When I was growing up in Ireland, magpies had an evil reputation. In contrast to our liking for robins, blackbirds, thrushes, and other common birds, magpies were reviled. They were considered rogues, condemned as the criminal element of the avian world. Accordingly, despite their handsome plumage, any that trespassed in our garden were quickly shooed away. The bad press they received stemmed in part from their readiness to raid the nests of smaller birds, in part from their compulsive thieving. Said to be attracted to shiny objects, in the same way that moths are helplessly drawn to a light, stories abounded of magpies hoarding trinkets in their nests and of their flying off with rings and coins and cufflinks left by the unwary too close to open windows. Perhaps an element of our dislike was also rooted in pure superstition. We all knew the old rhyme:
One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told.
However unfounded the link may be between numbers of magpies and outcomes in human experience, the rhyme suggests they’ve long been regarded as birds of portent—if not, since sightings of single birds are commonest—of outright evil omen.
I’ve certainly seen magpies raiding nests and feeding on the eggs or chicks they’ve snatched from there. But their reputed stealing and hoarding of shiny objects isn’t something I’ve witnessed myself. When I was a boy, the only magpie nest I climbed to, high in a thorn tree and hard to reach, was a disappointment. I was hoping for a clutch of eggs and a trove of rings and coins and other treasures. But the nest, a beautifully made structure with a protective roof of twigs and a deep cup delicately smoothed and cushioned, was completely empty. Arrayed against the innocence suggested by this one nest free of booty, there are sufficient reports of guilt to have embedded the magpie’s thievery into the verbal fabric of its name. The figurative meaning of “magpie,” according to the dictionary, is “one who hoards or steals trifles.”
* * *
I still recall an uncle’s view of one of my contemporaries at school, a boy given to airs and graces about the extent of his learning. My uncle, a seriously well-read individual, dismissed him as having no more that “a magpie intellect.” By this he meant a mind of no real depth and of dubious integrity; a quick but untrustworthy intelligence puffed up with its own importance, unable to resist the lure of anything that glittered, and willing to pass off as his own, ideas filched from others. That slighting label struck me at the time—as no doubt it was meant to—as something scalpel-sharp in the way it cut down to size the pretensions of a pompous schoolboy who was tiresomely deluded about how much he knew. My uncle saw him as someone who strutted and pecked his way across a handful of books, a fast but superficial reader who picked out what was obvious and dressed it up as if it was profound. He sought to dazzle others with a few glitzy baubles disguised as gold mined from deeper strata than he’d ever ventured to.
“A magpie intellect,” said in my uncle’s dismissive tones, is a phrase I’ve carried with me for decades. Until recently it has acted as a kind of cautionary marker, a stake hammered into the boundaries of serious inquiry, warning that beyond lie quicksands—the realm of the showoff’s shallow pick-and-mix mentality that my uncle so despised. Now I’m not so sure. I’ve come to suspect that all our knowledge, however specialized and weighty it may appear, has about it something of the magpie’s bauble. Certainly when it comes to the way in which I read, I know what sticks in mind is often just whatever gleams with sufficient luster to excite my interest, or pique my curiosity, rather than because it’s possessed of any great intrinsic import. I follow the glint and sparkle of what appeals as much as any magpie, even if I pay lip service to the discipline of a more systematic, step-by-step approach.
* * *
That’s all by way of preface or prolegomenon, a magpie apology to introduce and excuse the bauble that I want to share. It’s something that caught the light when I was reading Charles Darwin’s account of the voyage of the Beagle. Its five sentences glittered with all the potency of a lure. As soon as I came to them the magpie in my mind’s eye was captivated. It swooped and carried them off to add to the little cache of oddments hoarded in the untidy nest of memory.
Here’s what Darwin wrote:
6th December 1834: In the evening we reached the island of San Pedro, where we found the Beagle at anchor. In doubling the point, two of the officers landed to take a round of angles with the theodolite. A fox (Canis fulvipes) of a kind said to be peculiar to the island and very rare in it, and which is a new species, was sitting on the rocks. He was so intently absorbed in watching the work of the officers that I was able, by quietly walking up behind, to knock him on the head with my geological hammer. This fox, more curious or more scientific, but less wise than the generality of his brethren, is now mounted in the museum of the Zoological Society.
Why did this passage catch my magpie-eye? What quality made it glitter so enticingly? Why did it seem like something to take away from the rest of Darwin’s text, something to hoard separately so that it could be repeatedly re-examined? Was it simply the vividness of the violence, or its sheer unexpectedness—the shock of seeing a geological hammer wielded to lethal effect? Or was it that my picture of Darwin received such a blow that it left me reeling—the staid, scholarly naturalist that I’d always imagined from seeing photographs of Darwin in his later years suddenly revealed as an opportunistic killer? Perhaps such factors played a part, but I think what gave this little incident its irresistible allure, what made it beckon like a kind of talisman, is at once more interesting and harder to describe.
* * *
Some incidents—and Darwin’s killing of the fox is one of them—seem to carry more than just the weight of their own unfolding. It’s as if, within their straightforward occurrence, there’s another stratum of significance. The raw elements of what happens point to something else. To me, Darwin and the fox hint at a far greater drama than the simple scene played out on San Pedro island. That scene stands proxy for, is emblematic of, something on a far larger scale. What Darwin wrote about killing the fox with his geological hammer caught my magpie-eye not so much because of this incident’s intrinsic violence, or its unexpectedness, but because it seemed imbued with clues about the wider nature of existence. It shone with the allure of something marked with a kind of secret tattoo whose intricate whorls trace around and make more visible the contours that determine the topography of our lives. It’s not as if Darwin and his fox teach me anything new about the world, revealing aspects of existence I’ve never seen before. It’s more that they make clear something I already know but which I often lose sight of nonetheless; they emphasize truths that, for all their obviousness, are easily forgotten.
Like everyone, I’m held in a complex web of circumstances, an intricate grid of interlocking causes and effects. An enormous network of interdependencies is woven around each of us, around every moment. If we stop to examine even the most mundane of our days, we’ll find that they spiral back into a dense mesh of antecedent factors and forward into futures veined with a profusion of outcomes. Any moment offers a portal into the tapestry of time and chance and consequence. And yet we often plot our whereabouts according to cartographies of such commonplace, constrained projection that it’s hard to grasp the scale of things, or recognize the interplay of choice and contingency, or see the intricacy of connection out of which history is woven. In their brief encounter, Darwin and his fox seem to burnish one minute link, a single stitch in the fabric of space-time. The incident possesses a kind of incandescence. Its glow illuminates not just the thread of its own happening but something of what’s embroidered all around it, out of which it has emerged. It casts light on the intricate delicacy of the interconnections that run between things and generate the fine detail of what happens. How could I resist so bright a fragment, made lambent with its repertoire of meanings?
* * *
It’s hard to decide if what happens, the way our lives unfold, is something locked into the iron of causal imperatives whose rule is absolute, or decided on the whim of chance and accident. Consider, on the one hand, how unlikely it was for a fox on a Chilean island to be slain by a blow to the head with a geological hammer wielded by a naturalist from England. How slight the probability seems of Darwin being in that exact spot at that exact time, coincident with the presence of this rare creature, and being able to surprise it. Think of the centuries—the eons—that lie behind each player in this fatal encounter. The back-story leading to the moment of their interaction is rooted in—is part of—a saga of fantastic duration and complexity.
In order to result in Darwin and this particular fox, numerous ancestors had to fall into a certain pattern, pair by pair, juggling through each generation the life-force of their species. Within the crucible of loins were bred countless babies, countless fox cubs, each one sucking on its mother’s teats, each one growing into adulthood to mate and breed and die, the species-seed passed on, until eventually it issued in one fox and one man meeting at one moment in one place on San Pedro island.
Think of the symphonies of cells—and of the atoms within them—that had to be conducted over thousands of years through all the creatures, human and pre-human, fox and pre-fox, which make up the music of this astonishing life-score. Think of the circumstances that had to interlock to guide so many factors into place, so that this was the music that was sounded, played out in the precise tonal quality of the actual – rather than some variation on the theme, or some different music altogether in which the minuscule trill of Darwin and the fox would be absent.
If a seabird had faltered from exhaustion, attracting the fox to easy prey; if Darwin had taken a different route as he explored the island; if a storm had made it impossible to land; if the Beagle’s crew had been laid low with dysentery; if he’d sneezed as he swung his geological hammer, this moment would never have happened. And it’s not as is if its happening was dependent solely on a chain of circumstances running through one day. Rather, December 6th 1834—like any day—was part of an unfurling that stretches back to the beginning of time itself, any part of which, if altered, might have led to other outcomes crystallizing into actuality instead of Darwin’s dispatching of the fox.
But, on the other hand, think of how each circumstance in the chains of events that locked fox and Darwin into place, mooring their encounter firmly to the quayside of what happened, was obedient to a multitude of laws—laws that cut through randomness with the promise of predictability, making choice and chance seem more like unavoidable consequences than anything approaching the haphazardness of freewill or accident. Viewed thus, the music of the way things are seems more to follow the only score there is, rather than being a set of riffs or variations drawn out of countless possibilities.
* * *
For reasons I don’t fully understand, what Darwin says about killing the fox goes further than simply recording his slaying of this unfortunate creature. His account points to the colossal shifting network of causes and effects in whose interactions the material of what passes is made up. That in itself attracts me to it. But the incident is given further luster by the way it shimmers with the aura of what might so easily not have been. Its proximity to never having happened, the ease with which things might have played out differently, seems ingrained in it; it’s as if it’s colored with whatever hue contingency comes painted in. The slimness of the chance of its occurrence bestows upon it a kind of electricity, an added voltage. It’s as if the hoar frost of its improbability marks things with an extra sparkle that lures the eye, beckoning it into far wider panoramas than those encompassed by one fox and its assassin on a remote Patagonian island.
When I think about the fox’s killing, I sometimes muse about what might have happened if a larger, stealthier predator had crept up behind Darwin and dispatched him – dealing him a sudden deathblow while he was as preoccupied with the fox as the fox was with the surveyors. If, on December 6th 1834, it had been Darwin’s brain, not the fox’s, that encountered a fatal impact, how would the texture of history then have unfolded? How much would have been altered?
So much of what we take for granted now about the nature of life stems from ideas conjured in the brain of this young man. In 1834 Darwin was twenty-five. Origin of Species would not be published for another quarter of a century. But already the raw material for his great theory was gathering momentum with the data that the Beagle’s voyage provided in such abundance. Given the impact of his thinking, it’s easy to imagine something of the scale of consequence had it been snuffed out. But who knows how much hinges on far less epochal individuals, ideas, and events? What if the fox, sensing Darwin’s murderous intent, had run off seconds before he could swing his geological hammer? Or what if the fox had never been there and in its stead Darwin had found a butterfly, or a single magpie attracted by the theodolite’s shine and sparkle as the sunlight struck its lenses?
Or, looking further back along the timeline of the threads that suture Darwin and the fox together, how might the warp and weft of circumstance have been woven if Darwin’s father had been too poor to subsidize his son’s lifestyle? Or if, in the distant past, a sharpened flint or saber tooth or shaft of sunlight falling on a rock pool had been blunted, distracted, clouded—altered—would history as we know it only have been tweaked or massively rewritten? We are blind to whether circumstances bear with them no more than minor potential for change, or if their occurrence holds poised within it a tide of implications that would cascade through the mosaic of what happens, rearranging the tiles of history into altogether different patterns.
* * *
Despite my uncle’s disapproval all those years ago, as I’ve grown older I’ve warmed to the idea of “a magpie intellect.” Far from the contempt with which he used it, I now embrace the phrase and apply it to myself and others—but in an altogether different sense from the one that he imposed upon it. Of course this may be because I’ve grown intellectually lax, with age bringing a falling off of standards so that my mind has simply lost whatever youthful rigor it once possessed. But—unsurprisingly—I prefer a different interpretation.
Whatever course we navigate through time, however brilliant our intellects may be, none of us is here for long enough to do much more than notice whatever falls most brightly on our consciousness. If we lived for centuries perhaps we could plod through our days more systematically, collect what’s dull alongside what shines and sparkles. If Darwin hadn’t had a magpie intellect he’d surely never have amassed the quantity of data that he needed to give his theory weight. Of course that theory—acting like a magnet on iron filings—swept them into line in a way that offered focus, coherence, and overarching sense. But without the collector’s urge to gather and hoard all the separate pieces, the tiny shiny filings of individual foxes, barnacles and butterflies, birds and beetles, all the diverse creatures that caught his eye, any theory would have been unanchored to specifics. It would have been of such abstraction that it would have been unlikely either to gel or to convince. Few of us possess the insight of a Darwin—or his appetite for sheer hard work—and our interest may be tuned to catch very different things from the creatures that caught his, but I think we’re all obedient to a magpie’s-eye imperative that makes us seek out whatever shines for us most brightly. And this makes me unrepentant about fixating on this brief passage in Darwin’s writings where he records his killing of the fox. It appeared to me as the fox appeared to Darwin. Both bear upon them, if we stop to look, fingerprints that can tell us much about the nature of things.
It seems ironic that someone who understood so much about the ancientness of lineage behind each living thing, who knew the eons-long journey involved in making a fox’s skull from the shifting ore of life, should have been the person who smashed his hammer down on the skull of this particular animal. And whether it’s apt or odd that the species whose first discovered member was slain in this manner came to be known as Darwin’s fox (Lycalopex fulvipes), it is surely just plain sad that it’s become such a critically endangered species. It’s thought that there are no more than 250 individuals left alive on Chiloé—the largest island in the archipelago of which San Pedro is a part—with little more than 70 on the mainland. It seems unlikely that this creature (which in fact belongs to the dog family rather than being a true fox) will survive much longer.
Just as I can’t help wondering what might have been if something had shifted slightly in the timelines that coincided in 1834 to bring Darwin and his fox together, so I wonder what tides and currents of circumstance combined to edge Lycalopex fulvipes to the very brink or extinction. The things that bear us through the moments that we occupy often carry their significance invisibly. We cannot always tell, for instance, as we walk along our daily routes, whether stopping to tie a shoelace will make no difference to us or be the cause of our missing or meeting a potential life partner, or escaping or perishing in a terrorist attack. As would be the case for any creature, it would be fascinating to see a map of the gridlock of causes and effects that refined Darwin’s fox out of the crude life-oil that first moved upon the planet, and to know what shoelace-tying equivalents resulted in its reaching the precarious position it now occupies.
* * *
For a short while in 1825, when he was a student in Edinburgh, Darwin lived in lodgings at 11 Lothian Street. When I was a student there a century and a half later, I lived only a couple of minutes away in Brighton Street, just around the corner. I find it strange to think of my footsteps falling on the same ground as Darwin’s, and to realize that the cargo of ideas forming in a brain that once took in these same familiar streets would eventually, via print’s geological hammer, strike the nineteenth century’s consciousness. Darwin’s blow would waken it from years of slumber, induced by a kind of theological narcotic. But the awakening he set in motion has been more than a little painful. As he paced the streets of Edinburgh, as my steps crossed where his had been before me, what was happening on the island of San Pedro? At what point were the foxes there locked into the trajectory that would take them toward extinction? And if Darwin had stopped to tie a shoelace one afternoon in Lothian Street, might everything that followed from that point on have taken a different course from what we now regard as history?
What became of all the magpie assemblage of pickings Darwin amassed during the voyage of the Beagle? In 1836 he presented a large collection of birds and mammals, including the San Pedro fox, to the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). But the Society no longer has these specimens. Their museum’s collection was dispersed in the 1850s and, says Michael Palmer, the current ZSL archivist, “no list survives of where things went.” Many specimens were sent to the British Museum—now the Natural History Museum—but the bulk of the collection, as Wilfred Blunt records in The Ark in the Park, “passed by purchase to provincial museums.” One of these museums was in Ireland, at Queen’s College Galway (now the National University of Ireland, Galway). Among the specimens bought on the instructions of Galway’s Board of Direction were four that had been presented to the ZSL by Darwin. The specimens are a grison (a kind of weasel), a cavy or guinea pig, a variety of cuckoo, and an Azara’s Fox. All of them had been collected by Darwin in South America in the course of his journeyings with the Beagle.
When I was in Galway last summer, I made a point of going to the University’s Zoology Museum. It was a strange sensation to stand in front of the case where the Darwin specimens are displayed and to realize these are four trinkets taken from the great magpie hoard collected during the Beagle’s five year voyage. Were they, like the San Pedro fox (of whose whereabouts I’m uncertain) slain by Darwin’s geological hammer? Or shot? Or trapped? The rather tattered looking specimens stare back at the viewer with their glass eyes, revealing nothing.
Just as “magpie” can mean “one who hoards or steals trifles,” so the word “fox” also has embedded in it a meaning that’s derived from our view of this animal’s character. Used in a figurative sense, the noun “fox” can refer to “anyone notorious for cunning;” used as a verb, it can mean “to baffle, cheat, deceive, to act cunningly.” The hammer blow delivered to our thinking by Origin of Species killed off some puerile beliefs as certainly as Darwin slew the fox on the island of San Pedro. His great book opened our eyes to how extraordinary life is, and to the intricacy and ancientness of connection linking one creature to another. But for all that it illumines, for all the explanatory power of his ideas about evolution and natural selection, there’s surely a pleasing sense, almost of poetic justice, that we’re still foxed by the nature of existence. As Darwin put it in a letter he wrote to Asa Gray in 1860: “I feel most deeply that this whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.” As we hug our magpie baubles close, we need to take care not to mistake what it is they offer.
- Darwin’s Fox - July 29, 2016