Horizon at Sandy Point

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A bit about Beebe

William Beebe's first job was as Curator of Birds at the New York Zoological Park (Bronx Zoo). Born 1877, he began in 1899 as assistant curator. His interest and skills (many self-taught - such as taxidermy) took him around the world in search of specimens. One of his first birding expeditions, taken with his first wife Mary Blair Rice, is documented in the 1905 book, Two Bird Lovers in Mexico. 

Another more technical book, The Bird - its Form and Function, was published in 1906. It includes his famous quote: "The beauty and genius of a work of art may be re-conceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."

Together, Will and Blair also travelled to Venezuela, Guyana and Trinidad. And these expeditions are captured in their book, Our Search for a Wilderness.

By the end of 1909, the couple set out - with sponsorship - on the defining birding expedition of their life together. The study of pheasants in their habitats took them around the world. It is estimated that "the Beebes traveled about 52,000 miles and visited 22 countries (UK, Egypt, Ceylon, India, Sikkim, Burma, the Yunnan Province in China, the Malay States, Java, Borneo and Japan)" for primary research. (See the official website: This was followed by reading and analysis in the natural history museum capitals of the world. Will and Blair's monograph, The Pheasant, was subsequently published in four volumes, illustrated by the most notable wildlife artists of the day.

By the 1920's, following an expedition to the Galapagos - a review of Darwin's process and progress in his theory of evolution - Beebe "discovered" helmet diving. In the preface of Beneath Tropic Seas (1928) Beebe writes "The diving helmet, hose and pump, with which all the research was done, are as inexpensive as they are simple in operation," and he encourages anyone who can, to explore the underwater world. Despite the outmoded equipment, and methods - blasting fish out of the water to collect specimens - Beebe's observations are lucid, factual and entertaining, and certainly worthy of being read a century later - providing a 100-year baseline for life in the same places. Beneath Tropic Seas is a record of the tenth expedition of the Department of Tropical Research of the New York Zoological Society. It is a study of the coral reefs and fishes in the Bay of Port-au-Prince Haiti.

At any given time, Beebe's view might be single focused but it's never tunnel-visioned. One of the most delightful chapters in Beneath Tropic Seas, "When Night Comes to Water" is a poet's record of phosphorescence, the stars and city lights. And certainly the most surprising - for being unexpected in a book on the underwater world of coral reefs - is his overview, with many fine details of behaviour - pugnacity - their habitats, life cycle and stamina, of hummingbirds.  He writes, "No person of real worth ever forgets the first hummingbird he has ever seen, and if his fate has cast him in cities or deep in mines or other doleful hummerless places, then a certain cell in his brain should always hold the thought of hopes for hummingbirds." 

"It is more important to me to be able to see a hummingbird next year than to cross the ocean in two days instead of six," he declares.

Here is a man who spends his life in awe of the natural world; who after the most thorough scientific investigations never loses that enthusiasm for the individual or the species. That is possibly his lasting gift to the world, so open heartedly expressed in all his books and documents. William Beebe writes with immediacy but not a solely scientific approach. His sense of wonder and the generosity to share his findings with anyone who might listen are infectious and engaging. Nearly a century later, he exudes "the supreme joy of learning, of discovering, of adding our tiny facts to the foundation of the everlasting why of the universe; all this makes life for us ... one never-ending delight."

Wonder what Beebe thought of the Cobo

1 comment:

  1. I love Beebe, he had a beautiful word to spare for almost everything, including corbeaux :-) From Jungle Days (1923) “Happening to glance up I saw a mote, lit with the oblique rays of the morning sun. The mote drifted about in circles, which became spirals; the mote became a dot, then a spot, then an oblong, and down the heavens from unknown heights, with the whole of (British Guiana) spread out beneath him from which to choose, swept a vulture into my very own path….I was accustomed to watch them hour after hour, striving to learn something of that wonderful soaring, of which all my many hours of flying had taught me nothing". He also suggested that (vultures as pets are) “surpassed in cleanliness, affectionateness and tameness only by baby bears, sloths and certain monkeys” (Think I’d still prefer a sloth though)