Darwin’s Right Hand Man


Godfrey Merlen (left) and Patricio Ruales (right)

To find oneself in the growing presence of Charles Darwin is a rather emotional experience and also an eerie one.  I would look back almost expecting some observation or question to leap out of the silent face.  I start to feel his presence, especially when the light casts across his facial features.  We seek to be truthful in this creation, but more than that to ask ourselves “Can we create a feeling for this man of the 1830’s, who sallied forth on a World voyage”

Last week I traveled to Quito to view progress and was to be seen mounted on the rear seat of a 1984 1200cc model Yamaha motorcycle roaring to a house perched on the massive north-south fault line that divides the city from the “Valle”.  Clouds sweep up the precipitous fault and drench the top in palpable wetness.

Patricio Ruales, the sculpturer, brought the powerful machine to a halt.  Silence and dampness filled the air.

IMG_0721.JPGPatricio Rules working on the sculpture

We entered the dark workroom and the sudden burst of harsh Light caught me unawares as the face of Darwin came to life. Dressed in his working clothes he might have been waiting for the horses to take him on a canter across the Patagonian plains to find a Megatherium. Notebook is in hand and magnifying glass rests on his chest.

I gathered my wits and we set down to examine details. Even so it was strange to see the feet sitting on a shelf, various hands on a crowded table. And these were not just any hands but actual casts of a live person’s hands.

I suggested to Patricio that it would be good to see how we would place the notebook in his right hand.  It seemed to me that there was too little space between the fingers.  We tried this and that.  Finally Patricio looked up and said “We will make casts of your hands for Darwin.  Me?  Hands for Darwin?  Like some Frankenstein movie! Surely this is hardly fitting! Feelings of fear, unreality, passing over to other worlds, to other centuries filled my mind.

But the days are pressing and passing!  Need to get on with this suddenly sinister turn of event.

Patricio went off to the back of the room and returned with a three-gallon plastic water container that he proceeded to decapitate with a large kitchen knife.

Now, he did not explain the process and I was beginning to regret my agreement.  Did he know what he was doing?  He is going to make casts from clay?  How will I get my hand out?  Is there a jackhammer near by-----will I end up in hospital with broken fingers…or worse!  Next I was requested to place my curved hand in the plastic bottle holding cardboard the thickness of the proposed notebook.

The clay mixture came next - a powder mixed with water to a thick treacle like fluid.  Slightly rosy colored, almost as though blood was mixed in.  A few bubbles erupted from the glistening surface.

Are you ready? Hand in position!  You must not move even a muscle for 5 minutes! The cold clay oozed around by hand, fingers, nails, sealing them from the happy world outside.  Soon they had vanished, leaving my forearm sticking out of the glue.  I had every intention to wrench my vanished hand free but my dedication to purpose denied me this almost involuntary action.  The minutes ticked by. I could feel the hardening mud restricting the movement of my fingers.  Coldness was entering my hand and mind.  Now I WAS concerned.  How would I get my hand out? The clay had now lost its rosy tinge and was turning a ghastly white.

Patricio came by and prodded the mess.  “One more minute, these dark cold nights delay the hardening”, he muttered.

Finally he said, “Take your hand out”.  I tried, lifting the whole jar off the table.  I was stuck just as I had feared.  Patricio grabbed hold of the canister and leaning backwards put all his weight into pulling. Nothing.  Here we were, like two tug of war players trying to pull my arm out of its socket.  “Move your fingers, you have to let air in!  Mustering the muscles in my hand, twisting this way and that, I felt a slight movement, was my hand free?  After more struggling and a couple of minutes of wiggling and pulling, accompanied by the hiss of entering air, there was a gurgle and my tired and frozen hand was free, once more welcoming the breeze, air, and life.

The left hand was an anti climax of course.  More cold clay. The same eerie feeling.  More heaving and there lay two moulds of my hands and, thank goodness, two entire hands, still attached to my body.  Nevertheless we needed to create an imitation of Darwin’s knee for the left hand to rest upon as the clay froze.

In retrospect. Perhaps it can be summed up as follows:

I’d give my right arm (and perhaps leg) to be Darwin’s right hand man, or at least be satisfied to give him a cast of both hands so that he may live again.

Article written by Godfrey Merlen

darwin with staff members.JPGProud CDF staff members and friends alongside a new family member