A view From the Bridge

Darwin Day: a poem on the Sandwalk

Posted on behalf of Philip Parker

Charles Darwin (engraving adapted from photograph, in Francis Darwin (ed.), Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 1891).

Charles Darwin famously built a circular path in the grounds of Down House near Orpington, Kent, soon after he moved there in 1842. It became known as the Sandwalk, a gravel-lined oval walk around the trees and bushes he planted. He called this his ‘thinking path’ and walked it morning and afternoon, often with his fox terrier Polly, observing seasonal changes, while mulling over his most difficult problems.

The Sandwalk has inspired me too. To celebrate Darwin Day — which marks the evolutionary biologist’s stunning achievements on his birthday, 12 February, each year — I wrote a sestude (a piece of 62 words) as part of 26 Postcodes. This project of not-for-profit UK organisation ‘26’ paired 26 writers each with a different postcode, which we visited literally, and in our imagination, to spark a piece of writing. I wrote ‘Last Circuit of the Sandwalk’ (below) after visiting Darwin’s house at BR6 7JT.

The Sandwalk at Darwin's home, Down House near Orpington, Kent.

The Sandwalk at Darwin’s home Down House near Orpington, Kent.

Tedgrant at English Wikipedia.

I knew from the outset that I wanted to reflect Darwin’s humanity, as well as the scope of his achievement, and that the piece would be in two parts. The first part attempts to present Darwin as a person, not an icon. Down House was his home for the last 40 years of his life, where he brought up his children and wrote his masterwork On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). His favourite child was Annie. She died at the age of ten and Darwin nursed her in her final weeks and wrote movingly of the loss. His writing indicates that he most likely became agnostic.

Down House was also Darwin’s laboratory. He was a practical scientist using garden and greenhouse for experiments, or laying out skeletons of birds on his billiards table, or indeed dissecting barnacles (his pioneering classification of barnacles made his reputation as a natural historian).

Visitors to Down can walk into his study, where his furniture has been returned including his wheeled armchair, and see what remains of the garden experiments. And you can tour the Sandwalk. While early drafts of the sestude concerned the house, my research on the Sandwalk was the ‘way in’. I saw Darwin, a venerable old man, standing on the gravel path looking back on his life, his journey.

Interior of Darwin's study at Down House in 1932.

Interior of Darwin’s study at Down House in 1932.

Wellcome Images, images@wellcome.ac.uk, Wellcome Library, London.

The letters of his children recollect how they played on the Sandwalk. At least 15,000 of Darwin’s own letters survive and have been diligently digitised by Cambridge University. The Victorian post was the internet of its day. A letter could be written and posted after breakfast, and a reply delivered back to the sender by teatime. In this way Darwin discussed his ideas and requested evidence and information from hundreds of colleagues worldwide, as well as eloquently replying to his critics.

These letters were most important to me. They show the man. He robustly defends his ideas, but also shows immense consideration for the feelings of his peers and family, reiterating his friendship. In them, he appears to me to be the most self-effacing and kind of souls.

The second half of my piece conveys his evidence-gathering and crystallising into the coherent theory he so elegantly described in what he refers to as Origin. It was because he had the most unusually broad but detailed knowledge of geology, botany and zoology that he could assemble the tens of thousands of pieces of evidence and begin to work out the mechanism of evolution, his specimens going back to his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle in the 1830s, finches’ beaks included.

Darwin’s many journeys culminated in the book, arguably one of the most influential of all time.

 

LAST CIRCUIT OF THE SANDWALK

Your kind, lined face peers into the thinking path. Fifty years, concentrating on millions.

Annie’s ghost dances round the birch you planted. Faith interred with her.

A closing correspondence. Evidence encircling the Earth, reaching kin, collaborators, critics. Your crystal mind the core.

Charting immense horizons of Beagle, beaks, barnacles. Focused to a final orbit of the Sandwalk. Tracing the elongated ‘O’. Origin.

 

Philip Parker is strategy manager for Royal Mail Stamps. The opinions expressed in this article are his own. He tweets at @parkerpj01. Find 26 Postcodes on Facebook and Twitter, and join the discussion at #26postcodes.

For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit  www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.

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