Saddled with Darwin: Foreword to the Second Edition

Saddled with Darwin is Toby Green's account of a journey of exploration, in which he retraces Charles Darwin's 6000km journey on horseback - an 'insane journey', as he called it. Now, 10 years since original publication, Green reflects further on a decade of change - physical, technological and environmental. Saddled with Darwin is more relevant than ever.

Saddled with Darwin is Toby Green's account of a journey of exploration, in which he retraces Charles Darwin's 6000km journey on horseback - an 'insane journey', as he called it.The book was first published in 1999. It's now available again in Faber Finds, and Green has written a foreword to coincide.

 


 

'Life abounds with coincidences. Most of these are soon forgotten, but sometimes they stick. On February 12th 1809, Charles Darwin was born in the market town of Shrewsbury, county town of Shropshire, on the Welsh borders. I was born on the same day 165 years afterwards, and now, many years after I committed myself to the lunacy of retracing Darwin’s footsteps in South America on horseback in spite of not knowing how to ride a horse, I too find myself living in Shrewsbury. In my darker moments, such similarities to my first chosen subject can seem a little too eerie.

This year, 2009, therefore marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. Anniversaries may seem to mean very little these days, except as an opportunity for the marketing of culture and the selling out of the ideals and principles on which that culture is based. But in Darwin’s particular case the anniversary does offer a helpful moment to take stock. For he has become the keystone of contemporary ideology, his ideas at the heart of our understanding not only of the nature of biological life but also, increasingly, of cultural and social exchange. Yet Darwin is not only a defining figure in the history of modern ideas: for others he is a target, the bête noire for creationists who see him as representative of the philosophy which has eroded the sanctity of divine creation.

These ideas did not spring from a vacuum. They derived in large part from the intellectual and scientific atmosphere of Victorian England, where the natural world was being examined as never before and radical ideas being promoted to challenge the biblical interpretation of creation. However, they stemmed also from the time which Darwin spent aboard HMS Beagle as a naturalist. Darwin’s three and a half years in South America made him who he was. His first-hand collecting expeditions and the privilege of studying innumerable species in their natural habitats were essential parts of the life experience which eventually led to his developing the theory of evolution by natural selection. Taking time to think about the places where those ideas first germinated, and about the changes which those ideas have helped to precipitate in these places, may be as good a way as any of assessing their value and their potential future impact in the world as a whole.

That was one of the motivating factors behind my decision to leave the UK at the age of 22 to retrace Darwin’s route on horseback. I first conceived of the journey and the book I might write about it as a sort of signpost for the process of change which had enveloped South America in the 165 years between Darwin’s journey and my own. And here is an irony, for the book was only published 10 years ago, and yet already it may serve as a marker not only of the changes between Darwin’s time and our own, but also of just how far and how fast the world has changed in that decade. Today, it can be read as a reminder of what we once were, so recently, and of how much and how irrevocably we are changing.

For Saddled with Darwin describes a type of journey which may never be done in the same way again. Begun in September 1996, it took place before email became an all-pervasive form of technology, before GPSs were must-have accessories for adventurous travellers, before everyone had a mobile phone, and before international telephone calls became virtually free on the Internet. For a year, I travelled without any electronic devices; I was not a slave to checking an email account; it was difficult and expensive to make international telephone calls; I simply arranged several postes restantes where I would try and check my letters over the coming year, and left - once or twice I arrived at the post offices too late, and the letters had already been sent back to Europe.

This shortage of communications was no handicap. It was in fact a freedom. When I arrived at a farm or rural village, the very fact that I rode a horse created an instant point of connection between myself and my hosts. The horse was something with which many could identify. It signified that I was not a fly-in, fly-out sort of traveller. I don’t doubt that it was this which led to people sharing their life stories with me on such a regular basis. I was someone to whom they might be able to relate.

But all the barriers which my mode of transport broke down would at once have been lifted even higher if I had had a GPS to consult rather than asking directions from local people, or if I had constantly been eyeing a mobile phone. Though I did not realise it at the time, the sort of journey I was making, and the sort of freedom I wanted from daily constraints, would have been impossible just two or three years later. In 2000, when I was researching my second book, Meeting the Invisible Man, I used internet connections in the highlands of Guinea and in the Casamance region of Senegal to provide updates on my progress.

The developments of the past decade have not been merely electronic. Governments have overseen radical changes. In Argentina, the economic collapse of December 2001 created chaos and deepened the misery of the urban underclass. Many of the roots of this collapse can be seen in this book, in the daily tales of mass corruption and cynicism which accompanied the Menem years in Argentina. Though Menem was not president at the time of the collapse, there is no doubt that the problems of Argentina derived from the gross corruption which existed under his watch.

Thankfully, in Chile the changes have been positive. In the past ten years a major improvement programme has seen the paving of many roads which were unpaved when I travelled. This is great news for people in remote areas who need good access to education and medical facilities, and quicker public transport. But for a rider attempting a journey as long as this, it would have led to many problems. These would have included the soreness of the horses’ feet, wastage of horse shoes, and danger from the greater volume of traffic. I still remember the terror with which I crossed the dual carriageway of the bridge over the River Bío-Bío which led to Concepción in southern Chile; such experiences might be more frequent for the rider who attempted the journey today than they were for me.

Looking at Saddled with Darwin now, however, the most important vector of change which the book picked up upon was neither electronic nor developmental. It related instead to something that today is broadly accepted, but which back then was a subject which still had not fully reached the mainstream: this is the reality of global warming.

As I travelled over a decade ago, it became apparent to me that this phenomenon had already begun changing landscapes and livelihoods. There were several key moments when the reality struck home. As I rode south from Bahía Blanca in Argentina, on the edge of the great Patagonian wastes, I stayed at blasted farms where the fields had become sand. Limp strands of wheat hung still in the heat. Blasts of hot air thundered through the empty barns where once the crops had been stored, in fairer times. In Uruguay, people told of labourers dropping dead in the summer heat, as the temperatures rose, and their bodies could not adapt. In Chile this picture of heat was drowned by the worst rains in decades, with an El Niño event so serious that the world began to take notice.

On the long, lonely roads, when I had no one to talk to but my horses, I began to ask myself what Darwin would have made of these changes - precursors, as it turned out, to the unpredictable weather patterns which have since become ever more noticeable. The late 20th century was a time when ecosystems were changing, irreversibly, and when numerous species were threatened across the planet. The very biodiversity which had underpinned Darwin’s theory in The Origin of Species was being eroded.

The picture I brought back to the UK was one of great change, and instability. I returned in 1997, the year when the ill-fated Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change was signed. I was determined to make these environmental changes, and the ways in which they reflected Darwin’s wider theory and might relate to it, central to the book I wrote of the journey. At the time, whilst of course global warming was on the political horizon, it was still usually dismissed as a serious danger. Saddled with Darwin attempted to deal with the subject head-on: and in this larger sense too, in the way in which the debate on global warming and on the prospects of collective survival have affected public consciousness since 1999, the book may stand as an indicator of how far ideas and imperatives have changed. For the questions which it asks seem even more relevant today than they did then.

Yet one of the things I love best about this book has nothing to do with its discussion of global warming or historical changes. What really caught people’s imagination was, I believe, the book’s youthful optimism, its undiluted bloody romanticism. This is a book written by a 23-year-old, and it shows. The prose is at times too purple; metaphors jar; that young, idealistic author, sitting hammering out the first draft to the sound of scratchy old copies of Carlos Gardel’s tango music, is quite happy to take wild pot-shots at an éminence grise such as Richard Dawkins, where today his wiser (?) elder would take a safer route. But all these qualities also give the book vim and optimism. They make it come alive, and mean that in spite of the historical sadnesses and environmental difficulties which are recounted, the overriding feeling on finishing it is one of optimism, not despair. And in today’s world, where despair and prophets of doom are so easy to come by, this is not an inconsiderable quality.

**********

Writing a book is an exhausting process. The day after I finished the final draft of Saddled with Darwin I came down with glandular fever; while I had not fallen ill once throughout my journey, the writing had exacted its toll. At the time I still had romantic notions about books, and had not understood the selfish and all-consuming commitment which producing them requires. That bout of illness forced me to revise my ideas.

Six months later the book was published, and I felt that I had purged the whole experience at last. Shortly afterwards, in November 1999, I had the opportunity to travel to Norwich to interview the German writer, WG Sebald. Sebald had provided a supportive quote for my book’s publicity, and he was a writer I admired immensely. I re-read his newly published book on the train from Liverpool Street, watching the autumnal wind blow the dead leaves off the trees of the plains of East Anglia. I was still sufficiently deluded, and ambitious, not to have grasped the contradictions between the writer’s aim to touch on truth and the tawdry reality that success produces an ever greater distancing from that truth. I was keen to meet someone who had been so successful, and yet wrote such beautiful and profound books.

I met Sebald in his office on the ground floor of a 60s building at the University of East Anglia. It was a bitterly cold day, and Sebald had put the heating on high. His face was flushed, but soon we were otherwise at ease. As he spoke, I found that he was not as confident as I had expected. His books were infused with a great melancholy, a sense of loss and distress, and there was more than something of this in the person before me. It was not a quality which I had expected.

When the interview was winding down and I had switched off the dictaphone, Sebald began to talk about his new projects, his longing to escape from the university and find some peace, to start again. “Do you not think this has all been good for you?” I asked him. He looked at me candidly: “It has all been very bad for me,” he said. He was constantly being sent books to read and provide quotes for. Egos always needed massaging, and in spite of himself, and his sense of dignity, it was impossible that his own was immune from this.

As a young writer, this was something of a reality check. It was easy to be swept away, and not to realise the pain, the constant battle with conscience, the sheer difficulty which the process of writing involved. The image of this deeply humane man, traumatised by his own success, hurt beyond repair by his own experience of writing, was chastening. I kept it close by for some time, and two years later, when I visited Chile in June 2001 for the first time since my return from my journey, I recalled it again.

On that visit I made my way to the small town of Litueche, where a friend had invited me to speak at a cultural centre. I spoke about my book, whose South American edition had appeared less than a year before. More than anything else, I wanted to see Martillo, my old beloved horse with whom I had shared so much in southern Chile, and who I had sold to a farmer near the town. But life was not so straightforward; the farmer and his best friend had been offended by the way I had described our drinking bouts - “He got married and his wife’s very religious” was the way my friend put it - and did not want to see me again. It was then that I first fully grasped, and articulated to myself, the often irreconcilable tension that exists between writers and their material.

Less than six months later, WG Sebald died in a car crash, apparently after suffering a heart attack. When I thought back to this exchange, I had no doubt that it was these very inner conflicts, between the peace needed to write and the requirements made of the writer, which had killed him. Perhaps Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese modernist who died penniless and unknown in Lisbon in 1935 had dealt more kindly with his own creative skill. On Pessoa’s death, his masterwork of extended prose, The Book of Disquiet, was found in a suitcase, in scraps, and had to be reassembled painstakingly by editors. In it, Pessoa - or his alter ego Bernardo Soares - recounted that he preferred “to fail having known the beauty of flowers than to triumph in a wilderness, for triumph is the blindness of the soul left alone with its worthlessness”.

I did not mention these exchanges with Sebald in the interview when it was published, for they would have been a breach of confidence. Of course they still are. But I hope that he would not have disapproved too forcefully of his difficulties helping to make sense of  the terrible business of writing, and of a young writer’s slow journey to both his own voice and to the inevitable compromises which finding that voice requires.

This last journey is the most personal of all those told in Saddled with Darwin, and the one I was least aware of at the time. But it was also this journey, more so even than the travelling itself, which was the most transformative. When the book was published, I was often asked if the journey which I had made had changed me. Of course, I answered that it had. At the time I said that it had made me calmer. Actually, however, this was a lie. I felt that the journey must have changed me in some way, but I could not pinpoint how and so came up with a pat answer. As is so often the case in life, the nature of the changes only became manifest many years later.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the things which the journey cured me of was what I shall call travelling disease. For some years I had dreamed only of travelling to distant places, of the wild and remote. Yet one thing I saw on my journey was the value and tranquillity of living locally, within immediate environs, immersed in family life. This is not a false description of the life I now lead.

Instead, as I read more, what came to interest me was not just what I had experienced, but also how the places in which I had travelled came to be as they are, the history which lay behind my experience. Exhausted by my restlessness, and perhaps aware that endless travel deprives the activity of the novelty which should provide its joy, my thinking and writing has turned more and more towards looking at the past, at the genesis of my experiences in South America and, later, in West Africa. This change in my writing and in my voice, too, was rooted in the experience of my journey by horse, though I did not understand this at the time.

Thus did my life take an entirely different course to the one which I would have predicted when I rode carefree on my horse from farm to farm and village to village in South America’s violent beauty. Like Darwin, as I venture deeper into the world, I find that my work makes my experiences in South America become increasingly problematic. For Darwin, the problem was that the evidence he found on speciation conflicted with accepted ideas on divine creation. For me, the problem is a different one: what touched me more than anything else as I travelled by horse was the generosity and goodness which I found everywhere, which is one of the beautiful things told in this book; yet the study of the history of South America teaches - perhaps more than anywhere else - that humanity is a violent species, capable of almost unlimited wickedness.'

 


 

See also Toby Green's Meeting the Invisible Man.