Pilgrimage to Down House, the Home of Charles Darwin
Sacred Site of the Epic of Evolution
report by Connie Barlow, 2009
THIS PILGRIMAGE takes place about 16 miles south of London, near the village of Downe. It is an opportunity to commune with the home and grounds where the the theory of natural selection was birthed and developed, including Darwin's writing of On the Origin of Species. Information on the home can be accessed online at: Down House (heritage site). See also the wikipedia entry on Down House.
CONNIE'S REFLECTIONS ON HER 1994 VISIT
In the summer of 1994, I attended a science conference at Oxford University. Three of us (Tyler Volk and Michael Rampino) decided to make an excursion to Down House after the meeting, and I was determined to do it as a sort of pilgrimage. After all, writing about evolutionary biology (including its history and its meanings) had become the focus of my work as a freelance science writer. My second anthology with MIT Press was titled Evolution Extended: Biological Debates on the Meaning of Life, and one of its chapters included my selection of extracts from the Origin. I also have strong memories (ca. 1986) of 4 gorgeous sunny days, sitting outdoors in the small yard of the home where I was then living in Seattle, on Queen Anne Hill. During those four days, with hummingbirds visiting the fuschia and the mottled sunlight coming through the reddish leaves of a Japanese maple above me, I read On the Origin of Species cover to cover. I was entranced especially with the degree to which Darwin corresponded with colleagues in order to acquire data and how simple, nontechnological observations and experiments that I could have easily performed became the basis for his theory.
I loved Darwin's writing style, too. I felt swept back into those times. And I admired the way that he did not oversell his idea; indeed, he made a special effort to point out all its inadequacies, and thus the kinds of additional evidence and understandings he hoped other naturalists would acquire to supplement his initial work.
Several years later, I read Darwin's earlier book, Voyage of the Beagle. I admired the man even more, this time for two reasons. First, one comes upon several places where Darwin's gentle ethics seem well ahead of his time. Clearly, he was repulsed by slavery and by the mistreatment of domestic animals. Second, even though Darwin's years at Down House entailed no physical exertion (except the willpower to work even when his chronic illness impeded his health), in Voyage one comes upon a man who endured tremendous physical discomfort and challenges while pursuing his natural history studies and collecting, especially in South America. I recall his description of an expedition made up-river by boat, followed by a night of attempting to sleep on top of jumbled boulders alongside the river. I also recall an experiment he conducted on himself: rolling up a sleeve and counting how many mosquitoes would land there and begin sucking in a certain time period. Obviously, Europeans of that era had no understanding of the terrible diseases that tropical mosquitoes transmit.
As to the pilgrimage itself, I remember that the taxi driver who drove us from the train station to Darwin's home had never heard of Down House; he had never driven anyone there before, so we had to give him the precise address. I remember being greeted at the door and signing the guest register, whereupon our host (the only other person on the grounds at that time) asked whether I was perhaps related to the Darwins. No, I told him, as my Barlow ancestors had come to America in the 1640s long before one of Darwin's grand-daughters, Nora, had married into the Barlows in England. Nonetheless, I felt a special bond with Nora, whom I already knew about, as it was she who, in the 1950s, reassembled Darwin's autobiography for publication so that it would include passages (especially on his religious doubt) that had been removed from the first edition.
The whole adventure at Down House was a delight especially since we were the only guests then visiting, and because our host left us on our own to wander. I remember especially how thrilling it was to be right there, looking at Darwin's actual beetle collections, with identifications written in his hand, pins inserted by the great man himself, years before there was any inkling of his pending greatness. I knew that the furniture in his study were not the originals, so the study was not nearly as moving for me.
By far the most emotional part of the visit for me was the opportunity to walk Darwin's "Sand Path." This was the path where Darwin took his daily walks, and often where he strolled in conversation with visiting colleagues. In the midst of such walks, Darwin came to many of his finest ideas. Before the three of us entered the path, I insisted that we all sit on an outdoor bench and contemplate. The goal was for each of us to put in mind a scientific question that we were then struggling with a question that would require some new insight in order for us to pursue any farther. I can't remember my question, but I think it had something to do with pressing further on the theme of a 1990 scientific paper that Tyler Volk and I had co-written and published: "Open Systems Living in a Closed Biosphere: A New Paradox for the Gaia Debate". (The scientific conference we had just attended in Oxford was an invitation-only gathering on the topic of the Gaia Hypothesis, with its inventor, James Lovelock, present.)
Each of us then walked the Sand Path once round, in isolation, contemplating our question. I came up with no insights, but no matter. I had performed the very same action that Darwin had done himself so many times, so I was in bliss. Then Tyler and I walked the path again slowly, in conversation. I do remember our both determining to find the best part of the forest edge there to photograph as an example of "an entangled bank" (one of Darwin's great metaphors for ecological interactions).
Above are the only 3 photographs I have converted to digital form of that visit to Down House. Left: Connie Barlow walks Darwin's "Sand Path" in 1994. Lower Right: Connie with Tyler Volk on the Sand Path. Upper Right: view of Down House from the backyard in 1994.
Richard Fortey, in his acclaimed 1998 book, Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, wrote this of Down House:It is still possible to retrace Darwin's steps at Down. It is not a grand place, no stately home, but a cuontry squire's house, and it breathes comfort. The furniture is just a little worn. You feel that Charles Darwin had something more important on his mind than a slightly frayed carpet. There are notebooks and writing implements on display, but they do not have quite the formality of many of those laid out in other studies of great men.
I found myself staring intently at these everyday objects as if they might somehow hold the key to his extraordinary insights. They offer no clue, of course. But you can readily imagine Down as a family home of one of the few intellectual giants who was also beloved by his family and intimates.
The Sand Walk was made around the perimeter of a copse at the end of the garden, a place for a modest constitutional, where ideas could be mulled over and phrases polished for the press. The domestic scale of some of his researches is something the visitor might not be prepared for. In the hedgerows in the lanes round about there still twine white bryony and honey-suckle, the raw material for his essay upon "The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants." Orchids still grow on a nearby chalky slope, much as they did in Darwin's time, and there he could observe the bee orchid for himself. His investigation on the importance of worms was also conducted on the premises. [p. 236]
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