Williwaw

I learned a new word recently. Williwaw. I like words that describe the earth’s atmosphere and geography.  It is a wind, and winds often have unusual names, like haboob or black bora. The williwaw belongs to the group known as katabatic winds, those whose swoosh is accelerated by gravity. Most specifically, a williwaw is a violent wind (120 mph or so) that blows down from the lofty mountains and glaciers looming over the Straits of Magellan. Here, in Fireland or Tierra del Fuego, at the end of the world, British sailors used the word to describe the ferocious winds that battered their little boats.

 

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A williwaw understood figuratively is “a state of great turmoil” according to several dictionaries and certainly it is a good word to describe Darwin’s culture shock meeting the Fuegians of Tierra del Fuego. The “calm naturalist” of the early chapters loses his dispassionate, even-handed stance. Chapter X is full of exclamation points as he describes the behavior of the “savages” or indigenous people. Readers become part of the strange, sad, and moving story of how three Fuegians were stolen from their home by Darwin’s captain, taken to England, dressed in European clothes, taught English, introduced to the King and Queen of England, where they carried themselves well, and then returned to the shores of their rugged, williwaw-swept landscape with tea cups, wine glasses, tablecloths, and seeds to spread civilization among their “savage” relatives. In order to further our understanding of Darwin’s account of “the Fuegian story,” the students and I read excerpts from Lucas Bridge’s Uttermost Part of the World: A History of Tierra del Fuego and the Fuegians and Nick Hazlewood’s Savage: the Life and Times of Jemmy Button. The Fuegians are extinct now, except for portions of their gene pool represented in the current population of South America, but they live on in books and the work of professional historians and students. In our reading we have learned how tough women can be. The Fuegians were dependent on the sea for much of their food, and the women ran that show. They paddled the bark canoes and they fished with plaited ropes made from their own hair. Men were barely able to paddle and they couldn’t swim. Nomads, the Fuegians carried their fire by boat, nestling it on a plinth of rock and sand. At night the woman would paddle close to shore, unload the man and children, and if unable to safely beach the canoe, paddle out hundreds of meters to a kelp bed, tie the canoe up with kelp fronds, and then swim back to shore in icy waters, completely naked. Darwin describes a naked woman nursing her infant in a canoe while sleet slashes down upon them. We, the students and I, are impressed by the physical fortitude of these Fuegian women (so far a cry from the near-contemporaneous delicate young women of Downton Abbey).  I admire the knowledge gained, the sensory experience earned, as the Fuegian women swam through icy kelp beds toward the fire on shore in the land of williwaws.

 

Kelp fronds

Kelp fronds

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The Young Woman and the Zorillo!

It’s 7:20 am and I am rushing to work because I have a handout to prepare for my Darwin class. The roads are clear but a layer of fluffy snow covers the tree branches as billowy fast-moving clouds move across a blue sky. I proceed down Fall Creek Drive to the Stewart Avenue Bridge over Fall Creek gorge. There just completing her walk over the bridge is a stunning young woman, probably a graduate student walking up to Cornell. I gasp at how beautifully dressed she is for so early in the morning. She wears stiletto-heeled black leather boots that fit her slender calves tightly, ending at the knees where curly fringes dangle. Legs in black tights disappear beneath a short black mini skirt. Then a black jacket with postmodern styling. Silver buttons? Something sparkles. A generous swath of diaphanous black scarf tumbles artfully around her neck, intermixed with her own glossy black hair. A beautiful face beautifully made up. She strides along  eating something. It is hard to capture all the details at 10 miles per hour but my impression is that she is unwrapping a chocolate, but it could be a cough drop. So nicely put together, she looks the picture of confidence.

 

Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis, photo courtesy Dan and Lin Dzurisin, Wiki Commons)

Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis, photo courtesy Dan and Lin Dzurisin, Wiki Commons)

 

Then, I see a skunk maybe 15 or so paces behind her on the bridge’s sidewalk, fretful turning this way and that, appearing to feel indecisive about whether to follow in the direction of the young woman or retreat and go back to the other side of the bridge. Maybe it has just realized how deep the gorge lies below. A slightly bedraggled skunk, it still is striking for the amount of white on its back. Suddenly it runs quickly, extremely quickly for a skunk, who usually find little reason to get out of anyone’s way. In my rear view mirror I see that the skunk is now just a few feet behind the young woman. It looks as if the skunk is chasing her. How will this story end? There is no place for me to turn around, just as there is no place for the young woman and the skunk to get away from each other easily. Did the insouciant seeming young woman lose her insouciance? Did the skunk overtake her and pass by, following other urgent interests? I pose various fictional endings to myself, some amusing, others dreadful and fantastical, but am most interested in what I cannot know–the true ending of this true story.

Curiously the students and I had just been talking about skunks a propos of Darwin. We have been admiring Darwin’s lovely temperament–how unbiased and good-natured he is in his observations and encounters throughout his long voyage on the Beagle. He is painstaking in his descriptions of the Diodon (puffer fish) and the Aplysia (sea slug) and so on. He is curiosity itself–except when he comes across a skunk, which in South America is called the Zorillo: “We passed the night in Punta Alta, and I employed myself in searching for fossil bones, this point being a perfect catacomb for monsters of extinct races….In riding back in the morning we came across a very fresh track of a Puma, but did not succeed in finding it. We saw also a couple of Zorillos, or skunks,–odious animals, which are far from uncommon. …Conscious of its power, it roams by day about the open plain, and fears neither dog nor man….Certain it is, that every animal most willingly makes room for the Zorillo” (The Modern Library edition, p. 72). And so he did–Darwin, the most tenacious naturalist of all times, made way for the Zorillo. I continue to speculate on the seemingly inevitable encounter between the young woman and the skunk that I have described. Did nonchalance meet nonchalance? In other words, perhaps nothing of note occurred after I rounded the corner beyond the bridge.