Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday

Today is the big day for the birthday boy, 200 years since the great man's birth.

It has been some years now since I made the pilgrimage to Darwin's home, Down House, in the village of Downe in Kent, south of London. I took the train from London to Orpington. From there one could take a taxi, but I chose to walk, about five miles along pleasant country roads. One arrives first in the village, which is about as charming an English village as you'd hope to find, with ancient church on the green and two picturebook-perfect pubs -- The George and Dragon and The Queen's Head. Too early in the day for a drink, so on down leafy Luxted Road to Down House.

After a long tour of duty as a girl's school, the house is now in the care of English Heritage. Several rooms have been lovingly restored as they were when Darwin was in residence with his big and loving family. The grounds and the greenhouse too are as Darwin left them. I arrived early, just as the house opened, and had the place to myself. I lingered long in the study where Darwin pondered the intricacies of life on Earth, surveying the clutter of books, papers, artifacts and natural relics that occupied his mind. I walked the Sand Walk at the back of the property where he went to meditate on the mysteries of evolution.

As I left Down House, I didn't go back to the village, but headed south the mile of two to the edge of the chalk escarpment of the North Downs that looks out over the Weald to the mirroring escarpment of the South Downs, twenty miles away. In the Origin, Darwin tells us that he stood here and pondered the vast expanse of time that was necessary to lift and erode away the great arch of chalk and sandstone that once connected the escarpments, all during relatively recent geological times. The vanished strata might have been 1,100 feet thick, he calculated, and at present rates of erosion it would have taken 300 million years for water and weather to eat away the rocks. He wrote: "I have made these few remarks because it is highly important for us to gain some notion, however imperfect, of the lapse of years. During each of these years, over the whole world, the land and the water have been peopled by hosts of living forms. What an infinite number of generations, which the mind cannot grasp, must have succeeded each other in the long roll of years."

It was long past time now for a pint, and as I walked along the escarpment towards Sevenoaks sure enough I came -- as one always will in England -- to another ye-olde pub, just in time for a late lunch and a chance to sit in a quiet corner and organize my thoughts. "Which the mind cannot grasp," wrote Darwin. But a mind did grasp, a rare and perspicacious mind, that we celebrate today.