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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

On This Day, 15th February: Archibald Menzies died

The moral of this story, if any, is perhaps that you don't want to annoy an amorous Musk Duck. Archibald Menzies did and his memories of the trip would not have been entirely happy ones.
Male Musk Duck Biziura lobata, south of Canberra.
This striking duck is the only member of its genus, long regarded as a member of the sub-group known (for evident
reasons) as stiff-tails, though it's starting to seem as though it's one of those Gondwanan specials which diverged long ago and is not that closely related to the stiff-tails. That however is a story for another day.
They are not uncommon on deeper water throughout much of the southern half of Australia. The males are
characterised by the leathery lobe beneath the bill which engorges with blood during courtship, when he
whistles and grunts and sends out great sprays of water with his feet. He also then emits a strong musky smell.

George Vancouver (a veteran of Cook’s Pacific expeditions) was sent by the Admiralty in the Discovery in 1791 to sort out the Spanish who were regarded as being tedious off the north-west coast of North America. As ever, Sir Joseph Banks made sure there was a scientific presence, in the person of Archibald Menzies, a Scottish naval surgeon and botanist. Now, getting to the North American west coast from England literally meant travelling much of the globe in a way hard to imagine today. You could of course go round the southern tip of South America, via Cape Horn - an enormous distance anyway - but that was a very bad idea. After Magellen navigated his eponymous strait, the next 21 ships to attempt it were all lost, with at least 1000 lives. The alternative was to sail down the west coast of Africa, across the southern Indian Ocean below Australia, then north-east across the entire Pacific. 

Since he was in the vicinity Vancouver thought he might as well have a look at south-western Australia. Inland from the current Albany, Menzies made extensive plant collections, live as well as dried, and presumably for future visitors he planted vines and water cress, and sowed orange, lemon, pumpkin and almond seeds. (None of which were sighted again.)

He made some significant bird discoveries, including the first European descriptions of a couple of Western Australian endemics.
Red-capped Parrot Purpureicephalus spurius (above)
and Western Rosella Platycercus icterotis (below), both in Albany;
both were first described in writing in Menzies' diary.

However he never got round to publishing and others got the credit later. He also collected the unfortunate duck; it's not often that we can say with certainty which individual animal gave a name to an entire species, but in this case we can. The poor beast had been cut down at the height of his amorous activities and proceeded to imbue the entire ship with his potently musky aroma. 

Things got worse for Menzies though - he fell out with Vancouver, and though the subject of contention seems to have been the health of his living plant specimens details vary. One account I read had Menzies locked up on board for three months (during which time his plants died) though other versions omit this bit. 

In Australia he is best remembered for some plant species, especially the magnificent and common Western Australian Firewood Banksia, Banksia menziesii.
Banksia menziesii Badgingarra NP.
The name was bestowed by eminent fellow Scot Robert Brown in 1830, though Menzies
never saw the species.
Menzies went on to make his mark in Britain by introducing many plants, especially from the Americas, for the first time. One of his coups was in pocketing some seeds he was served with dessert by the governor of Chile and cultivating them on board - thus were the first Monkey Puzzle Pines Araucaria araucana introduced to Britain. 

However, while in Hawaii in 1794 with the Discovery, he made the first recorded ascent of the volcano Mauna Loa; the next European to do so was another Scot, David Douglas, 40 years later. Their paths crossed again, though I doubt they ever met. In 1791 on Vancouver Island Menzies collected specimens of the mighty tree which was named Pseudotsuga menziesii for him. But it was Douglas who many years later reported on the values of the timber and brought it to public attention, which is why we now know it as Douglas Fir. Whether it was Menzies who passed his bad luck on to Douglas via the tree is unknown. (Well OK, maybe just a touch of poetic licence there...) 
Douglas Fir, courtesy Wikipedia.
Douglas though, indubitably had little luck. From various sources I've gleaned the following series of events; I can't vouch for the veracity of all of it, given how unlikely it sounds. Early in his time in North America, while he was collecting up a tree, his guide absconded with his jacket and money. The hired horse and carriage were left, but the horse only understood French and Douglas at that stage didn’t. His health profoundly deteriorated after drifting for some time, drenched and frozen, in Hudson Bay, and he was substantially blinded by years of sun on the snow. At this point he decided it was time to go home to England - via Alaska and Siberia, on foot, to save money. En route to the coast though his canoe went over a waterfall and all his specimens and notes were lost. Somehow he found himself in Hawaii, where having climbed Mauna Loa he managed to fall into a bull trap, complete with bull, and at that point all luck ended. 

However we started with Archibald Menzies, so should leave with him too. He had a much longer and happier life than Douglas. After retiring he went into medical practice in London, and succeeded Aylmer Lambert as president of the Linnean Society. He died in 1842 aged 88.
Archibald Menzies.
This image is widely reproduced, but I can nowhere find the original colour version,
who the artist was or when it was painted. My apologies to whoever it was!
Just another very small-part player in our story, but as I've said before, they all add up. And once you start following a loose story thread, who knows where it will lead?



Susan said...

The portrait is by Eden Upton Eddis and hangs in the Linnean Society rooms in Burlington House. I think it was painted in 1837.

Ian Fraser said...

Well, to say I'm impressed is hardly to do justice to my response Susan - thank you. Did you just happen to have that information in your head?!

Harvey Perkins said...

Quite a head if she did! And quite ahead even if she didn't.

David McDonald said...

Hmm, may I gently claim that we have here a case of False Advertising?

The headline and lead sentence state:
' On This Day, 15th February: Archibald Menzies died
The moral of this story, if any, is perhaps that you don't want to annoy an amorous Musk Duck. Archibald Menzies did.'

I have read the article closely, twice. I cannot find the part of the story about how a musk duck killed poor Menzies.

Ian - please explain!

Flabmeister said...

I think its caveat emptor.

There is no promised connection between the death of Menzies and the duck. However it is clearly stated that the duck stank out the ship which would be enough bad luck fro me!


Susan said...

I thought you'd be impressed :-) I did 'cheat' though. I looked it up (my only advantage being I knew how to track it down and what the likely best sources were). It seems Eddis was a very prolific portraitist and did more than one for the Linnean Society. I've never seen the portrait personally, the Linnean Society being the one part of Burlington House I never managed to visit.