Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin’s Lost Notebooks by Lyanda Lynn HauptCharles Darwin towers over modern biology like an intimidating, white-bearded colossus with a looming, furrowed brow. Even the theory which made him famous can come over as somewhat cold, clinical, almost cruel. ‘Survival of the fittest’ is not a warm phrase, though of course it is something of a misnomer and a set of words that Darwin himself never actually used.
Despite this seeming distance I have for a while felt a kinship with Darwin, given that he was in fact a somewhat shy, nervous Englishman who was never more in his element than when rooting around, finding and observing wildlife. In addition a number of Darwin-themed projects have helped to soften his image in my mind, chiefly the wonderful Darwin Song Project album of original folk songs and Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life In Poems.
In this charming book, Lyanda Lynn Haupt takes another step closer to Darwin the man. Focusing on his encounters with birds during the Beagle voyage, she affectionately narrates his transformation from feckless youngster – judged by his father to be interested in “nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching” – to fully-fledged naturalist, one who, as Haupt puts it, “could draw scientific truths from the simple stories spun by the creatures that crossed his path.”
Darwin’s conversion experience, if you could call it that, was a necessarily gradual one. He didn’t step from a Plymouth jetty onto the deck of the Beagle and immediately become the scientist of legend. To start with he laboured in the shadows of past greats whose work he admired, in particular the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humbolt (of squid fame) ,who was a pioneer of biogeography and one of the first travelers in Latin America to write up his explorations from a scientific viewpoint.
Haupt describes how Darwin’s writing in his earlier journals carried the echo of whichever author he had been reading at the time, Humboldt chief among them. As a fledgling writer, this is a pitfall I recognise with a wry smile! Taken together, his journals and early natural history endeavours on the Beagle represented, as Haupt puts it, “The work of a young person beginning to know what he loves but not understanding, yet, how to claim it for himself.”
To claim the understanding that became so deep and so rich, Darwin would need to learn to see. This, as Haupt tells it, is the naturalist’s path – a faith, even, something to throw oneself into with near religious fervour. Darwin turns out to be quite the practitioner, one delighted at every turn by the near miraculous diversity of creatures and luminous verdure of tropical plants he sees in the Brazilian rainforest. Here at last his writing began to shed its youthful pretentions and he is so moved as to find it hard to find words to describe his experience:
“– Silence –
– Hosannah – “
This was the true start of his voyage, in a way, the point at which Haupt sees his watching develop “an air of bright expectancy”, a habit he carried through the rest of his life.His originality as a philosophical naturalist began to shine through. Darwin was prepared to watch a single bird for far longer than any of his contemporaries would have thought productive, and eventually prefers to leave the ‘shoot first, ask taxonomic questions later’ collecting efforts to his assistant. He noticed aspects of behavior that less watchful souls would have missed, and affords his individual subjects a significance that would be considered inappropriate in modern scientific discourse. But it was through this determined watching of individual animals that Darwin built up a picture of the world that would eventually prove revolutionary.
So whilst there’s much in his journals that might jar for those over-used to reading scientific papers – “affection, mystery, anecdote, subjectivity” –disapproving scientists should get over themselves. It is perhaps the least scientific sounding characteristic of Darwin’s work, what Haupt describes as reverence, that may possess the greatest value in today’s inattentive world, beholding us to celebrate the worth of individuals even as we acknowledge their inherent disposability, ourselves included. She puts this beautifully:
“Even our best conservation efforts, which rightly focus on systems rather than individuals, need not remove us from simultaneous responsibility as earthen fragments, to recall and to respond to the enlivening presence of individual animals within wilderness – a wilderness that cradles all creatures separately, even as it swallows them whole.”
In other words, intellectual efforts to steer conservation on the ‘correct’ scientific course will all be in vain if we forget what and who we are, and it is this art of remembrance which is, for Haupt, at the heart of the naturalists’ calling. Outside of our carefully chosen words and beyond the scope of our research are truths evident only to those who are open to them – those, like Darwin, who give their relationship with the natural world time and space to bloom. In this way Darwin’s quiet, deceptively simple watching sends a message into the heart of our troubled present.
Natural history may be out fashion in the academic world, but there is surely still much to be gained from following in Darwin’s footsteps along the naturalist’s path. And as for him, our transformation will not be instantaneous. Faith is built upon practice. Like Darwin, we will make mistakes. Haupt writes of becoming a naturalist, in a way that reminds me of the theologian Pete Rollins, whose biography in books and at events usually ends “he is actively trying to become a Christian”. Through her original reflections, Lyanda Lynn Haupt relates a lost message from Darwin’s life and work that I will return to often as I actively try to become a naturalist, remembering the evocative call to faith she lovingly draws out of his notebooks:
“It is in light of (these realities) that Darwin’s own evolution as a naturalist holds such meaning for us today – as activists, as scientists, as bird-watchers, as homespun naturalists, as everyday humans whose lives constantly brush the perimeter of a wilder, natural world.”
“Come…be expectant, do not be dull, but bring the lost fullness of your intelligence to this endeavour, as you come quietly into the presence of wild things.”