I love Charles Darwin. I love his sweet, flawed humanity; his affection for his family; his books, his quirky letters, his diaries. Most of all, I love his innate, constant wonder in the face of the natural world. Join me in celebrating Darwin’s birthday. Here are some of my favorite ways to conjure the spirit of the great naturalist:
1. Go outside. Looking over the top of my computer and out the window this moment, I can see a flicker, three crows, two black-capped chickadees, once chestnut-backed chickadee, and Worthington the squirrel. I can watch the drip of the light winter Seattle rain, and I pause to wonder over all these things. But it is when I get off my widening bum and step through the doorframe that I am truly able to “contemplate” Darwin’s “tangled bank,” (which I wrote about in a sidelong manner here) to enjoy up close his “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful that have been, and are being, evolved.” No matter how urban our homes (or how rainy the day), a short walk will provide opportunities to observe representatives of these “endless forms,” and to embrace Darwin’s truest legacy–a deepened sense of interconnection with all of life.
2. Read a few of Darwin’s letters. I love epistolary collections, and Darwin is one of my all-time favorite letter-writers. So often we have the big, bearded, Father-of-Modern-Biological-Science image of Darwin in our head–an image staid, daunting, and not much fun. In his letters we find someone much more delightful–communicating with his friends via pen and ink, Darwin is alternately silly, serious, whimsical, catty, gossipy, caustic, spoiled, lovable. Bawdy? Never. But dip into his letters, and I will make you two promises: you will learn things about Darwin you never imagined to be true; and you will want to run outside and lie in the grass, soaking up the secrets of nature, as Darwin himself did. We have 14,000 extant letters from Darwin. For a manageable and well-chosen sampling, see Frank Burkhardt’s collection Evolution: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin 1860-1870.
3. Observe pigeons. Darwin was a famous pigeon collector, and in the myriad forms that sprang from the common urban rock pigeon, he found a perfect example of his basic tenet–diversity in lineage. (While members of the Victorian fanciers disagreed with Darwin–How could their many beautiful breeds all be connected to that dirty little bird? Surely the breeds were genetically unique!—the latest research vindicates Darwin.) Modern urban pigeons get a bad rap (“sky rats,” some call them) but they are gentle, watchable birds with iridescent feathers, and a fascinating behavioral repertoire. Put your observations to good scientific use by joining Cornell Lab’s Project PigeonWatch.
4. Read The Origin of Species! You didn’t think you were going to get out of here without me recommending that, did you? This is one of my favorite nightstand books. When I am feeling crabby or anxious or isolated, I read a few paragraphs, and remember my place in life–simultaneously small and meaningful; individually alone, yet intimately connected.
5. Read my book on Darwin, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent. It tells the story of Darwin’s own evolution as naturalist, focusing on little-known diaries, and ornithological notebooks. Of all my books, this lesser known volume is my favorite.
6. Celebrate Fiercely. William McDonough, co-author of the iconic and wonderful Cradle to Cradle: Rethinking the Way We Make Things, speaks often about celebration. When asked about this by Justine Toms, he looked out over the profligacy of a spring flower field and said, “It’s not about survival of the fittest. It’s about those who celebrate the most being the evolutionary winners. Nature is all about fierce celebration.”
Certainly Darwin’s birthday should be observed for the rest of the month, at least. How will you celebrate?
“Darwin has a posse” image by Colin Purrington.