been rolled up against a cliff, back-filled with rubble, and capped by an immense shard of granite that had somehow been detached from a ledge above the boulders to lie across them like a dolmen. We exerted ourselves to undermine the grave by removing a great deal of the rubble but we found no relics, nor even any bones. It was a disappointment. As the sailors rowed us back out to the ship I was revisited by those feelings of despair, the bleak and nameless melancholy that had dogged me during the first months of the voyage but that had otherwise mostly receded by now, offset by the daily prospect of new curiosities.

The following morning the Captain, myself, and a party of five additional officers and men loaded provisions into the ship’s cutter and set off on an upstream exploration of the Rio Santa Cruz. The river was rumored to be navigable all the way to the Andes cordillera—which I’d yet to lay eyes upon—the great range that curves like a spine from the northern tropics of New Spain to the frigid wastes of Tierra del Fuego.

The trip proved more arduous than we’d been expecting. The Captain divided us into teams and each team took turns ashore, using towropes to drag the reluctant cutter upstream against the current. After a week we’d made disappointingly little progress, though I myself was intermittently distracted by a recurring stratum of sedimentary rock that contained the shells of an ancient ocean.

By the end of the second week the river had dwindled to a rocky stream and the cutter lacked the draft to go on. At first I pressed for us to continue over land, but our stores were nearly depleted, and the Captain was concerned that some unforeseen delay on the downstream journey would put us all at risk of starvation, so I contented myself with a half a day’s ascent of the nearest prominence with a westward view, accompanied by the Captain. What a joy it was to gain the crest and see the distant cordillera shining brightly in the mid-morning sun! A line of high peaks running north and south as far as the eye could measure. A parade of monumental cirques and pinnacles capped in pure white like sugar-dusted confections rising up into a crystalline blue sky. To think that in this short lifetime one would have the chance to glimpse such storied beauty with one’s own naked eyes.

But in the very next moment the panorama that lay before us—the vast, staggering emptiness of it—turned my mind back to that empty Indian grave. I was gripped by a moment of irrational panic. I shall never see my home again, I thought. I shall surely die out here. My bones will turn to powder and be blown away by this incessant wind.

September 7th, 1832

Resting my elbows on the cathead last night, gazing down into the midnight-black water, I witnessed a remarkable phenomenon. It began as a faint flashing far beneath the surface, like the hint of distant lightning. Gradually the flashes became brighter and more distinct, as if a summer storm were approaching from below.

My exclamations attracted half a dozen sailors and officers of the watch. The quality of the flashing light was eerie, an unearthly bright green whose color I still find difficult to describe. Something like the moon on a clear night but greener; like lightning bugs but quicker to flash and subside. Lightning bugs is the more apt comparison, because as the flashes drew closer each seemed to associate itself with one of dozens of dark capsule-bodied creatures weaving quickly through the current a few fathoms beneath the ship.

Suddenly the flashing ceased. I stared down into an ocean so inscrutable it might well have been a great pool of ink. It was as if nothing had happened. As if I and the men leaning over the rail had merely imagined those fast-swimming lanterns under the water. I felt chilled—and surprisingly bereft.

What caused that strange submarine play of lights? I do not know. I suspect that it was fish, or dolphins, or perhaps even a new species of penguin with heretofore unknown luminescent qualities. In the end it is not my ignorance that troubles me, but the feeling that this strange vision is part of something larger that has been hovering on the outskirts of my mind, frustratingly beyond reach of my ability to express in words. The presentiment of a devastating truth dwelling just beneath the surface of articulated thought. The dread feeling that there will be no containing it, no reconciling it, no putting it back in its rightful place.

December 23rd, 1832

We sailed into a bay called Wulaia, there to deposit the three Fuegians that had accompanied us from Devonport. I’ve always considered the captain’s plan quite dubious—to set them up as Christian missionaries in their native land—though in truth they were an unremarkable presence for most of the voyage, with days and even weeks passing that I forgot their very existence.

Of the three I knew the young man best: Jemmy Button. Jemmy spoke far better English than the other two, an older couple, and his was the bigger personality aboard the ship. In fact, Jemmy’s antic disposition led him to be adopted by the common sailors as a kind of mascot or jester. He seemed to enjoy the attention and could be quite the showman; when he said something that drew laughter he would repeat it over and over, usually to diminishing returns. Still, he was a jolly young fellow most of the time, vain of his appearance, always wearing gloves, with his shoes polished to a flawless shine and his jet-black hair neatly bowl-cut. Before the events of Wulaia I found the boy sympathetic enough, though it must also be admitted that I considered him slightly untrustworthy—for he was on the one hand too eager to please, and on the other could never long hold the gaze of the person addressing him.

On this day, the Fuegians were to be accompanied ashore by their guardian, the missionary Richard Mathews, whose task it was to oversee the installation of this advance guard—or Trojan Horse as the case may be characterized—in the conversion of the naked savages of Tierra del Fuego to the mighty word of God. For a young cleric, Mathews already has too much of the tight-lipped country vicar about him for my taste. Here at the ends of the earth, moreover, he strikes me as a creature swimming well out of his depth. Time will tell, I suppose, but I do fear the worst for him.

The Captain and officers, together with the ship’s carpenter and a detachment of sailors, took it upon themselves to build Mathews and his three charges a hut to live in. This gave me an afternoon at my leisure in the hills overlooking the bay. I decided to dedicate the time to studying an odd, orange, spherical fungus that appears to subsist by attacking the branches of the small-leafed beech trees that cover the land from the waterline to the snowline. I was keen to discover whether the organism was a parasite or merely a species of epiphyte, and I wished to examine its internal structure to discover anything else I could about it, including its properties as a source of nutrition, for Jemmy had assured me that the natives eat it with abandon.

I followed one of the well-worn Fuegian trails up into the beech forest, pausing in an open meadow to admire the view. Wulaia is more of a protected cove than a bay, with the ship and a scattering of native canoes floating upon the calm, crystalline water that laps the rocky shoreline. Half a dozen breadloaf-shaped islands guard the entrance to the cove, and beyond these the purple-grey channels and endless snowy ranges of Tierra del Fuego. It is an unusually serene vista for this forbidding part of the world. If I hadn’t known better I might have imagined the place to be some kind of paradise.

Perhaps Mathews will be successful in his enterprise after all, I fleetingly thought. Jemmy and his cohort will adjust and prosper, and the next English ship to call at Wulaia will find a utopia of Christianized Fuegians dressed in homespun clothes, living in real wooden houses with a small but sturdy chapel of their own construction. It will be a shining example to the rest of the world. A civilized outpost of Empire.

But then the wind picked up, wrinkling the placid surface of the cove far below, and the chill of it caused me to check the buttons of my frock coat. Even as I imagined it I knew that my brief vision of a Christian paradise in these latitudes was unlikely. It’s only a matter of time, I fear, before Mathews and his three would-be evangelists are overwhelmed by the hundreds of tangle-haired wretches who haunt this place. Who spend their days out spearfishing in their rudimentary canoes or crouching naked in the bitter cold, filthy and coated with seal fat. Who sleep coiled together like animals in the wet moss. Whose dark glances and shouting, discordant voices bespeak a capacity, I greatly fear, for outbreaks of sudden, brutal violence.


I found a colony of the spherical fungus, which grows out of black boles on the twigs and inner branches of the beeches, creating the effect of an otherworldly orchard. I made a few sketches, plucked one of the bright orange fruits, dissected it, tasted it. It was moist and extremely bland, with a chewy texture and only a hint of earthy mushroom flavor.

A small greyish bird alighted nearby and I stood observing in bound energetically from branch to branch, a tyrant flycatcher of a variety I had yet to collect or identify. Moving very slowly I prepared my net—and with a well-timed flick of the wrist I succeeded in capturing it. The bird put up a determined struggle and when I took it in my hand it trembled and cheeped pitifully. I felt something more than the usual pang of guilt as I reached into the net with my other hand to take its little head in my fingers and snap its neck.

This done, I gathered up my instruments and strode down through the beech forest to the shore of the cove, humming a little tune as I went in an unsuccessful attempt to lighten my mood.

The hut was already built, a solid-looking cabin made of stripped beech logs. Save for my own jollyboat the landing craft had already returned to the ship, and Mathews and the older native couple sat on the stoop of their new home, looking ill at ease as a mob of perhaps two dozen naked Fuegians importuned them. The rowdy chatter of the mob was underlined by the piercing shouts of the three men closest to the hut, who gestured with their fishing spears in a way that seemed to communicate escalating hostility. For a moment I thought it might be up to me to rescue these recently settled shipmates—I caught Mathews’ eye and held up my fowling piece with an inquiring look—but the young missionary, though pale and tight-lipped with fear, waved me off.

It was with a measure of relief that I strode along the cobble shoreline to where I had beached the jollyboat, only to find Jemmy, crouched beside the vessel in an apparent attempt to conceal himself from the wrath of his clamoring countrymen.

“Good day, Mr. Darwin,” the boy said. “I shall return to the ship with you please.”

“Now, now, Jemmy,” I said, overturning the boat and dragging it down to the tideline. “This place is your true home. Aren’t you happy to be back?”

“I wish to return to the ship.”

“Well, my boy,” I said, busying myself with affixing the oars. “I do understand your feelings, but unfortunately that’s not the arrangement you made with Mr. Mathews, and it’s not really my place to intervene. Why don’t you go back and sit with the others? You may be surprised. I’ll wager some of these people will remember you if you tell them you were born here.”

“Please, Mr. Darwin.” The boy, clearly close to panic, waved a hand in the direction of the increasingly angry natives crowding the front of the hut. For a moment I considered letting him climb into the jollyboat, but that would have been directly contrary to Mr. Mathews’ wishes, and, by extension, the captain’s too.

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay on, Jemmy, at least for now. I’ll discuss it with the Captain tonight, and we’ll send word of his decision in the morning before we sail. What do you say?”

The young Fuegian threw himself to his knees on the far side of the boat with both hands clapped tight to the gunwale. His whole body trembled—putting me in mind of the little flycatcher—and his wide-set eyes brimmed with tears of despair. “Morning will be too late, Mr. Darwin.”

“Don’t be silly. Go sit beside Mr. Mathews and the others on the stoop or hide yourself within the hut. Everything will quiet down soon enough, you’ll see.”

“These people will take God away from me. They have promised as much.”

“Take God away, Jemmy? Don’t be ridiculous. God is everywhere and belongs to everyone. He lives inside your soul. No one can ‘take Him away’.”

“You think you understand, but you don’t.” The boy’s voice had acquired a hard edge, and I felt myself losing patience. I finished mounting the oars and tried to pull the nose of the boat down over the last of the cobbles and into the crystalline wavelets, but it wouldn’t budge.

“I must get back to the ship now, Jemmy. Remove your hands or I shall be forced to remove them myself.”

Jemmy sighed and got to his feet. “You will have me go to Satan then, Mr. Darwin?”

“You mustn’t take Mr. Mathews’ teachings quite so literally, Jemmy. You do understand that Satan is just a metaphor, don’t you?”

“And what about the soul, Mr. Darwin? Is that a metaphor too?”

“No, Jemmy. Satan is a metaphor, but the soul is real.”

“Are you sure about that, Mr. Darwin?”

“Quite sure, Jemmy.” I turned away to finish dragging the jollyboat down into the water, and when I turned to give the young Fuegian a final word of encouragement he had melted into the beech forest. Shrugging, I pushed off and leapt into the boat.

Halfway across the glassy cove to the ship, I spotted Jemmy standing stark naked in the shadows at the edge of the trees, his English clothes pooled darkly on the cobbles beside his newly bared feet. I shipped the oars and took up my spyglass to focus in on the young man’s face. It gave me a shudder—though I’m not sure why I was surprised—to discover through the magnified lens that he was staring straight back at me.

And it was odd. His eyes had lost all trace of fear.

March 13th, 1833

We have sailed north to the mouth of the Rio Negro. The captain feels compelled to redo his survey of the coast, collecting additional data points to provide the Admiralty with the most accurate detail possible. It is an exacting, time-consuming process, meaning that I now have a blessed three weeks free to dedicate to naturalizing before I am required to rejoin the voyage at Bahía Blanca.

In a crumbling cliff near the river mouth I discovered a number of fossilized bones from a large extinct mammal. On the following day, embedded in porous limestone, I found an immense skull that I first thought might pertain to an ally of the rhinoceros. However, a closer study of the jaw and several intact teeth thrillingly revealed that I am in possession of the remains of a Megatherium, or perhaps even a Megalonyx—the only previously discovered specimen of which is locked away in King Ferdinand’s collection at Madrid.

Once these invaluable fossils were safely crated up and made ready to send back to England, euphoric from my discoveries, I set out on a horseback expedition under the protection of half a dozen gauchos who are acting as scouts for the Argentine Confederation’s ongoing campaign against the Mapuche Indians. On the first day we rode west into a spectacular open steppe, a vast expanse of wild grassland teeming with guanaco, a russet camelid, and rhea, a great flightless bird like an ostrich that flees before our horses on long, dainty legs. The gauchos showed me how they use their bolas to bring the giant land birds down.

I could not accomplish anything with a bola other than to provoke a round of boisterous laughter when I managed to entangle the legs of my own horse. But I did manage to shoot one of the birds, which I skinned and cured and packed in a saddlebag to add to my growing collection.

March 17th, 1833

The gauchos are extraordinary. They seem to have fitted themselves to the landscape in much the same way as the guanaco and the rhea, with a natural seat that seems to transform horse and rider into a single creature unified in body and mind. Noticing me watching them, the men spur one another to ever more daring feats of horsemanship, such as letting go of the reins to lie back on the saddle with their feet crossed comfortably on the horse’s neck, or slipping out of the saddle altogether to stand motionless on one stirrup as if borne through the air beside the galloping horse.

The leader of the scouting party is a military captain named González. He is three years my senior, the son of a wealthy rancher, sharp-eyed and rugged, a crack shot with his well-used Brown Bess musket. It’s obvious that he’s earned the trust and respect of all his men, and he possesses the most remarkable cat-like grace, a comfort within his own skin the likes of which I’ve observed—in human beings at least—only once or twice before. It’s a wonder to me. An inspiration.

I find myself emulating the Argentine’s mannerisms and saddle posture. I’ve traded my extra pair of riding boots for a gaucho outfit of my own, complete with a woolen poncho and cotton bombachas and a scarlet kerchief, which I wear knotted loosely around my neck, just like the capitán.

March 24th, 1833

After ten days of horse-borne travel across the pampas, I find myself taking on the ways of a gaucho to a surprising extent. I sip my gourd of yerba maté in the mornings and smoke a cigar at any hour. When the day is done I lie with my poncho as my only covering, with the southern hemisphere stars as my canopy. And what stars! A vast expanse of pinpoints more vivid than any night sky I’ve heretofore witnessed. Millions of spark-bright diamonds strewn across the velvet universe in a fit of crazed exuberance. A textured, multi-layered field of constellations so vivid and unfamiliar it’s as if I’ve been reborn into an entirely new world. Sometimes, as I stare up at them, I feel as if my spirit is merging with those of every living being that has ever existed or ever will exist. My mind reels with an ecstatic intuition of destiny.

And in the next moment this will all melt away, leaving me bereft and disconsolate once again. I’m beginning to suspect that my Christian faith has always been weak. Since childhood, for example, I’ve harbored a secret suspicion that life has no meaning after all. That the human soul, contrary to the words I spoke so confidently to Jemmy at the end of our acquaintance, is nothing more than a fleeting and illusory construct. A fiction we create—a metaphor—to keep ourselves from having to face up to the great emptiness of the universe.

Naturalizing has been a way of keeping that suspicion at bay. The study of creation in all its complexity and wonder has served as a reassuring reminder that there is indeed some kind of ordering intelligence out there. There are times, though, when I feel as if I am not looking up at the sky at all, but peering downward into a vast abyss.

March 29th, 1833

At dawn I awoke to find the rest of the party gone save for González, who rested on his haunches beside my sleeping place smoking a cigar and gazing pensively down at me. The others were on a reconnoitering mission, he explained, and would be back before nightfall.

“We’re staying put all day, then?”

“Yes, my friend. You are free to attack the rocks with your little hammer, or to shoot a few of our harmless birds.” Grinning, González filled a maté gourd with steaming water from a pot by the fire and held it out to me. I sat up and took it gratefully, feeling a stirring of excitement: we’d been crossing miles and miles of tawny-green steppe every day without cease, passing many an interesting rock formation or well-vegetated gully that I would dearly have liked to explore.

I set off on my own. I made some interesting finds, too, including two new species of beetle, an Indian arrowhead, and an elegant bryophyte, the tiny yellow leaves of which I sketched out carefully in my journal in case the process of drying and preserving them should alter their fine antler-like structure.

I came back to camp just as the gauchos were riding in, dust-covered and spent-looking. I perceived something new in their demeanor, a kind of shared secrecy about their recent activities, that made me slightly uncomfortable. It was an odd reaction, and for the moment I couldn’t pin it to anything concrete. It was as if a day apart, absorbed in our own pursuits, had imposed a distance between these men and myself that hadn’t existed before. I hadn’t realized the extent to which I’d been enjoying the feeling of camaraderie among this party of scouts, and the distinction of being considered an honorary member of the expedition.

When one of the men called out my name I therefore looked up eagerly from my sketching. The gaucho who’d spoken stood beside his horse, with González standing beside him, gazing down at me with broad, expectant grins.

“Good news, Mr. Darwin,” González said, lightly patting the gaucho’s saddlebag. “This man has brought a specimen for your collection.”

I hurried over, eager to see what strange species the gaucho had found for me on the pampas. I hoped it wasn’t something I’d already observed. Perhaps it was an exemplar of that elusive rodent, the tuco-tuco?

The gaucho grinned, resting his hand protectively on the buckle of his saddlebag as if relishing my suspense.

Vaya, muchacho,” González said, nodding to the man. “Go ahead and show him.”

The gaucho lifted the stained leather flap of the saddlebag and reached in to withdraw the cloth bundle containing the specimen, which he unwrapped and held up for my inspection. It was mammalian, dark and round-bodied, its long fur blackened by gouts of coagulated blood. I leaned in to get a better look, then let out a yelp of dismay and staggered backward, tripping over a tussock to pitch belly-up in the pampas grass.

The men responded with a cascade of uproarious laughter. I felt myself coloring deeply, even through the horror.

The specimen was a severed human head. I could see from the square shape and prominent cheekbones of the face beneath the streaks of dried blood that it belonged to a South American Indian, likely from the Mapuche tribe, the war against which forms the rationale of the scouting expedition I have until now been so heedlessly enjoying.

The gaucho held the head by its hair and shook it at me where I lay, letting out an exaggerated moan. He was rewarded by another outbreak of hearty laughter from the men.

“What’s troubling you, Mr. Darwin?” González asked, a mirthful smile playing at the edges of his mouth. “Do you not like your new specimen?”

I was unable to answer. Feeling a sudden irresistible pressure in the bottom of my esophagus, I turned to empty the contents of my gut into the grass.

It was the eyes I couldn’t get out of my mind. Wide-open as if permanently surprised, yet as devoid of expression as a pair of dirt-flecked hard-boiled eggs.

“Come now, Mr. Darwin. Are you really so delicate? You are aware that these people have no souls, aren’t you?”

I sat up, wishing more than I’ve ever wished for anything to erase the image from my mind.

But I could not erase it. And I could not unsee it.


Image: Tierra del Fuego, Argentina by Petr Meissner, licensed under CC 2.0.

Tim Weed
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