The house itself turned out to be fascinating, not so much for its architecture or historical significance as for the dozens and dozens of small collections that filled every available shelf and nook. Charles and Emma gave birth to 10 children, seven of whom lived beyond childhood, and each of them testified to their delight in natural objects.
Birds’ nests, rocks, flowers, insects, weeds, cobwebs, butterflies, feathers, bones – all became objects of intense curiosity and were welcomed into Darwin’s house.
Charles Darwin’s working room in the History of Science, Down House, the home of Charles Darwin where he wrote ‘On the Origin of Species’, Kent, UK (October 2015). Photo Shutterstock, Inc.
Thanks to his father’s generosity, Darwin did not need to work for money and was able to concentrate on studying natural processes. Having benefited immensely from his five years of traveling as a naturalist aboard the Beagle, sailing around the world and having a special interest in the avifauna of the Galapagos Islands, the seeds of his theory of evolution had already begun to germinate.
Now married to Emma and surrounded by a tribe of living and loving children, he needed to focus carefully on his thoughts.
For this, he built what he called “the sandwalk”.
The sandy sidewalk was actually made of fine gravel and followed the perimeter of a strip of land behind Darwin’s house. His daily walk of several circuits around the path served both exercise and uninterrupted reflection. He set up a number of small stones at some point in the walk so that he could throw a stone to the side each time he passed, to avoid breaking the flow of his thoughts by consciously counting the number of circuits he had done that day.
Down House, the home of English naturalist Charles Darwin and his family. It is in this house and this garden that he worked on his theories of evolution by natural selection. Photo, May 2019, Shutterstock, Inc.
The walk became known as the “Path of Reflection,” and after the day’s efforts were over, served as a playground for the children. Images abound of Darwin walking with his hands clasped behind his back, his head tilted slightly, as his mind worked through the various strands and layers of his world-changing theory.
As you explore the premises, including the three-story house with its dozens of collections and exhibits, the row of greenhouses at the back in which countless plant genetics experiments have taken place, and the earth beds in which Darwin conducted his subsequent studies on earthworms, it became clear to me that all of his work essentially grew out of his many walks.
Darwin was not alone either.
Photographic illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
Beethoven used to compose while walking every morning. Mozart, in a letter to a friend, said his favorite time to compose was while walking after a meal. Debussy wrote most of his compositions by pacing the room.
Mark Twain was a die-hard playmaker. Goethe got most of his rhythms and poetic images from walks. Even a scientist like Pasteur walked the corridors of the Normal School “meditating on the details of his work.”
And General Eisenhower, in the days leading up to the Normandy invasion and the defining moments of World War II, chose to take long walks on his own to reflect.
We normally consider our feet to be quite a distance from our brain, but in fact the two might be more closely related than we realize. Some people claim that walking is an even better stimulation for the mind than for the body.
If so, we might want to take steps – literally – to stay mentally fit.
Collections of Craig Nagel’s Columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.