Darwin Country

Perched on the top of the downs in northern Kent is the village of Downe, on the edge of which is Down house, where Charles Darwin lived, thought and worked for 40 years, until his death in 1882. Downe Bank nature reserve, famous as the probable site of the ‘tangled bank’ described in The Origin of Species, is another half a mile or so from the village. Less than ten miles from this historic landscape squats the one-bedroom flat in which I have lived, pretended to think and very occasionally worked for six months until early career uncertainties drove me onwards once more.

Despite it being on my doorstep, I’d only ventured up to Downe once during my first five months in Kent. Thus it was two weeks ago that I took advantage of an unusually fine afternoon to do a little more exploring in Darwin Country. After all, I’m an ambitious chap. Perhaps some of his intellectual powers would rub off on me!

I started with Cudham churchyard, a few miles down the hill from Downe. A patchwork of grasses has been maintained here, and the uncut areas provided habitat for this skulking Roesel’s bush cricket, reeling away seemingly for minutes on end, multiple common green grasshoppers chipping in with a cyclical pneumatic drill-like song. Various bees, all in grayscale for some reason, helped themselves to knapweed pollen.

I enjoyed the serene company of the deceased so much that I made straight for the churchyard at Downe as my next port of call. My first find was the rather worn grave on the left, on which you can just about make out the words ‘….42 years gardener at Down House and the faithful assistant in his botanical work of Charles Darwin’.

Poor old Henry lies nearly forgotten, apart from the connection to his infinitely more famous master, whilst of course the rather sternly carved inscription on the resting place of Erasmus and Emma Darwin, Charles’s brother and wife respectively, still stands out clearly on the marble slab. A mere family association with celebrity is enough to see your grave looked after in perpetuity, it would seem, whilst others of similar antiquity gradually succumb to wind, rain, lichen and moss.

As I stood in the warm sun I reflected how strange it was to imagine the Darwins arriving at this same church porch on a Sunday morning. On a geological timescale it may as well have been yesterday: we still very much inhabit the same world. I thought of one line from ‘We’re All Leaving’, a beautiful song by Scottish folksinger Karine Polwart which beautifully winds together the death of Darwin’s daughter Annie with reflections on his work: “He takes her mother to the church door: and while she prays for what’s to come, he walks these woods alone.”

Moving on I approached Down House on a lane out of the village. It’s a bit of a brute, rather stolid and inelegant, but not without charm. The family apparently found it rather overwhelmingly stern at first, but were eventually very happy there, with by all accounts a fairly riotous family life. This is one of the most revealing things I’ve learned by reading, in quite geeky fashion, one too many Darwin books and articles. Charles Robert Darwin was not a cold, entirely clear-minded automaton, sifting and assimilating scientific facts at one end of an intellectual treadmill and churning theories out the other. He was a human being. He loved, hated, laughed, ate, drank, played, puzzled, wrote, worked, became ill, recovered, was ill again, and died. The same man who is accused of destroying religion or shackling us all with a dispassionately logical worldview, shorn of wonder and mystery, once declared in a letter: “Much love, much trial, but what an utter desert is life without love.”

And as well as theorising about the natural world, he took an undimmed delight in it that I can identify with. Far from spoiling him, the wonders he experienced voyaging with the Beagle (his account of which is an entertaining read, though I confess it took me months to get through the Victorian prose) seemed to set him up for a lifetime’s contended study of the plants and animals in his garden and the surrounding countryside – surroundings no more or less remarkable than your average English parish. That’s the central theory of the latest Darwin book to hit my reading list, ‘Darwin’s Garden’ by Michael Boulter: that wildlife of the sort most of us can find just a few paces from our front door was instrumental in inspiring biology’s most important, some would say most dangerous, idea. There’s a thought for when I’m next out on a walk – revolution might be lurking beneath every leaf.

Stepping across the road from the house, I entered a broad, sunlit meadow, unusually rough and uncut, where this handsome kestrel was watching me closely. Roesel’s bush crickets were again leading the summer chorus, so loud they must have been singing in their hundreds – perhaps a good food source for a hungry falcon. A collared dove cooed its three note song from a nearby garden. Soothed by these sounds, I might have nodded off if it weren’t for being startled by the sounds of two ring-necked parakeets passing overhead, incongruously bright and tropical. I reflected that this was a soundscape Darwin would, well, absolutely not have recognised at all! And I doubt this would have surprised him. I may have said we live in much the same world, but natural populations are in flux all the time, responding to myriad pressures, whether environmental or anthropogenic, natural or ‘unnatural’*. With a longer viewpoint, species change in the same way. The implications for conservation are quite interesting, so I’ll hold that thought for another day and another post.

Back to my walk. I was still humming ‘We’re all Leaving’ to myself as I stumbled down the hill on to Down Bank, and thought of the line which follows the one above: “There he builds his own cathedrals, and on every whirring wing, he can hear a whole world sing”. The twist of hope in this tale is that Darwin was not truly alone in the woods with his grief, but was immersed in the glorious riches of nature, billions of creatures struggling and dying but whilst they lived saturating the world with matchless beauty. Out of his reflections he eventually developed the theory which would change the world. It was enough for me to be in the same place: a gorgeous hidden valley amongst the chalk hills on a beautiful August afternoon, thronged with wondrous winged things whirring from wildflower to wildflower. A single raven drifted overhead as I marvelled at it all, a black cloaked figure croaking sombrely. Perhaps Darwin himself was keeping an eye on his old patch, appearing as what might be an ancient omen of death, but to me was like getting reacquainted with an old friend (since ravens are scarce in these parts). I too did not walk the woods and fields alone.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

*Last time I checked we are great apes, and evolved in just the same way as any other animal did. Darwin himself would have told you as much. So to call anything humans do ‘unnatural’ sometimes strikes me as a bit strange.

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