I’m fed up with the corona virus lockdown, I’m tired of being told I should stay at home and ‘stay safe’. I am old and cannot be safe, death will come before long whatever I do. ‘Staying safe’ narrows my life and weakens me physically and mentally, hastening the decrepitude that will make life miserable and death welcome.
Having a rant brings little comfort though, I need to escape. No one can ground the flights of the imagination so I’m off to explore the jungles of the Malaysian Archipelago with Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 -1913). I’ve no images of this expedition so here’s a photo taken in the nearest approach to a jungle in the suburbs of Barry: the Nature Reserve opposite the Cwmtalwg Pub on Severn Avenue.
When he was a land surveyor in Neath, South Wales, Wallace became interested in natural history. Later he travelled to the Amazon collecting and preserving insects, birds and other animals to sell to universities, museums, zoos and private collectors. His ship was wrecked on the way home but, nothing daunted, in 1858 he’s voyaging around the tropical islands of Indonesia collecting exotic species, including a pet baby orangutan which he observes carefully, comparing its development with that of human babies.
As he explored the world Wallace wondered how species came to be so different and yet sometimes so similar. He thought it likely that plants and animals had evolved but no one had yet explained how this might happen. Wallace had exchanged letters on the subject with Charles Darwin who was studying inheritance in pigeons http://darwinspigeons.com/ . Both men had been influenced by An Essay on the Principles of Population by Thomas Malthus which discussed how human population growth was naturally limited by famine and disease.
The idea that natural selection https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/evo_25 could be the mechanism of evolution came to Wallace when he was ill with malarial fever. When he recovered he sent a letter to Darwin which changed both men’s lives.
In the poem I imagine how the confused images of a feverish delirium might have helped Wallace to see the world in a new way.
ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE IN A FEVER In delirium the jungle muttered howled and shrieked in a cacophony of uncanny sounds, I couldn’t make sense of it. I heard the wawk wawk, wok wok of the birds of paradise, and recognised the raucous calls of the mias, orang-utans, men of the woods, striding above me through the trees. My baby mias, my little pet, eyes full of childish fear, clung close to me, her soft red fur against my neck, and all around the jungle called. I saw a nest of little birds, scarlet mouths squawking with hunger, but no parent came, only the dragon bird of frantic nightmares, the winged beast, the Malthus bird. In the valley of Neath I’d lived in its shadow as it snatched the ragged children with bone thin legs. Now its suffocating breath stank in my nostrils, my baby mias was torn from me but I escaped into an English garden. I found Mr Darwin cooing softly to his pigeons. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘at my collection of domestic doves, varieties bred and culled for different features: carriers, pouters, fantails, Jacobins, I’m almost ready to harness them.’ ‘How far will they take you?’ I asked. ‘Around the world I hope,’ he said, later, not now, it takes time to select the birds who can fly through a hullabaloo.’ In the jungle the flurry of terrible wings split the heavy canopy. In a crazy streak of sun-light I saw the unsettling faces of monkeys and apes as they struggled to survive, I saw the leopards change their spots, I saw every species that reels though the ravenous world shift into a new shape. In a seminal dawn everything began to sing a new song, to flaunt a new body, to give birth to a new jungle. When the delirium had flown my fevered visions cooled and condensed into lines of ink which I sent to Mr Darwin.
Wallace was interested in many subjects: natural history, anthropology, biogeography, architecture, socialism, spiritualism and whether there was life on Mars. Explore his remarkable life and work at http://wallacefund.info