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Escape to Patagonia

The trek to Patagonia in 1930 had its paleontological objectives, for sure, but it also had singularly personal ones for George Gaylord Simpson (1902-1984).  In that year, though a young 28 years of age, Simpson already was associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History and a leading expert on Mesozoic mammals.  He was at the beginning of a brilliant career, one that would transform paleontology.  By the middle of the 20th century, he would be considered among our most important paleontologists, if not the most important.  (For an accessible and spirited consideration of Simpson’s paleontological career, I recommend Léo F. Laporte’s George Gaylord Simpson:  Paleontologist and Evolutionist (2000).)
All of the further professional accomplishments would come later, but first there was this Patagonian adventure, the initial one of two to the area that Simpson undertook.  It produced a wealth of Cenozoic mammal fossils and a better understanding of some of its stratigraphy.  It also produced Simpson’s wonderful firsthand account of the seven months he and his assistant C.S. Williams (called “Coley”) spent in the Patagonian wilderness hunting for fossils.  Attending Marvels:  A Patagonian Journal, published in 1934, is one of the finest travel books I’ve read, and the subject of this post.  (Pictured below is the cover to the Time Reading Program Special Edition published in 1965.)

Patagonia offered Simpson an opportunity to explore and make some sense of South America’s Cenozoic mammal fauna which differed markedly from the mammals from this period found elsewhere in the world.  As he put it, he would join the ranks of previous fossil hunters (which included Charles Darwin and John Bell Hatcher) in the “débris of the lost world of Patagonia.”  These extinct mammalsare not like the extinct animals of any other part of the world.  To describe them you have to start from the ground up, or to compare them with half a dozen different animals at once, and then add a few original touches, like the fantastic combination beasts in children’s stories.  (p. 65)According to Simpson, South America’s isolation from the rest of the world over the previous 60 million years accounted for the uniqueness of its ancient mammals.  Simpson and Coley collected fossils and worked out the stratigraphy of an area around the lake called Lago Colhué Huapi in Argentina.  Though I suppose that technically the term Patagonia should be used to describe parts of Argentina and Chile, Simpson applied it just to the lower portion of Argentina that stretches to Tierra del Fuego.  A Google Earth map of the area in which many of the events of Attending Marvels occur appears below.

In this next map, zoomed out from the previous one, the marker in the south of Argentina shows the location of Lago Colhué Huapi.  (The label of Argentina is obscured by the obnoxious Google Earth box that opens over top the map.  I could not figure out how to get rid of it.) 

The expedition served another purpose.  When I first read Attending Marvels, I knew nothing of Simpson’s personal life, so it was striking that, as far as I can recollect, he makes no reference at all in the book to his family.  But, as Laporte observes, “Although the Patagonian expedition has a sound scientific basis, the yearlong overseas trip had the added benefit for Simpson of relief from his marital woes.”  (Note 16, p. 299)  At this juncture he was separated from his wife with whom he had four daughters; the marriage would formally end a few years after his return.  I guess then that the absence of references in the book to his family, though sad and (to me) a bit troubling, is not surprising.
In the Foreword to the book, Simpson notes that though the expedition is a scientific one, this book “is more concerned with people and events and places than with science.”  (p,. xxv)  There is some paleontology here, but this is a personal account, conveying life lived, at times almost minute-to-minute, during a paleontological expedition to an untamed part of the world.
Attending Marvels opens with Simpson’s characteristic wit, understatement, and graceful storytelling.The lecture had not been very exciting.  Intimate details about the molar teeth of the larger extinct rodents probably have their place in life, but they are a poor prelude to events more immediate and more stirring.  So it was that when Dora [Coley’s wife], Coley, and I emerged from the subway in the Plaza de Mayo we were ill prepared to have to force our way through a move of excited young men closely followed by a troop of angry police.  We quickly sought a side street, for the Plaza was in the possession of the Escuadrón de Seguridad, the infamous mounted police of the national administration, chasing everyone away with drawn sabers. . . . This was Buenos Aires on Thursday the fourth of September, 1930, and we had stumbled onto the first overt act of the revolution.  (p. 1)No, this is not to be a paleontological treatise.  In this opening passage, Simpson makes that clear; those “intimate details” of mammalian dentition, of which he was certainly an expert and which were critical to his scientific studies, would not be the center of this tale.  And, irony of ironies, the story begins in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, not at all a part of the Patagonian wilderness, yet the city, shortly after Simpson’s arrival, erupts in revolution.  A wild tale, to be sure.
The landscape, which dominates this account, as well it should, sparks a love-hate relationship.  The area of Patagonia into which Simpson and Coley venture is . . . what’s the word, ah, the one that captivates Simpson . . . bleak.  He first offers a dictionary definition of bleak and then notes, "The dictionary has taken the words right out of my mouth.  Patagonia is all of that, and I may as well start repeating it now:  Patagonia is bleak."  (p. 25)
Desolate, barren, curiously claustrophobic, and often hostile.  This landscape is a challenge.  For much of their stay, it seems, Simpson and Coley deal with wind, rain, and sometimes snow, that sweep across the land.  The wind assumes mythical proportions.  Simpson recounts the incident (tall tale?) of the airplane that took off from Comodoro Rivadavia, the Patagonian port where his party had disembarked, but, once airborne, had encountered such a strong headwind that the pilot spent almost four hours trying to cope with it, succeeding only in fighting it to a stand still.  “[T]he plane simply hung as if suspended in space.”  (p. 29)  Simpson does experience, first hand, what the wind can do, noting that “it is sometimes impossible for a man to progress against it except on his hands and knees, clutching bushes for anchorage.”  (p. 30)  It’s into this environment that Simpson and Coley venture in their quest for fossils.
They cross the pampas on their way to badlands.  The pampas are covered with “thorny scrub bushes . . . , but no grass and no trees.  The general effect is one of a great emptiness.  A  vacancy not expansive, as on a true plain where miles of country may be seen from every little elevation, but cramping and rather unpleasant.”  (p. 40)  Still, when Simpson looks out over Lago Colhué Huapí and the badlands area he will explore, he finds the poetry in this landscape:In the farthest distance the dark serrations of the Sierra San Bernardo and beneath us the vast Sarmiento Basin, with Lago Colhué-Huapí gleaming like silver in the sunlight.  Rimming the basin and here and there in the foreground, isolated peaks, some chalky white, others of somber volcanic rock.  Immediately before us dropped away the jagged dissected edge of the pampas, bare of all vegetation.  In the dry air and beneath the clear blue sky, these hundreds of square miles seemed like a boldly graven miniature model of a continent.  (p. 40-41)What a dilemma, there is so much wonderful, graceful writing in this volume, that the temptation is to string together quotations.  I wont resist the temptation here.  Much later in this Patagonian adventure, Simpson offers the following prose poem:Today is especially vivid.  Numerous local storms sweep across the landscape, the clouds are bright yellow or deep purple as the sun strikes them or not.  The peaks disappear and then reappear as the falling rain passes before them, and occasionally a distant barranca gleams white in the sun and then merges again into the general blue of the horizon.  Nearby, the sunlit falling rain is like a trailing veil of luminous gauze.  To the east, above the incredibly flat surface of the Pampa Pelada, arises a brilliant and perfect rainbow.  The scene is thrillingly, deeply beautiful and its fundamental harshness seems merely the strength and character that differentiates beauty from prettiness.  There is nothing pretty in Patagonia, even at its best.  (p. 214)Certainly Patagonia is not everyone’s (almost no one's?) cup of tea.  Even on the view just described, Coley parts company with Simpson.  “To him, this view is merely a lot at once of what is not worth seeing even in smaller amounts.”  (p. 214)
Transportation here is a bitch.  At the time, the preferred motorized vehicles in Patagonia are apparently Ford trucks.  Simpson had shipped in a truck and the landscape defeats it frequently.  Nearly all of the roads are mere tracks, often marked by mud holes or sand traps, hungry for passing vehicles.  He and his companions spend countless hours trying to free vehicles from mud or sand, other passing vehicles often become mired in the same location.  Tires are punctured repeatedly, and mechanical breakdowns abound, solved often only when a part or mechanic can be obtained in some distant village.  “Trails in Patagonia are marked by Ford springs, like camel bones along the old caravan routes.”  (p. 48)  But, even such disruptions can be balanced by glimpses of Patagonian beauty.  One time, in search of some “very ancient mammals,” Simpson and Coley end up with the truck stuck in sand dunes.  After they manage to get free, they decide to drive along a dry watercourse, only to become trapped again.  After the sun set, they conclude further work to extract the vehicle is futile, so they begin a walk back to camp.There was no moon, and we stumbled over the badlands and across the pampita in inky darkness.  The night was cold and clear, and the beautiful stars shone brilliantly, and silently wheeled through the black sky.  (p. 243)(The use of the word wheeled in this context is simply perfect.)
Many of the people Simpson encounters and describes who live in Patagonia are leading constricted, impoverished, and difficult lives.  Yet, they do live their lives, at times, with a dignity that inspires.  Less inspiring are the ex-pats, some of whom sport wonderful nicknames like El Rey, Scottie, or Whiskey-proof.  They often came to Patagonia with high hopes of making it big in oil or sheep or what-have-you.  Early success might be had but, inevitably, things go sour and soon the ex-pat has been living in Patagonia for decades, eking out a living.  Simpson can be rather harsh in his characterization of Argentines or foreigners, but he’s clearly open to finding the strength and virtue in the ability of many to survive in this place.
There’s a violent undercurrent to life in Patagonia, so present and persistent that Simpson can make light of it.  One evening, he has “cocktails in the Club Social, the gathering place of polite society in Comodoro [the port] and so eminently respectable that it had been almost a year since anyone was shot there.”  (p. 34.)  As for Baliña, a man hired during the latter part of the expedition to assist with camp life including cooking, the opening line of the Foreword says it all,“What are you writing, señor doctor?” asked Baliña.  This was in his better days, before he had brooded so over Coley’s dislike of garlic that he decided to murder us.  (p. xxiii)It's no idle threat and Simpson makes sure they part company with Baliña before he can carry out his mission.

I regret that Simpson hewed so closely to his objective of writing mostly about people and events at the expense of the science.  The passages in which he pauses the personal account and turns to describe some of what drew him to Patagonia in the first place and the paleontological processes that he and Coley employ to find and collect fossils are captivating.  Chapter Four, titled Ancient Beasts, offers the most concentrated infusion of paleontology in the book.  Simpson reviews the paleontological history of Patagonia and some of the men who explored its fossils, describes the stratigraphy of the area in which he is working, the processes through which fossils come to be, and the methods he uses to extract and prepare them for shipping back to the States.  In response to the question of where to dig, Simpson states succinctly thatwe dig where we see something to dig for.  There is nothing esoteric about hunting for bones; we have no sixth sense and cannot see into the earth.  The first step is to go where we know fossils do occur or where we think they might.  Picking a likely place requires a fairly wide knowledge of geology and close study of any previous records of travelers and explores in the area to be visited, but thereafter it is chiefly a matter of hard work.  (p. 78)And of the actual hard work, he writes in terms that any fossil hunter recognizes (I first read this passage on a display at the Calvert Marine Museum ):Having come to a place where fossils do occur, like this barranca south of Colhué-Huapí, we walk over it, eyes glued to the ground, examining, as nearly as practical, every square foot of the exposed rocks.  When the fossils are small but sufficiently abundant or important to justify the effort, we may literally crawl for miles on hands and knees.  (p. 78)Appropriately, given the nature of Simpson’s quest and his experiences in Patagonia, the title of the book and its epigraph come from Ishmael’s explanation, in Moby Dick, as to why he desires to go to sea on a whaling voyage.  The very idea of a whale with all of its size and dangers is foremost, along with the “wild and distant seas” where it is found; “these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish.” | Impressum