Each month, Emmy - one of our volunteers on The Gardeners' House Penzance project - will be bringing us a fascinating insight into one of the pieces in our collection.
The Hypatia Trust, home to The Gardeners' House project, is home to an archive of over 2000 volumes documenting the natural history of Cornwall.
We'll be building on this archive to support the creation of new botanical collections and a rare plant registry - but for now, we're excited to bring you Emmy's Finds.
Emmy’s Finds: Discoveries in the Gardener’s House Book Collection
Antarctic Penguins – Dr. G. Murray Levick,, R.N.
William Heinemann, London 1914
George Murray Levick (3 July 1876 – 30 May 1956) was a British Antarctic explorer, naval surgeon and founder of the Public Schools Exploring Society.
He was given leave of absence to accompany Robert Falcon Scott as surgeon and zoologist on his Terra Nova expedition. Levick photographed extensively throughout the expedition. Prevented by pack ice from embarking on the Terra Nova in February 1912, Levick and the other five members of the party (Victor L. A. Campbell, Raymond Priestley, George Abbott, Harry Dickason, and Frank Browning) were forced to overwinter on Inexpressible Island in a cramped ice cave.
Part of the Northern Party, Levick spent the austral summer of 1911–1912 at Cape Adare in the midst of an Adélie penguin rookery. To date, this has been the only study of the Cape Adare rookery, the largest Adélie penguin colony in the world, and he has been the only one to spend an entire breeding cycle there. His observations of the courting, mating, and chick-rearing behaviours of these birds are recorded in his book Antarctic Penguins.
Emmy tells us:
Despite having been published well over a hundred years ago, this remains the most comprehensive study of Adelie penguin behaviour in existence. That said, it is a lot more fun to read than that sounds.
First, because penguins are fascinating birds. To borrow Murray Levick’s description: “His carriage is very confident as he approaches you…, curiosity in his every movement…After a careful inspection, he may suddenly lose all interest in you, and ruffling up his feathers sink into a doze.” They also appear to interact in interesting and (to us) amusing ways: “Arrived at length at the water’s edge… The object of every bird in the party seemed to be to get one of the others to enter the water first…for some time they would chase one another about, seemingly bent on having a good game, each bird intent on finding any excuse from being the first in.”
Secondly, Murray Levick writes well, and his evident affection and respect for the animals he is studying endears him to you as you read. Unlike the crews of some modern television programmes, he is clearly not keen to watch animals suffer, and records several compassionate interventions – including rebuilding a flooded nest for one pair, and killing penguins with unsurviveable wounds after a rockslide.
As he puts it: “Of all the animals of which I have had any experience, I think the Adelie penguin is the very bravest. The more we saw of them the fonder we became of them and the more we admired their indomitable courage.”
Speaking of indomitable courage brings me to the final element that makes this book so interesting – the context. Although it is not made clear by Murray Levick (possibly because contemporary readers would have known), he travelled to Antarctica as a member of Scott’s expedition, which had scientific objectives as well as the aim to conquer the South Pole.
The book ends in March 1912 at the end of the Antarctic summer breeding season: “The last penguin had gone, and the sun disappearing below the horizon, left us alone with the Antarctic night”. Meanwhile, Scott and the Polar Party were in their final weeks of life.
Due to heavy pack ice the Terra Nova was unable to reach Murray Levick’s group, and they spent that winter and the following Antarctic summer in a snow cave, suffering frostbite, dysentery and hunger, until they reached base camp, by their own efforts, on 7 November 1912. A few weeks later, the frozen bodies of the Polar Party were found.
We'll be bringing another blog from Emmy in December - if there's particular areas of interest you'd like us to feature, please do let us know on firstname.lastname@example.org