The Natural History of Travel Literature From College to Career via the Congo

In Museum, Natural History, Storytelling
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My first semester at the College of William and Mary, I signed up for a couple of great courses: Geology 101 “The Dynamic Earth” with Dr. Greg Hancock (which led me to become a geology major, but that’s a story for another time) and English 150 “Tales of Travelers,” a freshman seminar with Marlene Davis. All first year students were required to attend one seminar course with 10-15 other students; a welcome opportunity to interact with a professor in unique round table conversations… a real taste of the school’s trademark “Public Ivy” education with its small class sizes (and a nice change from the larger intro courses).

However, the course catalog was a bit misleading, describing the course as an exploration of travel literature across the ages in the tradition of Robinson Crusoe, Mark Twain, and Homer’s Odyssey. So naturally my naive 18-year-old-self thought I was diving headfirst into a delightful romp through the fiction of my childhood. I was so wrong. Instead, the focus was a careful study of several seminal works of nonfiction from the 19th and 20th centuries authors who traveled around the world reporting — rather dryly, I must admit — on the accounts of their day-to-day tourism. Clearly I wasn’t about to become an English major from this experience, but in reflection, and much to the credit of the inspiring and personable Ms. Davis, I discovered an entirely new series of books filled with adventure, dreams, passion, and comedy.

One of these books was definitely a stand-out page turner: “Travels in West Africa,” a compilation of journal entries by Mary Kingsley written in 1893-1895. Ms. Kingsley was a proper lady from Victorian England who defied the societal norms and traveled to the deep dark Congo, Gabon, and Cameroon to explore the native customs, local flora and fauna, and report on the mediocre success of Christian missionaries.

Picture a tall lanky woman with a taught face, hair wrapped in a tight bun, dressed head to toe in formal skirts and high collars. Now imagine her braving the treacherous rapids of the Lower Congo River in a canoe with a dozen natives and all her luggage, fighting off crocodiles with her paddle. In case you don’t know, the Congo is one of the most dangerous rivers to navigate and as Ms. Kingsley discovered, is teeming with some of the most fascinating fish in the world. She fell into animal traps, hit a leopard over the head with a pot, waded through water up to her chin, and trekked through the jungle in her proper Victorian attire… all in the company of native guides. To say that this lady was bold and dauntless is an understatement. She took the notion of a first person account to an entirely new level and inspired more than just her own generation to explore this remote region further.

As it turns out, Ms. Kingsley was a terrific writer, rattling off one adrenaline-packed tale after another, and waxing poetic about her newfound love affair with equatorial Africa throughout the book:

“On the 30th we sighted the Peak of Teneriffe early in the afternoon. It displayed itself, as usual, as an entirely celestial phenomenon. A great many people miss seeing it. Suffering under the delusion that El Pico is a terrestrial affair, they look in vain somewhere about the level of their own eyes, which are striving to penetrate the dense masses of mist that usually enshroud its slopes by day, and then a friend comes along, and gaily points out to the newcomer the glittering white triangle somewhere near the zenith…. The superb cone this afternoon stood out a deep purple against a serpent-green sky, separated from the brilliant blue ocean by a girdle of pink and gold cumulus, while Grand Canary and Lanzarote looked as if they were formed from fantastic-shaped sunset cloud-banks that by some spell had been solidified.”

Fast forward to 2002: I’ve graduated from William and Mary, moved to New York City, and accepted a new job at the American Museum of Natural History. With its twin missions of science and education, this prestigious institution was a perfect fit for me to produce rich digital resources for classrooms around the world.

Shortly after I started, the Museum was preparing to reopen the beloved Milstein Hall of Ocean Life with its famous life-size blue whale model suspended as if by magic in the center of the cavernous room, immersed in a vast sea of shimmering blue light. In the Education Department, my team was busy creating educator guides, interactive underwater ecosystems, video documentaries, and a new channel all about marine biology on our popular kids site, OLogy. We were tasked to meet up with Dr. Melanie Stiassny, an ichthyologist at the museum and curator of the new ocean life exhibition. We discussed her work as a scientist, how she fell in love with studying freshwater fishes, and her favorite ice cream flavor… all essential questions for our young audience.

Dr. Stiassny is a striking British woman with sharp refined features, a shock of blond hair, and the warmest accent, like high tea with honey. She showed me and my colleagues on a quick tour around her office, filled with books, microscopes, maps, and a sizable aquarium filled with cichlids, an unusual and colorful West African fish. We pause here as she launches into an explanation of her research on the variety of cichlids that happen to live in different parts of the same ecosystem but never interact with each other due to some crazy underwater terrain, where, hundreds of generations later, they have evolved into completely different species.

Why this particular fish? What drew her to look at the minute differences between each fin, scale, and eye? To my surprise, she tells us her inspiration was a 19th century woman, one Mary Kingsley, and her detailed accounts of the marine ecosystems of the Lower Congo River. My face lights up: finally something I can contribute to this conversation! The words tumble out, as I explain my reading of “Travels in West Africa” back in college and learning about all of the fascinating intricacies of the author and her wildly unorthodox adventures.

The rest of my production team sits, rather stunned, as Dr. Stiassny and I swap memories from the book rapidfire for a couple minutes. She excitedly tells us that, in fact, she was so enamored with the book that she had successfully proposed a Museum field expedition to Africa in 1998, retracing the historic steps of Ms. Kingsley and the freshwater fishes that she helped discover a century before. Dr. Stiassny continues to explore the biodiversity in this region of the Lower Congo to better understand how fish evolve.

It was a wondrous moment of connection with my museum colleague at the remarkable intersection of science and literature. Who knew that a singular moment in college would have an impact on my professional life a mere five years later, or that a decade later I would still be inspired to share stories of research and adventure at one of the world’s preeminent museums? I am indebted to Ms. Davis at William and Mary for helping me stretch my perspective, find a new joy in reading, and prepare me for a moment of serendipity and wonder that was written over one hundred years ago.