California Literary Review

Jays, Films, and Georg Steller

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March 25th, 2007 at 10:57 pm

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Jack Aubrey, co-hero of twenty sea novels by Patrick O’Brian, was played admirably by Russell Crowe in the 2003 film “Master and Commander.” Aubrey’s sidekick, the naval surgeon and naturalist Stephen Maturin, was another fine actor, Paul Bettany. Many who saw the film hope for another chance to see Aubrey and Maturin on the screen–perhaps this time with Keira Knightley, who lost out when in the end “Master and Commander” was made all male, sans maidens or consorts.

O’Brian based Aubrey on a Royal Navy captain of two centuries ago, Thomas Cochrane. Lord Cochrane’s exploits were at least as great as those of the fictitious Aubrey, and hardly less than those of Britain’s greatest naval hero, Lord Nelson. But while O’Brian admitted that Cochrane was the inspiration for Aubrey, he did not tell us before he died in 2000 whether he had a real-life model for Maturin.

The answer, I think, lies in the handsome bird that I see now beyond our sun room window. It is busy at the feeder in our yard deep in snow, in Crested Butte, high in Colorado’s Elk Mountains. The bird is big and midnight-blue, with a head and pointed crest that are almost black. It is a Steller’s jay, Cyanocitta stelleri. Georg Wilhelm Steller, for whom the bird is named, was a man of interest to Patrick O’Brian, particularly after O’Brian had read Steller’s journals. There is little question that O’Brian had Steller in mind as he shaped the figure of Stephen Maturin–although it is said that the polymath Maturin also owes much to O’Brian’s proud view of his own attainments.

Steller led a life no less adventurous than his fictional counterpart Maturin. (Let us speak no more of the movie Maturin. As Michael J. Lewis wrote in Commentary, in the film a rich literary creation was reduced to a stock figure.) Like Maturin, Steller’s real-life commander kept him from accomplishing all he sought to do as a naturalist; but Steller nevertheless ranged far in a relatively short life.

So does his jay. Steller’s jays are found from Alaska and British Columbia south to Mexico, in both lowlands and highlands; here in the Elk Mountains we are nine thousand feet above sea level. These jays remain here in the summer but they are shy in the summer woods, unlike their cousins the gray jays who follow summer hikers, hoping for part of a sandwich, and steal french fries from skiers’ unguarded plates outside the Paradise hut on Mt. Crested Butte. Jays have enemies, including hawks. One bird watcher in New Mexico recently observed a Steller’s jay that had learned to mimic the call of the goshawk, apparently to convince real goshawks that the local jay-hunting license was already taken. A Steller’s jay in British Columbia has been heard to do a good imitation of an eagle. Stephen Maturin would have liked that.

But who was this real Maturin? Steller, like Maturin, was both a naval doctor and a naturalist, but unlike Maturin he was not an intelligence agent. Nor was he half-Irish and half-Catalan, like Maturin. Steller was a German who went to Russia–and Patrick O’Brian was no Irishman himself, but the grandson of a German furrier named Russ who moved to England.

Georg Wilhelm Steller was born near Nuremberg in 1709, son of a Lutheran choirmaster. He took degrees from two German universities and then moved to Russia to join the staff of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, the capital that Tsar Peter the Great had begun building three decades earlier. Just as the Irish patriot Stephen Maturin becomes a faithful servant of the British crown, so Steller the German became a hardworking subject of the Tsars.

In 1725, a dozen years before Steller came to Russia and shortly before the great Tsar died, Peter had commissioned Vitus Bering, a Dane in Russia’s naval service, to lead a voyage to the North Pacific and look for a land bridge to America. Bering proved that water divided Siberia from America, but he failed to sight the North American continent. After Bering finally returned to St. Petersburg in 1730, Peter’s successor the Tsaritsa Anna ordered him to undertake a second voyage. He was to take a good look at unknown Northwest America, and bring it under Russian control. Soon after Steller reached Russia he was named to the academic section of Bering’s new expedition.

In January 1738, Steller set out from St. Petersburg on a five-thousand mile journey across European Russia and Siberia to Kamchatka on the Pacific Ocean. His assignment was to study plants, animals and minerals in the empire’s eastern reaches, and then continue his studies on a voyage south to Japan. His young German wife, whom he had met and married in St. Petersburg, had promised to go with him to the Pacific but she turned back at Moscow. Alas, they would never meet again.

Steller kept busy on his long way east, beginning with notes on plants he observed in and around Moscow. When he finally reached Irkutsk, in the heart of Siberia, he was unable for several months to arrange transport to the Pacific, so he crossed Lake Baikal in the summer of 1739 to investigate the mountains beyond. The results were impressive: a ninety-page list of Flora Ircutiensi that includes 1,100 Siberian plants, and a collection of over 500 different seeds; lists of 60 species of birds and a hundred insects unknown to earlier naturalists; papers on the minerals, the topography, and the aboriginal languages of the region. When he finally secured transport eastward he began what became a twenty-page list of other plants he found on his further way toward the Pacific.

In August 1740, two and a half years after he had left St. Petersburg, Steller reached the little place called Okhotsk, Russia’s first port on the Pacific. There he met Vitus Bering, who was making preparations to sail for America the following year from the eastern coast of the Kamchatka peninsula, a thousand miles beyond Okhotsk. That autumn Steller sailed to Bolsheretsk, on the west coast of Kamchatka, from which he was to continue south to the Kurile Islands and Japan. At Bolsheretsk, though, he received a letter from Bering asking Steller to meet him at Avacha Bay, the expedition’s intended point of departure on Kamchatka’s eastern coast.

Steller traveled across Kamchatka by dogsled, through a winter wilderness where ten-thousand-foot volcanoes thrust into the icy sky, and reached Bering at Avacha Bay in February 1741. More than two centuries later, this became a major base for Soviet nuclear submarines. In 1741 there was only a small Russian settlement on the bay, where Bering was preparing to sail into the Pacific on two 80-foot brigs, the St. Peter and St. Paul–which later provided the name for the sprawling, ugly city of Petropavlovsk that stands on the site today.

Thousands of men across the empire had been involved in supporting the expedition, but each of the two ships would carry a crew of just 75 men. Bering wanted Steller to accompany him, as physician and scientist. He had had to send the ship’s doctor back to Moscow, and at sixty Bering wanted a medical man on board. He assured Steller that he would take full responsibility for the change in Steller’s orders; he would formally be assigned as the “mineralogist,” since they hoped to find precious metals in America. Steller agreed. Bering offered him a bunk in his own cabin.

Georg Steller, we can see from his writings, was a stubborn and single-minded man devoted to what he considered his duty as a naturalist. He soon found himself criticizing–but only silently, in his journal–many of the preparations for the voyage. After a tense winter ended, the two ships of the expedition set sail from Kamchatka in June 1741. Steller was with Bering on the St. Peter, whose first officer was another Scandinavian in the Russian service, Sven Waxell, a Swede.

It seems probable that no other Europeans had ever sailed the part of the Pacific into which they were sailing, yet there were maps drawn by German cartographers that showed something out there called Company Land, supposedly sighted by mariners of the Dutch East Indies Company. A Spanish captain named Juan de Gama had also claimed to find land in this area. Bering initially headed southeast toward these mythical places, but after a week he gave up the search and changed his course to northeast. Things turned bad. The two ships separated in a storm, and were never reunited. On board the St. Peter the provisions lacked Vitamin C, and soon scurvy was attacking the crew and Vitus Bering as well.

Steller tried to convince Bering and the other ship’s officers that if they sailed due north they would soon sight land. He pointed out floating seaweed, of a coastal species; floating masses of marine grass, that he knew grew only along coasts; seals and sea otters, that never wandered far out to sea. Steller was right. If the ship had turned north, they would have come to the Aleutians, although not so soon as he thought. Bering and his lieutenants would not listen, and the ship maintained a course eastward.

After weeks at sea, on July 16, 1741 the St. Peter first sighted the coast of mainland America, with high mountains behind. It was southeastern Alaska. On the feast day of St. Elias, Bering named the highest peak in sight Mount St. Elias. At 18,000 feet, this is the third-highest peak in North America, and it remained unclimbed until 1897, when the great Italian explorer Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi, reached the summit after American expeditions had failed.

Turning west, the St. Peter anchored off the heavily wooded shore of what we now call Kayak Island, on July 20. A ship’s officer was to go ashore; Steller asked Bering for permission to go with him. Bering said No, just as Jack Aubrey often forbids Stephen Maturin from going on strange shores to naturalize. But now the real-life naturalist publicly displayed a difference with his commander quite different from Maturin’s private disagreements with Aubrey. Steller was desperate. He went up to Bering and before the entire crew he swore, in what Steller’s 1936 biographer Leonhard Stejneger called “the choicest words of his scorching vocabulary,” that he would report Bering to both the Governing Senate and the Admiralty in St. Petersburg if the commander did not let him go ashore.

It is much to Bering’s credit that he did not slap Steller in irons but rather laughed at him–and agreed to let him go, for a brief visit. In just six hours on the island Steller, accompanied by a Cossack, had amazing success. He found recent traces of humans, collected 143 plant species including a delicious fruit (the black raspberry), and sighted ten new species of birds–including a new, dark-blue kind of jay.

Steller sent a message out to the ship that he needed a few more hours on the island, and several more men to help him in his investigations. Bering now reached the limit of his patience; he sent back word that if Steller did not immediately return to the St. Peter they would leave him stranded. He returned. Some of the plants he had collected might, he thought, be good for the sailors’ scurvy. The sailors would not eat them.

In these northern waters Georg Steller soon discovered a large and plentiful aquatic mammal that we know today as the Steller sea lion. This sea lion, the largest of the so-called eared seals, still exists, but has been listed as an endangered species since 1990. Once it was hunted rapaciously for skins and meat; today hunting has almost stopped, but its numbers have nevertheless declined 70 percent in recent decades. Another, bigger sea mammal that Steller was to discover suffered, as we shall see, a worse fate.

One smallish fur-bearing creature that Steller reported sighting at sea has never been seen since then. It was a playful animal with a head like a dog and a fat hairy body, and it cavorted around the ship for two hours. Steller called it a sea ape; he thought it must be an oceangoing primate. Today’s cryptozoologists keep Steller’s sea ape in their list of mysterious mammals, along with the Asian yeti and American Bigfoot. Most people think it must have been a monk seal. (One recalls Aubrey calling Maturin on deck to see a “mermaid” off Mauritius: not a seal but, apparently, a small manatee.)

As the summer of 1741 neared its end in the North Pacific, provisions were short on the St. Peter and the scurvy was getting worse. Bering decided to sail back to the Russian Empire. Toward the end of August the westbound ship sighted islands near the southwestern end of the Alaska Peninsula, known today as the Shumagin Islands for a sailor who died there of scurvy. They anchored off what seemed an uninhabited shore, and then were surprised to see two small sealskin boats, each with a single paddler, coming out to the ship. Nearing the Russian vessel, the two men began what Steller later described as a long oration in high-pitched voices. There were other people, on the shore, and they too were calling out. The paddlers pointed to the shore; they did not seem unfriendly. Lieutenant Waxell, Steller, and several sailors took a boat to land and had their first encounter with Americans, nine Aleuts. The meeting was friendly, but the Aleuts refused the presents Waxell offered them; when he offered an Aleut elder a drink of brandy, the elder spat out the fiery stuff. Later, the two sides did exchange gifts, including an Aleut bone visor which today is in the Museum of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg.

On the island Steller gathered some grass which, he suspected, might help his commander, who was by now so weak from scurvy that he could scarcely walk. The grass was Cochlearia officinalis–what we now call scurvy grass–and it did the trick. Soon Bering was able to walk out on deck, saying he felt as vigorous as he had at the beginning of the voyage. It was probably the first time in history that anyone successfully treated shipboard scurvy. Several decades later, Royal Navy doctors were still trying to treat scurvy by letting blood from sick sailors. Not Maturin, though; at one point in the novel Desolation Island he discovers a “yellow viscous cabbage” on the island (after finding fifty-three new kinds of lichen) which he somehow knows can serve as an antiscorbutic.

Steller was not only a naturalist and a successful physician, but something of an ethnographer. He noted in his journal that these Alaskans were similar in several ways to the Chukchi and Kamchadal people of eastern Siberia; he was probably the first scientist to conclude that, as he wrote, “…the Americans originated in Asia.”

The next person to reach this conclusion was the intrepid American John Ledyard, who in 1788, almost a half-century after Steller, traveled overland to Siberia. Ledyard had accompanied Captain James Cook on his last Pacific voyage, and he and shipmates had coasted Alaska after Cook’s death in Hawaii. Ledyard never saw Steller’s journal, but after he had come out of Russia he reported to Thomas Jefferson that he saw similarities between native Siberians and native Americans; that “I am satisfied myself that America was peopled from Asia.” Few then agreed with Steller’s and Ledyard’s idea; it was not until the twentieth century that this view was generally accepted, thanks to the work of the Smithsonian anthropologist Ales Hrdlicka.

From the Shumagin Islands the St. Peter sailed west for Kamchatka. The brief summer had ended and the weather turned foul. For two months the St. Peter fought its way westward against headwinds. On November 5 they sighted land, but it was not Kamchatka as they hoped, only a long island. Sailors were dying and they could sail no farther. The party went ashore, and successive storms badly damaged the ship and drove it high on the beach. Vitus Bering died a month later, and altogether half his crew perished. (One thinks of O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin, whose ship Diane is wrecked in a milder clime, on a desert island in the South China Sea.)

Waxell the lieutenant assumed command after Bering’s death, but he, too, had scurvy. Morale was low. There were voracious foxes, that not only fed on the bodies of dead sailors but attacked sick men who were still alive but lying helpless. Steller took on a leading role, helping the survivors to build shelters, and to fish and hunt.

There was much to hunt: seals, sea otters, and huge placid creatures that grazed in vast herds in the seaweed beds offshore. They were manatees, but of a kind far larger than the manatees we know from Florida and elsewhere. The Florida mammal may reach nine feet in length and weigh 1200 pounds; this northern creature was up to thirty feet long and weighed at least several tons. We know of it now as Steller’s sea cow. It had no fear of humans, and was easy to shoot; its meat was good. With this and other fresh food to eat, including plants that Steller gathered, the surviving men on the island began to put on weight and recover from their scurvy.

Steller continued to add to his list of new bird species that already included, as noted, his striking jay. He was amazed to find that the island harbored a flightless cormorant. It was big and meaty, it was given the name Phalacrocorax perspicillatus, and it was hunted to extinction by 1850. (Maturin, as we recall from the film, also discovers a flightless cormorant, in the Galapagos Islands. That species, Nannopterum harrisi, really exists, but is now endangered.) Steller’s thirty-page bird list from the voyage includes a magnificent black-brown eagle with white shoulders and thighs, which we know as Steller’s sea eagle–and which inhabits Siberia and northern Japan but not America–and the Steller’s eider, the smallest of the four eider ducks.

The three shipwrights on the St. Peter all died of scurvy. Among the survivors was a simple Siberian carpenter named Savva Starodubtsov, who managed to build a small vessel from the ship’s wreckage (as Aubrey’s crew did after the wreck of the Diane). In August 1742 Georg Steller and the other survivors sailed from their island, later named Bering Island for their departed commander. They soon sighted Kamchatka, only a hundred miles from the island, and without incident sailed down the coast to the settlement at Petropavlovsk. What of their companion vessel, the St. Paul? It had returned safely.

Waxell, Steller, and Bering’s ragged crew brought with them some barrels of the tasty meat from Steller’s sea cows. Soon hunters were going off to Bering Island and other places eastward for the pelts of sea otters and fur seals, and for meat from the sea cows. The sea otter and the fur seal survived, though heavily hunted. Steller’s sea cow was extinct by 1768, as Patrick O’Brian notes in one of his novels. There is a single huge skeleton in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington. I saw it years ago and wondered who Steller might be, long before I first saw his jay in the Colorado mountains.

Steller spent almost two years back at Bolsheretsk in Kamchatka, long enough for him to make a trip to the interior of Kamchatka and another south to the Kurile Islands, the closest he ever got to Japan, his original destination. He was surprised one day at Bolsheretsk by the arrival of four Cossacks who, after misinterpreting an order, had come from a distant outpost bringing seventeen Kamchadals in chains. There was no reason to hold them and Steller ordered them freed. (One thinks of Maturin and his man Padeen, whom he rescues from cruel treatment in Australia.) Soon afterward, in the summer of 1744, Steller received orders to return to St. Petersburg and started on the long journey westward. At Irkutsk he was confronted with charges that he had wrongly released the prisoners. The governor accepted his explanation, and Steller continued on his way. He crossed the Urals and was in European Russia; Moscow was just eight hundred miles away.

And then, incredibly, he was ordered back to Irkutsk, on the same charges about the prisoners. In Tsarist Russia one obeyed orders. Steller retraced his steps for two thousand miles, only to learn at Irkutsk that the authorities in St. Petersburg had fully exonerated him after receiving the governor’s report. He resumed his way westward, but never reached European Russia. He was exhausted, and died of a fever at Tyumen in western Siberia in November 1746. He was just 37 years old.

Now in my sun room I look out at Steller’s noble jay, pecking at birdseed in the Colorado cold. I tell myself that perhaps somehow there still lives on, in this wild bird, the spirit of that great naturalist and traveler. He was one of the first to help bridge the gap between Russia and North America, though he never saw more than the stormy edges of Alaska.

Who knows how much more Georg Steller might have seen, had he lived longer? We know that he wanted to go on exploring; in particular, to explore deserts. Only sixty years after his birth, Russian fur hunters were sailing as far south as California, at a time when the Spanish were just beginning to establish missions along the California coast. I can imagine a sturdy middle-aged Steller landing on that coast, and making his way east with a small party toward the deserts of Nevada and the Rocky Mountains beyond. He would, to be sure, never have made it as far as Crested Butte and the continental divide just beyond us to the east. Or would he? We are not seven hundred miles from the California coast, and Steller once managed to cross five thousand miles of Siberia. More stuff for movies, maybe.

In any case we can admire his jay, and revere his memory. O.W. Frost wrote some years ago, in an introduction to Steller’s journals, that he had anticipated Henry David Thoreau and John Muir by over a century in his self-sufficiency, love of nature, and zest for science. He proved both his medical skill and his kindness, in caring for his commander and his comrades. He was also a careful observer, and many hundred pages of his meticulous work survive–as do his jay, his eider, his eagle, and his sea lion.

There are three Steller’s jays now at our feeder in the sun. There were three yesterday, too; one lacks a mate. I think again of the intrepid but lonely naturalist. The temperature is twelve below zero, Fahrenheit. I will put out more seeds.

  • Ruth Ann Galt

    After reading this interesting essay, I will follow various paths based on its information. It’s always such a pleasure to unexpectedly come across a little gem of knowledge and delight such as this essay.

  • cyril lucas

    Great essay, Ambassador – thank you – I learned a lot and will search for Steller’s Jpournals. A pair of his Jays has been feeding all morning on suet at at my Port Townsend WA table. There is snow thawing on the ground and the air is crisp so they relish the treat which I actually provided for the juncos, towees, assorted sparrows and chickadees which feed daily. CL

  • eric w. elst

    Dear Peter Bridges,Dear Ambassador,
    I have read with great interest your article about Steller. I’m sure you will pleased to hear that I have,as an astronomer and discoverer of minor planets,recently named one of my discoveries “Steller”. I’m studying Siberia (the scientists that went there to study the country (Steller, Delisle, Gmelin and many others)
    Sincerely yours,
    Eric W. Elst
    Dr. of astronomy at the Royal Observatory at Uccle, Brussels, Belgium).

  • Peter Brown

    Sir….
    i just came across your essay on Steller while looking for something else about Ledyard. Very interesting and fun to read. One of the things that I find quite remarkable is that in spite of the work of folks like Steller and later Cook, who clearly suspected that scurvy was a dietary problem, Vitamin C is not isolated in the laboratory till the 20th C. I think the work was done by a man called Hopkins in 1911, or round that date. The reason for this is simple, white rats don’t get scurvy. So attempts to study it under laboratory conditions were always frustrated.
    Incidentally, you will find a whimsical reference to Ledyard at the beginning of Moby Dick, when Melville reviews all the literary works of sea going men (starting with the biblical Jonah).
    I think I may have seen one of those jays in the Grand Canyon last year.

    best wishes.
    peter brown

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