The forest and the trees

From the Three Sisters viewpoint in the Blue Mountains, the eucalypt forest (and pockets of rainforest) stretch below. Charles Darwin walked this rim in January 1836 and it’s at this stage of his journey, as noted in The Voyage of the Beagle, that he first begins to note the questions that would evolve into evolutionary theory. First he seems dulled, a man who’s far along on his travels and one who’s seen so much. Passing through a blue-gum forest he might be kin to any petty tourist: “the “extreme uniformity of the vegetation is the most remarkable feature in the landscape.” It’s an open forest, kept thin by fire, yet as the topped the rim overlooking Jamison Valley his view of the land changes:

Below is the grand bay or gulf, for I know not what other name to give it, thickly covered with forest. The point of view is situated as it were at the head of the Bay, for the line of cliff diverges away on each side, showing headland, behind headland, as on a bold Sea coast.

Eucalypt forest on the rim of Three Sisters. Katoomba, NSW. Australia.

Darwin describes these bays in depth (they are deep, after all) and he spends some time questioning how they might have formed.

From the rim, he wonders if this might have been an ocean turned to land:

If we imagine a winding harbour, with its deep water surrounded by bold cliff-like shores, to be laid dry, and a forest to spring up on its sandy bottom, we should then have the appearance and structure here exhibited. This kind of view was to me quite novel, and extremely magnificent.

Quite novel and extremely magnificent.

In the days before he arrives at the rim, Darwin notes the roving aboriginals, subsisting as hunters, and also their decline — “partly owing to the introduction of spirits, to European diseases (even the milder ones of which, such as the measles, prove very destructive), and to the gradual extinction of the wild animals.”

At about this time, he notes a mystery common to all that he has been observing, in all species, including man:

Besides these several evident causes of destruction, there appears to be some more mysterious agency generally at work. Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal. We may look to the wide extent of the Americas, Polynesia, the Cape of Good Hope, and Australia, and we find the same result. Nor is it the white man alone that thus acts the destroyer; the Polynesian of Malay extraction has in parts of the East Indian archipelago thus driven before him the dark-coloured native. The varieties of man seem to act on each other in the same way as different species of animals—the stronger always extirpating the weaker.

Though some have misapplied the theory of evolution as justification for social Darwinism, and though Darwin will later adopt a “survival of the fittest” over the extirpation as the mechanism, it is clear, here, that he was exploring the agency of mystery that would guide his later work.

This is in part what we can witness here today, on the benches above this forest.

Today I will continue my walking, below the rim, then head east and south, catching the night train to Melbourne.

In 1836, Darwin went west and lodged a “The Blackheath … a very comfortable inn, kept by an old soldier; and it reminded me of the small inns in North Wales.” The day after he was taken on a kangaroo hunt but had “very bad sport” due to over-hunting:

 A few years since this country abounded with wild animals; but now the emu is banished to a long distance, and the kangaroo is become scarce; to both the English greyhound has been highly destructive. It may be long before these animals are altogether exterminated, but their doom is fixed.

Yet to see a kangaroo or emu in the Blues — but I’ll keep looking.

The blue gum forest from the Three Sisters Viewpoint. Katoomba, NSW. Australia.

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