Today's Reading

In his forties, he took a job at Harvard and was troubled by what he found there. No digging around in the dirt, no students locked in closets with tiny rotting corpses. Just papers and tests and recitations regurgitating the beliefs printed in science books. This approach concerned Agassiz, who warned that "science, generally, hates beliefs." As late as the 1850s, for example, many respectable scientists still believed in the idea of "spontaneous generation"—the belief that fleas and maggots could spring forth from particles of dust; a few decades before that, scientists believed in a magical substance called "phlogiston" that determined whether or not a material would burn; at that very moment, people had no way of protecting their loved ones against mysterious illnesses like "army fever"—bacteria having not yet been discovered as the cause of that disease. No, if you were satisfied with the beliefs of the day, Agassiz worried, it kept you stunted, stymied, sick. The way out, the way to enlightenment, was to keep looking, closer, longer, at the pebbles and petals and pelts of this world.

So, Agassiz dreamed of creating a safe haven where he could right this wrong, a kind of summer camp for young naturalists where he could teach the art of direct observation out in nature. And when, in 1873, a wealthy landowner offered to donate Penikese Island to the cause, he jumped at the opportunity.

Its location was ideal: an hour from the mainland, easy enough to access, yet far enough to feel free. So was its size: big enough to roam, but small enough to never get lost. And as for the subjects available for study on Penikese? Well, where to begin. Coating its treeless shores was a lush carpet of seagrass, which whipped in the wind and rustled with treasures—crabs, dragonflies, snakes, mice, crickets, plovers, beetles, owls. There were also the tide pools, silty with snails and seaweed and barnacles. And perhaps Agassiz's favorite, the big blond boulders scattered like clunky teeth all over the island, some of them over fifteen feet tall, which revealed in their scratch marks the direction the mighty glacier had been traveling some twenty thousand years before. Finally, there was the lovely lapping sea itself. A sapphire platter that offered endless riches—sea stars, jellies, oysters, urchins, rays, horseshoe crabs, sea squirts, bioluminescence, and fish after glorious, slimy, shimmering fish. The naturalists' nets would never come up empty. For a person hoping to teach using nature itself, the place was a gold mine.

As Agassiz began shipping lumber to the island to construct the camp, David Starr Jordan sat halfway across the country in Galesburg, Illinois, reading the newspaper. He had finally landed a job, teaching science at a small Christian university called Lombard College. But he was miserable. He felt isolated geographically and spiritually. His colleagues criticized him for teaching the blasphemous ice age theory, and worse, for allowing his students to handle lab instruments and "waste chemicals." It was cold in Illinois and the earth was flat and he missed the flowering gorges of his youth. But one dark morning in early spring, he flipped the page of his newspaper and came across an ad for a "Course of Instruction in Natural History to Be Delivered by the Seaside" by none other than Louis Agassiz himself.

I picture David snarfing his morning coffee out his nose—but it wouldn't have been coffee, because he was a lifelong teetotaler (eschewing not just booze and tobacco but even caffeine, for its dangerous ability to alter perception). So perhaps he snarfed water, snarfed herbal tea, snarfed something in disbelief that such a place could exist. He applied to the camp as fast as he could. Within weeks, the mail brought his letter of acceptance, his ticket out of Illinois, signed by Agassiz's very own hand.

***

Just a few months later, on July 8, 1873, David Starr Jordan stepped onto a pier in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and beheld the ocean for the very first time. He was twenty-two years old.

Slowly, more and more young naturalists began gathering beside him on the dock, a mix of young men and women. It was a beautiful morning. The bay was calm, the sky a brilliant blue. A tugboat was headed their way, ready to shuttle them off to the faraway speck on the horizon. The boat threw down its planks and the fifty young naturalists walked aboard. It's lost to time what the campers talked about as they chugged into the waves. Maybe they exchanged tall tales about the fauna of their homelands, asked one another to which kingdom they pledged their allegiance: animal, vegetable, or mineral. Maybe, if asked, David would have replied with one of his trustiest jokes, that due to the dense ivy that overtook the walls of his boyhood home, he became a "botanist in self-defense." Or perhaps he stayed glued to the boat's railing, scanning those rolling gray waves for slips of skin; he confessed to a lingering shyness in those years, a wariness of new places; perhaps he consoled himself with that age-old technique of finding refuge in nature.

About an hour later, the tugboat shifted its engines into a lower gear and began its approach to the island. From his spot on the deck, David could make out the silhouette of a long dock with a human standing at the tip. He writes:

None of us will ever forget his first sight of Agassiz. We had come down from New Bedford in a little tug-boat in the early morning, and Agassiz met us at the landing-place on the island. He was standing almost alone on the little wharf, and his great face beamed with pleasure....

His tall, robust figure, broad shoulders bending a little under the weight of years, his large round face lit up by kindly dark-brown eyes, his cheery smile.... He greeted us with great warmth as we landed. He looked into our faces to justify himself in making choice of us among the many whom he might have chosen.

After greeting each student with a handshake, "the great naturalist" led them up the hill to see the new dormitory. It wasn't in the best of shape, construction having run longer than Agassiz had anticipated. The windowpanes hadn't been installed yet, nor had the shingles, and the wall that was to separate the men's from the women's sleeping quarters was, at present, just a flimsy sailcloth hanging from a rafter.


This excerpt ends on page 23 of the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book The Address Book by Deirdre Mask.
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