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100 Years Ago: April 1922


This is the eighty-seventh installment in my series of reviews for one-hundred-year-old National Geographic Magazines.



The first article in this month’s issue is entitled “Viscount Bryce’s Last Article on the United States – The Scenery of North America”.  Its internal title is simply “The Scenery of North America” and was written by James Bryce (Viscount Bryce), author of such articles as “Impressions of Palestine”, “The Nation’s Capital”, “Two Possible Solutions for the Eastern Problem”, and “Western Siberia and the Altai Mountains”.  The cover advertises 45 illustrations, including 16 special engravings for this article.  The black-and-white engravings are all full-page in size and are in a block (Pages 371 to 386) near the end of the article.  They are on a slightly different grade of paper, and the ink [at least on my copy] has a greenish tinge.  The remaining twenty-nine illustrations are black-and-white photographs, of which nineteen are full-page in size.  Before the article begins, there is an editorial paragraph stating that this was probably the last article written for publication by the distinguished scholar and statesman, after a career of nearly eighty-four years.  Besides writing for The Geographic, he served on the Society’s Committee of Research while he was stationed in Washington as British Ambassador.  His advice was invaluable in the preparation for the Peruvian expeditions which found and unearthed Machu Picchu.  Every scene mentioned in the article had been visited by Viscount Bryce.  The news of his death was received with sorrow.

Thirty-five years prior, while the author was writing about the political and social institutions of the U. S., it was part of his plan to write about the scenery of North America.  For that task, however, time failed him.  Now, he was invited by his friend, the Editor of the National Geographic Magazine, to a less ambitious task, that of writing something short and simple about the American scenery.  To him, the mountain beauty and mountain grandeur were most interesting aspects of the American landscape.  He quoted Alexander Hamilton, “try to think continentally”.  Everything in America was on a great scale, as great as that of Asia, far greater than that of Europe.  The American rivers were of immense length and volume.  Its lake were inland seas.  The Rocky Mountains, from New Mexico to near Alaska spanned twenty-five hundred miles, compared to fifteen hundred for the Himalayas.  The Alleghenies were longer than the Alps, so were the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains, which were practically one continuous range.  That vast scale gave a large number of places in which such beauty as rivers and mountains displayed could be enjoyed.  Mountains, lakes, and rivers were the three features of scenery which most contributed to natural beauty, and of those three, the author felt that mountains were the most important.  But before discussing mountains, the author wrote of rivers, because of their grand volume.  The two greatest American rivers, the Mississippi (including its chief affluents) and the St. Laurence had that grandeur.  One could not sail upon or look down from a height upon either of those two mighty streams without being awed by the power of their currents.  Neither the Nile nor the Volga nor the Obi nor the Indus conveyed the same impressions of resistless power.  Only the Yangtze had a like air of majesty.  The Viscount discussed the cliffs along the Missouri and Yellowstone, a wooded, two-hundred-mile stretch of the Mississippi, and then the river below St. Louis.

The five Great Lakes had, almost everywhere, low shores, but Georgia Bay, the northeastern bight of Lake Huron, contained many picturesque rocky and wooded islands, and there were some fifty miles of craggy heights on the north coast of Lake Superior, some rising to grandeur.  Lake Champlain was a noble sheet of water as seen from the hills of Vermont, with the Adirondack peaks rising behind it.  The beauties of Lake George and its very dissimilar sister, Lake Tahoe, in California, were well known.  Now, he came to the mountains.  To the author felt that they counted for most.  Not just because much beauty could be found in them, but because size was an element of grandeur, and grandeur impressed most people.  There were five groups of mountain masses in the U. S.:  the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada/Cascade Range, the Coast Range of California and Oregon, the Alleghenies, and those scattered heights which extended from Pennsylvania to New Brunswick.  The Rocky Mountains were the backbone of the continent, a wide belt of highlands, sometimes sinking into plateaus, sometimes rising into peaks which carried some snow all the year.  The highest summits were in Colorado; about forty exceeded 14,000 feet.  Pikes Peak, Colorado, the high point most conspicuous from the plains, and toward which, as a landmark visible far off to the east, many settlers directed their wagons seventy years before, was a singularly tame and featureless object.  The Colorado Rockies had one feature of unsurpassed grandeur, the valleys.  The deep and extremely narrow ravines which intersected the mountains, enclosed by walls thousands of feet high, had a roaring stream at the bottom, with a road or railroad, sometimes, cut out of the face of the precipice.  Sometimes they had grandeur, other times they were more picturesque in nature.  The so-called Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River, west of Pueblo, was perhaps the most tremendous in the sternness of its crags and pinnacles, but there were others hardly less wildly grand.

North of Colorado the range of the Rockies sank, but some high peaks occurred in northwestern Wyoming, and its scenery of the Yellowstone Lake and Yellowstone Canyon, with its splendid waterfalls, as well as that of the Geyser Basins, was extremely interesting.  Still further north, on the frontier line between Montana and Canada, lied a district of great beauty, with snow-covered peaks, occasionally bearing small glaciers, and picturesque lakes filling some of the valleys.  Further north, the Canadian Rockies, while not as high as Colorado’s, had plenty of fine scenery for hundreds of miles.  Turning west from the Rockies, across the Great American Desert, was the parallel range of the Sierra Nevada in California.  It carried perpetual snow, but not enough to support glaciers.  It had one or two peaks that exceeded 14,000 feet.  The skyline of the range was of nearly uniform height and disappointingly tame.  The canyons, however, were of extraordinary beauty, sometimes, as in the Yosemite Valley and Kings River Canyon, presenting forms of singular grandeur.  In Oregon and Washington, the outline of the Cascade Range was broken by several huge snow-capped summits, the finest of which were Mount Hood, near Portland, and Mount Rainier, south of Seattle.  Mt. Rainier (14,408 feet) was a truly magnificent object, with glaciers above the thick, dark forest of Douglas fir and cedars, which rose 300 feet into the air.  Those superb evergreen conifers, along with the two Sequoias of California, one the Redwood, and the other the “Big Trees” of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, were the glory of the Pacific coast.

From the western peaks and forests, the author led the reader back to those of the Atlantic side of America.    There was another type of scenery with its own peculiar charms, less sensational, but no less enjoyable.  The Appalachian Mountains were unlike the mountains of the West, as those of Europe.  In the Alleghenies, there was nothing suggest the Alps, except maybe the Swiss and French Jura.  They were, when one crossed them west to east, or east to west, a succession of smooth-topped ridges, generally parallel to one another, but with traversing ridges here and there.  The average height above sea-level was 3,000 to 4,000 feet, with the highest top (in North Carolina) rising to 6,711 feet.  The valleys between them were usually miles wide, and all the valley bottoms, as well as the slopes, that were not under cultivation or pasture, were covered with dense wood.  The ridge lines were soft, and the scenery might have been called monotonous were it not for the beauty of the forests, in which there was much variety.  In some places, evergreen conifers clothed the slopes, while deciduous trees predominated below.  In June, the rhododendrons provided a mass of pink and purple, while, in October, the scarlet maples mingled with the yellow tulips.  There were no lakes, and the streams played no part in the landscape, though now and then, some rivers broke into a series of picturesque rapids.  The Appalachian Mountains of New York and New England were quite unlike the Alleghenies in their scenic character.  There was hardly any limestone.  The rocks were mostly gneiss, granite, or slates and mica schists, very old and very hard.  The aspect of the heights was rougher and sterner, and the tree line lower, so the ground above 4,000 feet was usually open and bare, while above 5,000 feet it was often covered by loose, weatherworn rocks.

That whole region had been worn down by the glaciers which formerly covered it, rounding off the peaks and carving out the valleys.  Mount Washington, the highest point, and its fellow summits of the “Presidential Range” in New Hampshire were huge masses, breaking down steeply, here and there, into glens and hollows.  There were no deep and narrow gorges like the canyons of Colorado and Utah.  But the valleys had a quiet beauty into which one joyfully descended from the rugged, snow-strewn wastes above.  It would have been hard to find anywhere a lovelier landscape then that of Intervale above North Conway (in New Hampshire), where the beloved philosopher, William James, spent his summers.  It was in the valleys that the characteristic charm of New England scenery was to be found.  The villages were pretty, for they are surrounded by elms.  The lakes of New England and northern New York must not be forgotten, for some of them, like Moosehead Lake in Maine, had a wild, and others, like Lake George and the Saranacs, a soft and placid beauty.  However, the author felt that none of them, not even Lake Champlain, could compare to the lakes of the Alps.  The last, and supreme charm of East American scenery was to be enjoyed only during six weeks of the year.  From the beginning of October to the middle of November was a season scarcely known in Europe, “Indian Summer”.  The later part of the fall gave a wealth of brilliant color nowhere to be found in the Old World, unless perhaps Korea and Japan.  It was chiefly in the maples that those colors were found, for they turned to superb crimsons and scarlets, but they were seconded by the many-tinted yellows of the beech and birch.  Viscount Bryce felt it was worth the trip across the Atlantic to see those colors.  Those forests were in no danger of perishing at the hands of man, for the woods were not of sufficient economic value.

The scenery of the sea coasts were attractions in Ireland, Scotland, and Norway, but not so much in America.  The Atlantic shores were low for thousands of miles, from New York to the Mexican frontier.  It was, therefore, only the New England coast, from Long Island Sound to the Bay of Fundy that the author deemed scenic enough to mention.  Fifty years prior, Niagara was the great natural wonder of America which every European traveler made a point to see.  But by 1922, the falls of Zambezi, in South Africa, and the falls of the upper Parana, in South America, had become well known, and, in the U. S., the Yellowstone Geysers and the Grand Canyon as well.  It remained for the author to speak of one other feature of North American Scenery – the Great Deserts.  They filled parts of the States of California, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Idaho, most of Utah, and nearly all of Arizona and Nevada.  The American deserts were more beautiful than those which the Viscount had seen in North Africa or North Arabia, or in South Africa, western South America, or Iceland.  The author knew only the fringes of the Mongolian and Australian deserts.  The American deserts were adorned by some noble isolated mountain groups besides the masses of the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada which bounded them on the east and west.  Such were the St. Francis Mountains in northern Arizona, clothed with snow for a large part of the year.  Further to the south, were some bold, sharp groups of peaks along the line of the Southern Pacific Railway.  The particular charm of the desert lied in the combination with barrenness and the sense of lonely immensity which the wide range of vision gave, the most tender and delicate tints of color.  Two desert views rose to the author’s memory as splendid in their amplitude.  One was that from the hill behind Salt Lake City.  The other prospect was that over the Painted Desert in Arizona, looking north from a point above the Grand Canyon.

Having reached the edge of the Grand Canyon, the author devoted a few sentences to that unique wonder of the world.  That gorge of the Colorado River, many hundred miles long, was most accessible at a point to which a branch railroad had been built.  There, the canyon was 6,000 feet deep and about ten miles from one edge to the other.  Swift torrents had excavated its way down through successive lines of horizontal strata; sandstone, white, yellow, and red; and limestones, gray and blue.  At the bottom one found primeval rock, a hard, red porphyry, on which all the sandstones and limestones were deposited during the untold ages that elapsed before those strata were raised to form dry land.  Thereafter began that process of cutting down through the strata for countless centuries.  Wonderful were the colors of those strata, superimposed one upon the other, and they stood strongly out, preserved by the dry air.  On each side of the canyon, comparatively short, narrow gorges had been carved out by streams when storms had flooded the plateau above.  Why that deep hole in the ground should inspire more wonder and awe than the loftiest snow mountain or the grandest waterfall, the author couldn’t explain.  But it did.  Beauty and grandeur enhanced one another.  One descended by a very steep and winding footpath down to the river at the bottom, and ascended again, see all there was to see, but the spell was the same when one emerged.  The vastness and the changelessness created a sense of solemn silence.  That intense silence was the most awesome thing.

The author next compared the scenery of North America with that of Europe. The obvious contrast was that of scale.  Everything was large, and the most interesting pieces of scenery lied far apart.  Europe was small, and the northern and eastern two-thirds had no scenic value.  With the exception of the coasts of the British Isles, and Norway, the beauty of Europe lied in the Mediterranean countries and along the northern slopes of the Alps.  Neither Europe, nor Asia, nor South America had a prospect in which the sea and wood, and snow mountains were so united in a landscape as in the view from Puget Sound of the great peaks that rose above the dark green forests of the Cascade Range.  No valley gorge was wilder than those of the Rockies, or more beautiful than those of the Sierra Nevada.  In richness of colors, whether one thought of the autumn woods of Maine or the rocks of the Western Canyons, America was preeminent.  The last topic the author touched on was the question, “Did American scenery have romantic appeal?”  Some travelers said that American scenery was not romantic.  The author felt the problem was that people associated places with historic events.  New countries, such as western America, Siberia, and Australia couldn’t have anything romantic in their landscapes until the landscapes had been associated with moving incidents, real or imagined by the poet’s mind.  The influence of scenery on emotions was a large subject, too large to be entered here, so the author ended his tour of American scenery at this point.



The second article in this month’s issue is entitled “Modern Scenes in Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization” and has no byline.  The internal title of this editorial is the shortened “Modern Scenes in the Cradle of Civilization.  The article contains “16 Illustrations in Full Color by Eric Keast Burke”.  These illustrations are full-page black-and-white photographs which have been colorized, some poorly and cartoonish looking.  The editorial itself is two full pages enclosing the sixteen “color” photos by Burke numbered I to XVI in Roman numerals and representing pages 391 to 406 in the issue.

Gashing the cool highlands of Armenia and Kurdistan, the Tigris and Euphrates flowed out upon the ancient plain where the civilization that mattered most to the Western World was born.  Within the sweep of their changing riverbeds, they enclosed a land whose capitals at Nineveh and Babylon were once the wonder of the world.  Near the traditional site of the Garden of Eden, they wormed their way across the blistering plain on their way to the hot Persian Gulf, or in flood-time, spread across the land.  Beneath the dust of ages lied the former city sites, a primeval plain encrusted with history.  The veil of centuries had added mystery to a dull and dreary land, just as the Moslem veil had made each shadowy form, whose flowing vestments brushed us as we passed, a figure of full interest.  The accompanying illustrations, from photographs by Eric Keast Burke, who served with the Australian Expeditionary forces in the Near East during the World War, showed that there was still color in that ancient land, bright, vivid flashes of it, dotting a vast, sunbaked palette.  Mesopotamia was a twilight land, never entirely awake and never wholly still.  The summer roofs, deserted to the sun by day, became alive beneath the velvet dome of night.  Skies so clear that they made astronomers of the Chaldeans looked down upon those roofless upper rooms, whose ceiling was the changing stars and the luminous Milky Way.  Copper and brass glinted from door knocker and fruit-tray piled high with lusciousness.  From overhanging balconies, the lattices dripped sounds muffled by silks and deep-piled rugs.  To see Mesopotamia clearly was to tear aside the curtain of romance which exaggerated her charms.  Mesopotamia could be cold.  The salubrious winters of the Nile never became so chill.  But summers beat down with a violence that made one realize that only by the sweat of many brows was civilization nurtured there, amid natural forces against which modern man needed to fight if the land was once again to blossom.

Far to the north lied the plateau which stretched from the Taurus Mountains to Mount Ararat, bitter cold in winter, though clear skies made the noon delightful, even beside the ruined homes of Van.  In spring, warm rains descended, the summer rushed north, and heavy snow, which blocked the mountain roads, melted quickly on the slopes.  Through the rounding country of Assyria and the Hittite lands the Tigris and Euphrates flowed, confined by cliffs and hills to comparatively narrow valleys; but at the fall-line, which marked the boundary, as well as the difference in geographic character, between Assyria and Babylonia, the piled-up water tended to spread across a wide alluvial plain.  Once, the floods were tamed, but even then, the lower plain was so submerged that dikes were built to save towns and fields from devastating waters.  In 1922, the old canals were clogged with silt, and useless marshes occupied the fields.  Slowly, the rivers were carried down their delta to the sea and pushing back its tides.  The rivers offered life and peace in return for toil, and man gradually conquered natural forces until great cities rose above the wide clay plains and muddy floods. Sumer, Akkad, Babylonia, and Assyria grew through toil and held their position through constant vigilance on the part of their people.  But the day came when men, at war with other men, withdrew their supervision.  Silt and floods came down to drowned the city-states and hide their corpses under shapeless mounds.  Ocean liners ran up to Basra, a modern, bustling port on the Shat-el-Arab.  There, one was shown the house of Sinbad the Sailor, for traditions lived longer than human beings in such a feverish land.  Bagdad, with its melons and kufas, desert Arabs and veiled women, whose veils were becoming distressingly thin, deserved a story of its own.  Mesopotamia, rescued though it be by engineering skills which would reclaim the marshes, would still remain the East, the land of color and of dreams.



The third and final article in this month’s issue is entitled “South Georgia, An Outpost of the Antarctic” and was written by Robert Cushman Murphy, of the American Museum of Natural History.  The article contains forty-one black-and-white photographs, of which only one is full-page in size.  The full-page photo serves as the frontispiece to this article.  The article also contains two sketch maps on page 412, one a map of the Island of South Georgia with an inset of the island in relation to South America, and the other a map of the Bay of Isles, South Georgia.

Sketch Maps courtesy of Philip Riviere

On January 4, 1922, the little Quest laid in the sheltered basin of Grytviken (King Edwards Cove), Cumberland, Bay, South Georgia, an island outpost of the Antarctic lying more than 1,000 miles east of Cape Horn.  Repairs had been completed, following the battering of a stormy passage from England, by way of Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro.  The commander had been ashore at the whaling station, arranging final details for the morrow’s departure.  But for him, that morrow was never to dawn.  Before daybreak of January 5, a great-hearted Irishman, a hero of three earlier polar voyages – Sir Ernest Shackleton – was dead in his cabin.  Strangely enough, the distant isle at which Shackleton came to an untimely end had already been associated with him.  In 1914, he made South Georgia the first southern base of the Endurance, and it was there that he took aboard his final stores before going southward in December into the Weddell Sea.  Shackleton’s even more dramatic association with that ice-bound island came in May 1916, when, after the loss of the Endurance, he made a two-week journey in an open boat from Elephant Island to the southwestern coast of South Georgia.  He and two companions crossed the mountains between King Haakon Bay to Stromness Bay in 36 harrowing hours.  Following hard upon the news of the explorer’s death, in January, came the announcement that Lady Shackleton had decided to have her husband’s remains sent back from Montevideo to South Georgia for interment.  The author felt it was appropriate.  South Georgia was, in every sense, a very type and epitome of all the subantarctic regions.  It was, moreover, the first South Polar land known to man, and it was discovered during the golden age of exploration.  During the week beginning Sunday, January 15, 1775, James Cook, commander of H.M.S. Resolution, was cruising along the coast of an ice-covered island in the latitude 54 degrees 30 minutes south.

The island had appeared, unexpectedly in the path of the Resolution.  He described the land with wild rocks, lofty heights, snow-covered valleys, and a coast blocked by “a wall of ice of considerable height.  Not a tree was in sight, nor a shrub.  The only vegetation was a coarse strong-bladed grass growing in tufts, wild burnet, and a plant-like moss which sprung from rocks.  Cook took possession of the country for England and named it the Isle of Georgia, and, after charting the coast, he proceeded on his famous circumnavigation of the world.  Captain Cook’s observations on the island were characteristically thorough.  He recorded the depths of some of the inlets and the extent of the tidal rise.  He referred to the abundance of sea-bears (seals), sea-elephants, and penguins.  He noted the albatrosses, gulls, “Port Egmont hens”, terns, shags, divers, and blue petrels, which circled over the seas, and the small titlarks of the land.  South Georgia, as the island came to be called, was destined not to be forgotten.  The brave tales of Captain Cook were popular reading during the early years of American independence.  Before the close of the eighteenth century, bold Yankee mariners from New London and other Long Island Sound ports had begun to reap the harvest of fur-seal skins at South Georgia.  In the season 1800-1801, the crews of the fleet killed not less than 112,000 fur-seals.  For twenty years the slaughter continued, and then there were no fur-seals left.  A respite of several decades gave the unfortunate animals a chance partly to replete their numbers, when the extermination was resumed and carried to completion.  In 1874-1875, about 200 skins were taken, and a few more in 1892.  Between 300 and 400 fur-seals were slain illegally in 1907.  Since then, scarcely an animal of the species had been seen reported from South Georgia.

When the supply of lucrative fur-seals first began to fail, the other amphibious monsters mentioned by Cook, the sea-elephants, were forced to pay the cost of the ruthless voyagers.  The sea-elephant was the largest seal, and was thickly invested with blubber, which yielded an oil little inferior to the product of the sperm whale; hence, “elephant hunting” became an important industry at most of the sub-Antarctic islands.  In many of its haunts, the species was soon exterminated, and, although at South Georgia, it still persisted, its days were numbered unless absolute protection was soon enforced.  But the tale of human industry at the barren island was not yet told, and the latest development already overshadowed a century of sealing.  Eighteen years prior, Norwegian seafarers, Vikings still, found a field unspoiled by the bloody dynasty of their American predecessors, and they had made South Georgia the headquarters of the greatest whale fishing on earth.  Between 1910 and 1920, more than forty thousand whales, representing a value of roughly fifty million dollars, had been shot on the offshore banks and towed to the bustling whaling stations of the islands.  In a single year (season of 1915-1916) the South Georgian catch numbered 5,510 whales.  During the earlier years of whaling, the humpback was the mainstay of the industry, constituting 96% of the catch.  As the humpback declined, the finback whale next rose to prominence, and, finally, the blue whale became the principal “fish”.  That sequence corresponded with the order of size of the three species, the humpback being 50 feet in length, the finback reaching 85 feet, and the blue whale sometimes exceeding 100 feet.  In 1917-18, the proportionate numbers of the three species taken was as follows: humpbacks, 2.5%; finbacks, 29.3%; and blue whales, 68.2%.  Soon after the outbreak of the World War, the British Ministry of Munitions took charge of all production of oils containing glycerin, and whales furnished oil for explosives.

The history of scientific investigation at South Georgia may be more briefly retold.  Following Cook, the Russian explorer Bellingshausen in 1820, the Englishman James Weddell in 1823, and the members of several recent [in 1922] Antarctic expeditions had done much to increase our knowledge of the island.  It was the German Transit of Venus Expedition of 1882-1883, the staff of which spent a year at Royal Bay, that science was indebted, for its most important information in the various domains of natural history.  Like most of the other austral islands, South Georgia had not yet been correctly charted.  The altitudes of its mountains were still unknown.  Only two species of fossils had thus far been unearthed from its hills.  The author’s trip to South Georgia was made in the manner of the pioneers, for he was away a full year on the old New Bedford whaling brig Daisy, B. D. Cleveland, master.  They “made the land” at the middle of the northwest coast late one November, and the next day they were towed by a whaling steamer into Cumberland Bay, were the Daisy laid at anchor until mid-December.  During that visit, the author enjoyed the unfailing hospitality of the Norwegian explorer Capt. C. A. Larsen, founder of the whaling station in King Edwards Cove.  For assistance in his work, Mr. Murphy also thanked the resident British magistrate, Mr. J. Innes Wilson, whose snug hermitage laid beneath the pyramidal “Dusefell” on the banks of the cove.  That gentlemen exerted every effort to conserve the wildlife of South Georgia, especially the sea-elephant.  From Cumberland Bay, the Daisy sailed westward to the bleak and lonely Bay of Isles, a hitherto-uncharted cluster of fjords.  The coast of that wild inlet consisted of rocky glacial beaches separated by promontories.  The valleys opening on the beach were filled with magnificent glaciers.  The grassy islets, from which the bay derived its name, furnished nesting sites for myriads of ocean birds.  Just east of the Bay of Isles was Prince Olaf Harbor, where they found the graves of the mate and several sailors of the Sarah Jane, of New York, who perished so far from home in 1838.

The geologic structure of the high and rugged mountains of South Georgia indicated a former connection to the Andean system through a now-sunken bridge of land.  Small though South Georgia was, its glaciers were as mighty as those of Spitzbergen, and there was evidence that the island was formerly completely buried by an icecap.  One incomprehensible statement in Captain Cook’s account of South Georgia was his emphatic testimony that he saw no brook or stream along the whole coast.  Certainly, in the author’s time, the rushing torrents were a great impediment to progress on land, and, during January thaws, gleaming cascades, visible from far at sea, poured from the ledges of the coastal hills.  The climate of South Georgia varied relatively little throughout the year.  The mean annual temperature was very close to the freezing point, and the sky was prevailingly overclouded.  February was the warmest month.  Snow fell in every month, and rain and sleet storms were both frequent and prolonged during the summer.  It rained or snowed about five out of every six days, year-round.  The greatest proportion of clear days was in winter.  On rare midsummer afternoons of January and February, the thermometer rose as high as 68 degrees F.  There was only one hard frost at sea-level during the summer of the author’s visit, that being at the Bay of Isles on the night of January 13, when a half inch of ice formed on all the freshwater ponds.  The prevailing winds were westerly and southwesterly.  Since tremendous barometric changes took place very quickly, there was probably no place on earth where violent gales arose more unexpectedly or with more terrific force.  A sustained wind of 38.5 MPH had been recorded in April at the sheltered observatory in Cumberland Bay, while maximum gust had been estimated at 140 miles.

The flora was more like that of South America than that of New Zealand.  The plant life presented a transition stage the Falkland type and that of the Antarctic mainland.  The most abundant and conspicuous plant was the virile tussock grass (Poa flabellate), which covered much of the lower ground and struggled up the hills, on favorable northern exposures, to a height of nearly 1,000 feet.  The individual plants of the tussock grass formed high, circular pedestals, or hummocks.  The stalks attained a length of over four feet.  A single hummock may flourish for a quarter century or more.  The other grasses of South Georgia were inconspicuous.  South Georgia had an oceanic, as opposed to a continental, climate; it was under the continual equalizing influence of the sea.  In the Southern Ocean, the winter was not so excessively cold, but the summer was far less hot.  Owing to the same oceanic life conditions, the land animals of South Georgia were even fewer than the plants.  There were no indigenous terrestrial mammals, but rats, horses, and reindeer had been introduced and were thriving in a wild state.  There was a single species of land bird, a titlark (Anthus antarticus), peculiar to the island.  Twenty-three species of water birds and three species of seals completed the list of native vertebrates which spent part of their existence on land.  An earthworm was common, and there were several forms of rock spiders, a mite, and a tick.  The insects comprised parasitic fleas, small beetles, large sluggish flies, minute wingless flies, ephemeral Mayflies, and acrobatic “springtails”.  The abundance of the marine life was in marked contrast with the scanty terrestrial flora and fauna.  Red, green, and brown algae, starfish, sea cucumber, jellyfish, shells, squids, and innumerable crustaceans thickly peopled the fjords.  Pelagic shrimps, upon which the whales and penguins fed, traveled in dense shoals.  Close along the shore, the giant kelp harbored among its 50-fathom branches an aggregation of living creatures more varied and abundant than any forest of the upper world.  In the bays, the water was filled with minute transparent things, which constituted the so-called plankton.  There were no fresh-water fishes at South Georgia.  The marine fishes were represented by only a few species, but those were exceedingly abundant.

Within a few days of their arrival at South Georgia they made the acquaintance of the sea-elephants.  The young, known to the sealers as “pups”, had been born about two months earlier in the year.  The mating season of the adults had followed, and during November, the herds laid sleeping in the tussock grass until ready to go to sea again, which most of them did by the middle of December.  The patriarchal bulls, whose unwieldy bulk and long snouts had given the species its common name, were rather scarce in the vicinity of Cumberland Bay.  Shortly after New Year, sea-elephants, rejuvenated and fattened by active sea life and a diet of fish and squid, began to return to land, congregating in summer colonies behind the beaches.  The females came first, the large bulls mostly staying at sea until February.  During the latter part of February 18-foot bulls came out on the beaches frequently.  On the last day of the month, they killed a bull measuring 21 feet, 9 inches from snout to hind flippers, or almost twice as much as a walrus.  Female sea-elephants were relatively small, seldom exceeding a length of 9 feet and a weight of 600 or 700 pounds.  They lacked the long snout of the males.  Sea-elephants had a contentious disposition and were given to fighting among themselves from early puphood, yet fondness for company was one of their marked traits.

A sea-elephant, when landing, crawled slowly up the strand, taking advantage of the waves to aid its progress.  When it had reached the upper beach, it rose to its full height and reconnoitered, then proceeded a little further, it repeated its action.  Sea-elephants laid as closely together as possible during the daytime.  The younger animals indulged in many fights.  At night, they were at their noisiest and were most active, roving about.  On a level surface, sea-elephants could bob along faster than a man could walk but pauses for rest were made at short intervals.  Their mode of progress had been likened to that of an inchworm.  Sleeping seemed to be the main business of the sea-elephant during the summer months.  They sometimes to naps in the coves and ponds.  Ashore, they slept most of the time, usually lying belly up.  To the author, a sea-elephant’s sleep was suggestive of nightmare or a guilty conscience.  Inhales were irregular gasps, while exhales were tremendous wheezes.  The body shook violently from time to time, and the fore flippers were ever nervously moving about.  The fingers of the fore flippers were very flexible, bending when employed in scratching quite like human fingers.  Awake or asleep, they were fond of flinging sand or mud over themselves by scooping the earth backward with their fore flippers.

The two dozen species of birds which bred on South Georgia offered a field for the study of certain biological questions, notably the struggle for existence.  The titlark, the only land bird had already been mentioned.  The remaining birds belonged to six distinct groups as follows:

  1. Three species of penguin, of which one was rare.
  2. Thirteen species of Tubinares, the group comprising of petrels, fulmars, albatrosses, etc.
  3. One shag, belonging to a branch of the cormorant family.
  4. A teal and a goose, the latter introduced from the Falklands by man.
  5. A skua, a seagull, and a tern.
  6. Chionis, the sheathbill, an aberrant member of the snipe and plover family.

As would appear from the list, the Tubinares were far and away the dominant seabirds of the Southern Hemisphere.  The titlark, sheathbill, teal, and goose of South Georgia were, wholly or in part, vegetable feeders.  The cormorant and the tern ate fish.  The gull subsisted chiefly on limpets and other shell-bearing mollusks.  The penguins and Tubinares captured cuttlefish and pelagic crustaceans.  The giant petrel alone obtained part of its food ashore, since it had a relish for carrion.  The skua fed on any kind of animal food, dead or alive, especially upon other birds and their eggs.  To all effects, the skua was a seagull which had turned into a buzzard-hawk.  Sometimes, they ate their own offspring. About the penguin rookeries, skuas squat on their bellies, hour after hour, waiting patiently for a chance to steal an egg or a chick.  With so powerful a foe as the skua, it was obvious that all other South Georgia birds must have had some definite method of defense during breeding season.  Some used size and strength, others used concealment, while others built their nests on cliffs or in burrows.  One burrower, the whale-bird, survived through strength of numbers.  The Falkland upland goose protected its nest by concealment and constant guard.

Some years ago, Mr. Wilson, British magistrate of South Georgia, imported several pairs of upland geese from the Falklands at his own expense, and freed them in the grassy country of Westfjord, Cumberland Bay.  The geese had since increased and spread encouragingly and were there assured of a sheepless future and a home where the species may exist after extermination in its original habitat.  One evening, the cabin boy of the Daisy brought five young goslings to the author.  Mr. Murphy decided to take them back to their mother.  Arriving next morning at the lake, they saw several pair of upland geese lurking on the far side of the lake.  One of the goslings peeped and immediately a clucking came in answer from across the water, and a barred goose began swimming straight toward them, followed by a snow-white gander.  They put the young brood into the lake, but each gosling attempted to scramble out until it heard the call of the approaching mother, when all five turned their tails and swam bravely away.  The family swam away with the youngsters well-guarded.  The great, white, wandering albatross, the bird of the Ancient Mariner, was a true embodiment of the spirit of South Georgia.  Those splendid creatures nested in large colonies on the islets and grassy promontories in the Bay of Isles.  In December, many of the dark-colored young of the previous year, with patches of grey down clinging to their plumage feathers, were still lingering about the colonies; but with the advent of a new breeding season, those backward youngsters were no longer fed by their parents, so soon learned to fly and went off to sea.  The nest of the wandering albatross was a large, truncated cone of earth and tussock stalks.  After the single egg was laid, one bird goes off to sea for six to ten days while the other stayed guarding the nest, mostly sleeping.  When the other parent returned, they switched places, taking 10-day turns of duty on the nest.  In order to launch to flight, the wandering albatross needed starting room.  The huge bird set its wings, ran rapidly down a slope, and glided off the earth and into its element.  Only then could its full grandeur be appreciated.

Of different habits was the sooty albatross, a dark-colored species which reached the very pinnacle of perfection in flight, exceeding in grace even its larger relatives.  The sooty albatrosses nested on perilous ledges wherever mountainous headlands rose abruptly from the sea.  While one parent covered the egg, the other soared effortlessly overhead.  The author saw many nests, but only three he felt were reachable by a man.  On January 20, he climbed up to one of those sites with a camera.  The male parent, who was brooding a downy chick, grunted and snapped his bill.  After the author backed up about six feet, the bird calmed down, and the chick popped his head out from beneath its sire.  When the author took the chick out of the nest, it immediately crawled back, in spite of its very weak legs.  Down below the eyries of the sooty albatrosses, on the lower ledges of South Georgia cliffs, the blue-eyed shags nested in populous rookeries.  They were a far more beautiful birds than our northern cormorants, having iridescent blue-green back and snowy throats and breasts.  They were better humored; they never threw up on the author when he climbed to their nest, or attempted to bite him when he stroked their backs. After the two or three greenish eggs had been laid, the two shags remained at the nest.  One day, Mr. Murphy visited a nest just as the eggs were hatching.  A few days later the nestlings began to sprout their dusky down.  Exactly 49 days after hatching, they flew from the nest and began to catch fish for themselves.

Two species of penguin were still common at South Georgia.  The nobler tribe of penguins, the “kings”, formed a sort of hereditary aristocracy.  They were stalwart birds which stood a yard high.  They wore a gold collar round their necks, and deported themselves in a rather lofty and snobbish manner.  The members of the lesser tribe, called “Johnnies”, were characterized by short, roly-poly figures, and temperaments which included many attributes of a small boy: inquisitiveness, good nature, and a certain degree of quarrelsomeness.  The two species followed the same vocation and dwelt in the same territory, yet their society was inviolably distinct.  In December, when the Daisy dropped anchor in the Bay of Isles, the Johnny penguins were the first creatures to greet them on the strand.  The Johnny penguins built bulky nests of stones and vegetable debris and laid two nearly spherical eggs.  The eggs usually hatched several days apart, one chick consequently being much larger than the other.  Many of the nests visited contained only one young bird, the skuas having accounted for the other.  When a brooding penguin was driven from its eggs or young nestlings, it lingered nearby, trumpeting loudly until the disturbance was over.  Then they would return to the nest and examine it closely.  When satisfied that all was well, it settled down contentedly.  The parents hissed sharply whenever a skua approached, and sometimes they even rushed at one while it stood evilly watching for a nest to be momentarily neglected.  The Johnny penguins often located their colonies on the summits of bare hills long distances from the sea.  Every day they trudged back and forth between the nest and feeding ground, along well-worn paths.  Once in the ocean, all their awkwardness vanished.  They swam with incredible speed, remaining well below the surface except when they leapt out porpoise-like.  Their fat bodies seemed to be made to stand hard knocks.  They not only fell on land, but also were knocked around by the surf when exiting the water.

The king penguins of South Georgia bred on low ground well back from salt water.  They built no nests but carried their single egg on top of their feet, covering it with a flap of skin on the lower belly.  The breeding season began later than that of the Johnny penguins and continued all summer, some birds not laying an egg until March.  The sexes alternated every 24 hours in the duties of incubation.  Young king penguins, unlike young Johnnies, retained their thick down all through the first winter, acquiring their plumage coats and migrating when they were eight or ten months old.  The incubating kings could shuffle along slowly, in spite of the egg on their insteps.  They were fond of crowding together closely, yet seemingly for no better purpose than to facilitate quarreling.  A band of king penguins made a glorious display when the morning sunlight shone on the golden throats and orange ear-patches of the soldierly birds.  Sometimes the brigades hailed and answered each other with long-drawn, martial, bugle calls, and then, as if at a signal, they all would start marching toward the sea.  When a king penguin trumpeted, it stretched grandly to its full height, pointed its bill skyward, and the long volley rang forth from an expanded chest.  At the close of the call, the head was tilted forward with a jerk, and the bird stood at attention for several moments.  Both king and Johnny penguins often slept with their bills behind their armpits, a persistent, ancient instinct from when the animals’ ancestors had warm wing-coverts.

Toward the end of the Antarctic summer – that was about the end of February – they weighed the Daisy’s two heavy anchors and tacked into the teeth of an easterly wind along the shore out of the Bay of Isles and in through the narrow mouth of Possession Bay, where Captain Cook had landed and claimed the snowy island for his king.  They moored near the head of that comfortless bay before a semicircle of perpendicular glacier walls.  The hills shut off every view save to the north, where the distant sea heaved beyond the entrance.  Little verdure could be seen anywhere from the deck of the ship.  The pale sun seemed to have lost its power to cheer.  On March 15, they pointed the good brig’s prow toward the open sea and began the long voyage home.


At the bottom of the last page of the third article in this issue (Page 444) there is a notice regarding change of address.  If a member wanted the magazine to be mailed somewhere else, the Society needed a month’s notice in advance, starting on the first of the month.  If a member wanted the June issue redirected, the Society needed to know by May first.



Tom Wilson

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