Monday, 12 September 2011

Botanic men

Once upon a time, David Bellamy was the smiling face of botany, enthusiatically leaping from tussock to tussock extolling the virtues of some obscure sedge. Then he was gone, leaving the science to fade from popular view only to be resurrected by the occasional worthy talking head.

Apparently good old David chose the wrong call on the climate change debate and was dropped
from the media, after decades of blameless and influential work.

I've been reading one of the his books from earlier happier days, when pollution, population, famine and energy shortages were the targets, and global warming hadn't hit the headlines.
The book traces botanical evolution from the year dot to the present time (well, 1978) and I learnt plenty. Just in time for a trip to Down House.
Since we all carry a picture of Charles Darwin in our pocket or purse (on good days at least) it's unforgivable that I hadn't visited his house, which has been restored to a close approximation of how it was when he lived there. The study is fascinating, and upstairs rooms have set up as a small museum.
One of the most memorable points of Darwin's great works emphasised by David Bellamy was that when conditions are right, it is predictable (not chance) that species will adapt to occupy them. When a wind-blown flock of finches arrived on the Galapagos islands, a variety of habitats and food sources were there, unexploited, and over time the birds adapted to take advantage of them. In the isolation of islands, that adaptation was bound to happen.

The gardens and greenhouse have been stocked with varieties that are known to have been grown under Darwin's direction, and the vegetable patch is most impressive even though it's not growing the latest F1 strains.

On the greenhouse staging are the carniverous plants that Darwin studied; round-leaved sundew Drosera rotundiflora, long-leaved varieties, Venus fly-traps and pitcher plants.
Emma Darwin commented "At present he is treating Drosera just like a living creature, and I suppose he hopes to end in proving it to be an animal".
When at Down you must take a walk, like the great man, around the Sandwalk, and it was a pleasure to do so. The path gives a sense of peace and on a warm day it was a joy.

The last paragraph of The Origin of Species describes a tangled bank - we all know such a place, and we should all have to recite this, savouring the words slowly to increase understanding:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

He was describing the interaction of habitat, ecology, evolution - the whole damn life thing, to a world that hadn't even started to consider it. In 1859 the book was published, and despite popular legend it was generally accepted in a relatively short time. 150 years later, unfortunately, a powerful force is trying to discredit and disprove it. Can we send David Bellamy to the States to teach them again?

In the garden was a grand specimen of White Mullein, only the second one I've seen after one in nearby High Elms wood. This is the lair of another great naturalist, the Greenie Man, but he wasn't spotted lurking behind the trees - it's a fine place full of interest, and the south-facing bank held the warmth, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with various insects flitting about. Perhaps this was Charles Darwin's tangled bank? I'm sure the Greenie Man will know.

1 comment:

Greenie said...

Steve ,
And you never popped in for a cuppa !
Down House and grounds are indeed a facinating place , and I feel priviledged to walk the grounds as the great man did .
The slope you talk of is where I often get the Roe Deer , but it was always my understanding that the 'tangled bank' was in fact Downe Bank , now a KWT reserve about a mile away .
I did a bit of research and found a bit more info -
Google 'Darwin in Bromley' and open the last but one entry on the first page - 'Downe,Bromley,Kent| Natural History Museum' . As you will see , nobody is sure , but they came to that result too .