The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design by Richard Dawkins (1986)

I hope that the reader is as awestruck as I am (p.37)

I first read this book 25 years ago and in the intervening years I had forgotten how naive, silly and embarrassingly earnest Dawkins can be.

The blind watchmaker

The basic premise is easily summarised. In a theological work published in 1802 – Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity – the English theologian William Paley said that if you were out for a walk and stumbled over a stone, you wouldn’t think anything of it, it is so obviously part of the natural world and you unthinkingly accept it as a product of impersonal geological forces.

But if you were out for a walk and stumbled over a watch, particularly if it was an 18th-century, ornately fashioned pocketwatch, you would immediately deduce that something so wonderfully crafted, with so many carefully calibrated inner workings clearly designed for a purpose, presupposed a designer – a craftsman who consciously and deliberately designed and built it.

Well, says Paley, same for the natural world about us. When we look at the countless examples of marvellous design in the world about us, our own eyes, the interaction of insects pollinating flowers, the perfect design of fish for swimming and birds for flying, who can look at all these marvels and not be prompted to declare that there must, on the analogy of the watch, be a conscious designer, an all-powerful entity which created the entire world and all the creatures in it so that they would all perform their functions perfectly? In other words – God (and, since Paley was an Anglican clergyman) the Christian God.

In fact Paley’s book was just the latest in a very long line of works promoting, describing and explaining what is called Natural Theology, the view that the existence of an all-powerful loving God can be deduced merely from observation of the world around us, without the need of any holy books or revelations, which is recorded as far back as the Biblical psalms and is believed by many people right up to the present day.

Dawkins’s book is a refutation of this entire way of thinking as it relates to the natural world i.e. to living organisms.

As Dawkins points out, it was reasonable to hold Paley’s beliefs in his day and age, it was a reasonable hypothesis in the absence of any better explanation for the origin and diversity of life we see around us.

BUT since Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859, all forms of natural theology have been rendered redundant. We now have an infinite simpler, more satisfying and more believable explanation for the origin, spread and diversity of life forms on earth, which is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

Thus Dawkins’s 340-page book amounts to a sustained argument against natural theology, and against the whole crew of Christians, Creationists, theists, bishops and poets and philosophers who still espouse it, because they are wrong and Richard and the other evolutionary biologists he cites are right.

The book combines a battery of supposedly ‘philosophical’ arguments with an overview of natural history, biology and – in particular – what was then, in 1986, the latest thinking about genetics and DNA – in order to ridicule, rubbish and refute every possible variation of natural theology and to promote Darwin Darwin Darwin.

One long argument

To describe The Blind Watchmaker as argumentative is an understatement. The book is expressly not a straightforward exposition of Darwin’s theory, it is more a series of arguments Dawkins has with proponents of the views he wishes to demolish, as well as with other biologists whose theories he disputes, and sometimes with himself. If it moves, he’ll argue with it.

And Dawkins is addicted to making elaborate and often far-fetched analogies and comparisons to help us understand evolution. In other words, you have to wade through a lot of often irrelevant argumentation and distracting analogies in order to get to the useful information.

A key part of Dawkins’ approach, something I found initially irritating about the book, then found ludicrous, and ended up finding laugh-out-loud funny, is the way he makes up people to argue with.

He will invent a naive believer of this or that aspect of natural theology, someone who can’t credit evolution with explaining everything about the natural world, put words into their mouths, and then gleefully demolish their made-up arguments.

I think it’s the purest example of an author using convenient straw men to set up and knock down that I’ve ever read. Thus in the first 40 pages he invents the following figures:

  • a distinguished modern philosopher who he once sat next to at dinner and revealed to a horrified Dawkins that he didn’t understand why the evolution and diversity of life required any special explanation (p.5)
  • a ‘hypothetical philosopher’ he invents and claims would, at this stage of Dawkins’s exposition, be ‘mumbling something about circular argument’ (p.8)
  • a hypothetical engineer who starts ‘boring on’ about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts (p.11)
  • he creates another engineer (‘our engineer’) as a foil for his explanation of how bat echolocation works in chapter 2
  • with similar condescension he refers at various moments to ‘our mathematicians’
  • the second half of the book is littered with references to ‘creationists’ and ‘creationist propaganda’ and ‘anti-evolution propaganda’ which he doesn’t actually quote, but whose views he briefly summarises before pulverising them

On page 13 he dismisses ‘readers of trendy intellectual magazines’ saying that, if you read them you might have noticed that:

reductionism, like sin, is one of those things that is only mentioned by people who are against it.

This thought then rapidly gets out of control as he goes on to say that calling yourself a reductionist is the equivalent, ‘in some circles’ of admitting that you eat babies. What is he on about? He then goes on to compare the hypothetical ‘reductionist’ he’s just invented with his own, more sophisticated, materialist reductionism, and then writes:

It goes without saying – though the mythical, baby-eating reductionist is reputed to deny this – that the kinds of explanations which are suitable at high levels in the hierarchy are quite different from the kinds of explanations which are suitable at lower levels.

You can see that he’s making a serious (and fairly obvious) point, but that somehow it’s got tangled up with a straw man he’s felt compelled to invent, and then attribute the bizarre character of eating babies!

This is just one tiny snapshot of Dawkins’s technique, in which serious and often interesting points are surrounded and buried by relentless argufying and quarrelling, more often than not with entirely fictional, made-up figures, who are often given ridiculous and caricature views and qualities.

In among the vast army of people Dawkins picks fights with are some real Christian or anti-evolution figures who pop up for a brief moment before being subjected to withering criticism.

  • the ‘distinguished sceptic’ who refused to believe Donald Griffin when the latter first explained the secret of bat echolocation at a 1940 conference (p.35)
  • Bishop of Birmingham, Hugh Montefiore (1920-2005) whose book The Probability of God he credits with being an honest attempt to prove God but which he quickly dismisses for its widespread use of what Dawkins calls The Argument From Personal Incredulity i.e. ‘I find it hard to understand…it is difficult to see how…’ etc (p.37)
  • Francis Hitching (b.1933) author of The Neck of the Giraffe or Where Darwin Went Wrong (1983) which does appear to be a sustained attack on Darwinism
  • The Duke of Argyll who, apparently, supported Darwin but with the modest proviso that the loving Creator God did, of course, intervene in evolution to create new species and generally give the thing a helping hand (p.248)
  • the editor of Creationist magazine Biblical (p.251) who is quoted leaping onto the publicity surrounding the (then) new theory of punctuated equilibrium as showing the collapse of the entire Darwinian edifice

The remorseless battering of opponents, real or hypothetical, builds to a climax in the final chapter where he tackles head-on half a dozen or so alternative explanations for the existence of complex life form including the Big One, Christian Creationism.

Naivety

There’s a stunning moment before the book’s even properly begun which reveals Dawkins’ amazing simple-mindedness and naivety about the real world.

He describes taking part in a formal debate (organised, one suspects, at the Oxford Union). Afterwards he is seated at dinner (there are lots of anecdotes about conversations over dinner; Oxford is that kind of place) next to the young lady who argued against him in the debate, making the creationist case – and is horrified to discover that she doesn’t necessarily believe all the points she made!!

Indeed, Dawkins reveals to his shocked readers, this young lady was sometimes making arguments simply for the sake of having a debate! Richard is horrified!! He himself has never uttered a word he didn’t believe to be the complete truth!! Putting a case solely for the intellectual challenge of it!!! Or for money!!!!

I thought he was joking, but this anecdote, told on page two of the Preface, establishes the fact that Dawkins doesn’t understand the nature of intellectual debate, and so by implication doesn’t understand the worlds of law or politics or philosophy or the humanities, where you are routinely asked to justify a cause you don’t particularly believe in, or to argue the toss between a number of conflicting views. When I told my son this he recalled being made to take part in school debates when he was 11. It’s a basic teaching, learning and cultural practice.

Reflecting on this anecdote makes you wonder: should someone so naive and innocent be allowed out on their own, without adult supervision?

Philosophical simple-mindedness

Dawkins likes to brandish the word ‘philosophy’ a lot but none of his arguments are truly philosophical, they are more rhetorical or technical. Anyway, philosophy isn’t necessarily about ‘arguing’ for the sake of it, as any fan of the Monty Python Argument sketch can vouch.

For example, early on he asks ‘What is an explanation?’ before giving this definition of how he intends to use the word:

If we wish to understand how a machine or living body works, we look to its component parts and ask how they interact with each other. If there is a complex thing that we do not yet understand, we can come to understand it in terms of simpler parts that we do already understand. (p.11)

Not exactly philosophical, is it? More a straightforward clarifying of terms. And yet in chapter 2 he refers back to the opening chapter in which this and much like it occurred, as mostly ‘philosophical’.

All we can conclude is that Dawkins’ idea of ‘philosophy’ is extremely simplistic. That it is, in fact, a biologist’s notion of philosophy i.e. lacking any subtlety or depth.

Same goes for his attitude to the English language. Dawkins is extremely proud of the care with which he writes, and takes plenty of opportunities to show off his own pedantic thoughts about English usage – for example, in the little paragraph discussing whether it is better to write computer programme or computer program. Towards the end of the book he mentions ‘the great Japanese geneticist Motoo Kimura’

whose English prose style, incidentally, would shame many a native speaker’ (p.303)

There is no possible reason for this unnecessary aside except to let everyone know that he, Richard Dawkins, is a first class judge of what constitutes good English. It is pure swank (‘behaviour, talk, or display intended to impress others’). As with everything else he writes, Dawkins’s comments about the English language are entry-level and obvious, but presented with a great hoo-hah and self-satisfaction.

Dawkins’s sense of humour!!

Way before he has given any kind of account of Darwin’s actual theory, Dawkins is assailing us with his sense of humour, sometimes with short squibs, sometimes with extended ‘humorous’ passages.

You can tell when he’s made a joke, or said something he’s really proud of, because he rounds off the punchline with an exclamation mark!

It’s quite a while since I’ve seen quite so many exclamation marks in a text and it made me realise that their cumulative impact is to make you feel the author is poking you in the ribs so you will laugh and/or marvel at the wonderful anecdote they’ve just told!

Here’s an example of the way that genuinely fascinating natural history/science is buried in Dawkins’s rib-nudging approach. Chapter two is about echolocation in bats, and moves from:

  1. a detailed description of how bat echolocation works – which is riveting
  2. to pondering what it is like to be a bat and live in a bat’s body and live and perceive the world entirely by echolocation and sonar – which is sort of interesting, but speculative
  3. to an extended passage where Dawkins imagines a conference of bat scientists who have been studying human beings being presented with the flabbergasting discovery that humans use a previously unknown sense called ‘sight’, employing two bulbous receptors in their faces called ‘eyes’, to analyse light signals which appear to create in their brains 3-D models of the world which help them navigate around, almost as well as bats!!

Now this final passage is sort of helpful, maybe, if you’re in the mood, and sort of humorous. But it is at the same time more than a little ludicrous in what purports to be a serious scientific book. Above all, it gives you a powerful whiff of Dawkins’s world, a world of stuffy, pompous, self-important Oxbridge academics, in two ways:

  1. the choice of an academic conference as the setting for his imaginary fantasy tells much you about the milieu he inhabits, but
  2. the fact that he thinks he can spend an entire page of his book sharing this extended joke with his readers tells you a lot more about his supreme, undentable self-confidence

Unintentional autobiography

Dawkins likes to think he is making ‘difficult’ science more accessible by giving the poor benighted reader plenty of analogies and examples from everyday life to help us understand these damn tricky concepts. But it is one of the most (unintentionally) enjoyable aspects of the book that many of the examples he uses betray a comic out-of-touchness with the modern world.

I laughed out loud when on page 3 he writes:

The systematic putting together of parts to a purposeful design is something we know and understand, for we have experienced it at first hand, even if only with our childhood Meccano or erector set.

He explains the Doppler Effect by asking the reader to imagine riding a motorbike past a factory whose siren is wailing. Motorbike? Wailing factory siren? This sounds like a W.H. Auden poem from the 1930s. He goes on to explain that it is the same principle as the police use in their radar traps for speeding motorists.

Elsewhere he begins to explain the unlikeliness of organic molecules coming into existence by asking us to ponder the number of his bicycle lock (and later assures us that ‘I ride a bicycle to work every day’, p.84). Good chap.

He suggests that the advantage even a slight improvement in the ability to ‘see’ would give an evolving species can be considered while ‘turning the colour balance knob of a colour television set’ (p.84).

He explains that the poor Nautilus shellfish has developed the hollow orb of a primitive ‘eye’ but lacks the lens facility that we and all mammals have, making it rather ‘like a hi-fi system with an excellent amplifier fed by a gramophone with a blunt needle (p.85).

Gramophone? Yes granddad. Later he refers to ‘hi-fidelity sound amplification equipment’ (p.217). It’s possible that Dawkins is the most fuddy-duddy author I’ve ever read.

When describing the transmission of DNA he suggests it might help if we imagine 20 million ‘typists’ sitting in a row. When I asked my daughter what a typist is she didn’t know.

The common brown bat Myotis emits sonic clicks at the rate of ten a second, about the same rate as a Bren machine gun. An analogy, presumably, he expects his readers to find useful because of our familiarity with the Bren machine gun from our National Service days.

Best of all, his comic-book enthusiasm bubbles over when he tells us that:

These bats are like miniature spy planes, bristling with sophisticated instrumentation. (p.24)

Spy planes. Gramophone players. Factory sirens.

If you put to one side the science he’s trying to explain to us, and just focus on the various analogies and stories he uses so liberally, a kind of alternative world appears, the portrait of an incredibly earnest, other-worldly, high-minded Oxford don, a man whose secure upper-middle-class childhood gave him an enduring love of toys and gadgets, and who has the sublime self-confidence of thinking he can change the world by the sheer power of his boyish enthusiasm and the secrets of his bicycle lock.

At the end of chapter 8 (which has been about positive feedback loops in evolution) he digresses into a lengthy description of the new-fangled ‘pop music’, which is introduced by the ‘mid-Atlantic mouthings of disco jockeys’ on the radio, and reflected in something which is apparently called the ‘Top 20’.

The whole sub-culture is obsessed with a rank ordering of records, called the Top 20 or Top 40, which is based only upon record sales. (p.219)

His point is that records are often bought by young people based on their popularity alone, not on their intrinsic artistic merit and that this is a form of arbitrary positive feedback loop, such as may also be true of some characteristics exaggerated in the course of sexual selection, such as the peacock’s tail.

But the real impact of reading this page-long digression is to make you realise that Dawkins is a real-life version of the stereotypical out-of-touch judge who has spent so long in the bubble of the legal profession (as Dawkins has spent virtually his whole life in the bubble of an Oxford college) that one of the barristers has to patiently explain to him that ‘The Beatles’ are a popular rhythm-and-blues group.

Elsewhere he refers to this new thing called ‘the mass media’. He refers to bodybuilders as members of a ‘peculiar minority culture’ (p.289). It doesn’t seem to occur to him that being a don at an Oxford college is even more of a ‘peculiar minority culture’.

Hi-fidelity gramophones. Factory sirens. Mid-Atlantic mouthings. Who is this weirdo?

Then there are directly autobiographical snippets – the references to his idyllic childhood in Africa (where he played with his Erector Set or admired a huge swarm of soldier ants), to his High Anglican public school, and on to the rarefied atmosphere of Oxford, where he spent his academic career from 1970 to 2008, and has had so many stimulating conversations over High Table which he is not shy about telling us about.

Thus, in the middle of an explanation of different theories about the speed with which evolution works, he stops because he:

cannot help being reminded here of the humiliation of my first school report, written by the Matron about my performance as a seven-year-old in folding clothes, taking cold baths, and other daily routines of boarding-school life: “Dawkins has only three speeds: slow, very slow, and stop.” (p.245)

Similarly, he begins Chapter 8 with a reminiscence of a schoolmaster of his who became uncontrollably apoplectic with rage, as an example of ‘positive feedback’.

This is followed by the recent experience he had of attending Oxford’s Congregation, at which the hubbub of the large crowd slowly died away into silence – given as an example of negative feedback.

Pages of this self-indulgent autobiography go by before he gets round to writing anything relevant about evolution, while this reader, at any rate, was shouting ‘Get on with it!’

Dawkins is so mealy-mouthed and long-winded, so in love with the sound of his own analogies and whimsical digressions, and so keen to share with you his ripping boyhood memories and High Table anecdotes, that it becomes at times, almost physically painful to read him.

Distracting analogies

But the real problem with all these analogies and reminiscences is that too often they get in the way of actually understanding his scientific points.

For example, chapter seven has an extended explanation of what arms races are in the context of evolution i.e. when predators and prey develop characteristics designed to help them outdo each other. So far so good. But then he went off into an extended comparison with battleships and then to the actual arms race between the USA and USSR building larger and larger nuclear weapons, which became progressively less useful and increasingly distracting and misleading.

Same goes when he asks us to imagine 20 million typists sitting in a row copying out a message – as if that makes it at all easier to understand DNA.

Or when he spends a couple of pages calculating just how many monkeys it would take to type out the complete works of Shakespeare, as a demonstration of the power of cumulative selection i.e. if it was done at random it would take forever, but if each version typed out by the monkeys kept all the elements which were even slightly like Shakespeare, and then had another go, it is surprising how few generations of monkeys you’d need to begin to produce an inkling of a comprehensible version.

In a really egregious example, chapter 8 about punctuated equilibrium doesn’t start with an explanation of what punctuated equilibrium is – far too straightforward for the Professor – instead, it starts with a two-page-long extended analogy with the ancient Israelites spending forty years wandering in the wilderness after fleeing Egypt.

The point of the analogy is to compare proponents of the theory of punctuated equilibrium with a hypothetical historian who took the Biblical exodus literally, calculating that the distance from Egypt to the Holy Land which the Israelites eventually settled in was only 200 miles and so, taken literally, this would mean the Israelites covered just 24 yards per day or 1 yard per hour. ‘Ridiculous?’ he asks. ‘Yes, well, that’s how ridiculous the theory of punctuated equilibrium is.’

You can see in this example how he is so in love with his own wit and ideas that he a) completely fails to clearly explain what punctuated equilibrium is b) really confuses the reader with his extended and utterly irrelevant analogy.

(The theory of punctuated equilibrium takes the extremely patchy fossil record of life on earth as evidence suggesting that evolution in fact consists of long periods of virtual stasis ‘punctuated’ by sudden bursts of relatively fast evolution and the creation of new species. Dawkins devotes a chapter and a host of ideas, sub-ideas and extended analogies to proving that this theory does not undermine the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy – as Creationists gleefully claim – but can be slotted easily into existing neo-Darwinian theory that evolution takes place at a slow steady pace: the core of Dawkins’s argument is that the fossil record appears to suggest long static periods interspersed with periods of manic change, solely because it is patchy.)

The whole tenor and shape and flavour  of the book is taken up with Dawkins’s analogies and similes and metaphors and witty ideas. It would have been so much better to have devoted the space to killer examples from the natural world. Too often Dawkins takes us off on one of his long digressions which take you away from the wonders of life on earth and push you into the broom cupboard of his flat, sterile and unimaginative analogies.

Example: It is fascinating to learn that many bat species have scrunched-up gargoyle faces (which have terrified generations of humans) because their faces have evolved to reflect and process their high-pitched echolocation signals. Whereas Dawkins saying that bats are ‘like high-tech spy planes’ is trite and uninformative.

Dawkins and computers

This nerdy, un-self-aware, naive enthusiasm comes over most strongly in chapter three of the book which is devoted to a wonderful computer program Dawkins has devised and titled The Blind Watchmaker (and which is advertised for sale at the back of the book, yours for just £28.85 including VAT, post and packaging).

At this early stage of the book I was still hoping that Dawkins would give the reader a knock-down, killer explanation of Darwin’s theory, but instead he chooses to tell us all about a computer program he’s written. This begins with a set of nine stick figures or ‘genes’, as he calls them, and then applies to them a set of instructions such as ‘double in length’ or ‘branch into two lines’ and so on. Here are the basic ‘genes’.

Basic ‘tree’ shapes developed by Richard Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker programme

The idea is that, if you invent rules for transforming the basic ‘genes’ then run the program, you will be surprised how the mechanical application of mindless rules quite quickly produces all kinds of weird and wonderful shapes, thus:

More advanced iterations produced by Dawkins’s Blind Watchmaker program

The point of all this is to show how quickly baroque ‘creatures’ can be created by a few simple rules and endless iterations, which Dawkins naively thinks, is a strong proof for Darwin’s theory. He calls the multi-dimensional space thronged with a potentially endless sequence of mutating variating life forms stretching out in all directions. Biomorph Land, and the metaphor is invoked and repeated at moments throughout the rest of the book.

He boyishly tells us that when he first ran it and saw all the shapes appearing he was so excited he stayed up all night!

It’s difficult to know where to start in critiquing this approach, but two things spring to mind.

  1. The book still hasn’t delivered a clear exposition of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. During this chapter I began to realise it never would, and that instead the book would be all about Richard’s wonderful ideas and inventions.
  2. Does Dawkins really think that a dyed-in-the-wool, Christian fundamentalist would be the slightest bit influenced or persuaded to change his or her lifelong beliefs by a lengthy explanation of a fabulous little toy computer program which Richard has developed at home on his Dell computer? If he does, he is fabulously self-deluded and, as I’ve said, above all, naive about the ways of the world and how human beings actually think and live.

Dawkins’s declared intention is to change the world, or the way people think and what they believe about the world and the diversity of life around us – and yet virtually every word he writes – certainly extended passages like the long chapter devoted to his fabulous self-written computer program – show you how completely inadequate, shallow and simple-minded his view of human nature is.

The book may well have explained and elucidated various concepts around evolution and genetics to an educated secular audience which had hitherto had few if any popular accounts to read. But it would be fascinating to learn if it converted anyone to abandon their Christian or theist beliefs and become an atheist.

Précis

Chapter 2 Bats and echolocation

Chapter 3 Cumulative changes can have massive consequences when subjected to non-random selection.

Chapter 4 Contrary to creationist propaganda 1% of an eye is better than no eye, and there are many animals with what you could call half or a quarter or less of a wing (i.e. bits of stretchable skin which help with gliding from tree to tree).

Chapter 5 ‘It is raining DNA outside’. Why Life is more like a computer programme (i.e. a transmissible digital code) than Victorian ideas about blobs of matter and life force’.

Chapter 6 The idea of ‘miracles’ considered in the context of the 4.5 billion years the earth has existed, and a detailed summary of A.G. Cairns-Smiths theory of the origin of life (piggy-backing on replicating clay crystals.)

Chapter 7 Genes are selected by virtue of their interactions with their environment, which starts by being other genes, within the cell, and then in sister cells. Cells had to learn to co-operate in order to form multi-celled organisms. Cumulative selection produces arms races between rivals in ecosystems.

Chapter 8 Positive feedback and sexual selection, compared to steam engines, thermostats and pop music.

Chapter 9 Is devoted to taking down the theory of punctuated equilibrium put forward by the paleontologists Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould.

Chapter 10 There are countless ways to categorise living things, as objects, but there is only one true tree of life based on evolutionary descent. Although in this, as everything else, there are different schools and theories e.g. phyleticists, cladists, pheneticists et al.

Chapter 11 A summary of various alternatives to Darwin – Lamarckism, neutralism, creationism, mutationism – described and then demolished.

What is really striking about this final chapter is how cursory his dismissal of Christian creationism is – it only takes up a couple of pages whereas his analysis of Lamarckism took up ten. It’s as if, once he finally comes face to face with his long-cherished enemy, it turns out that he has… nothing to say.

Conclusion and recommendations

Back in the mid-1980s this book had a big impact, garnering prizes and making Dawkins a public intellectual. This suggests 1. the extent of the ignorance then prevailing about Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and 2. the low bar set in the Anglo-Saxon world for the definition of ‘public intellectual’.

Then again, not many people actually had computers in 1986. I think the impact of the book came less from his countless and tiresome anti-Christian arguments, and more from the crisp modern way he compared DNA to a computer program. That was a genuinely innovatory insight thirty-five years ago. He was there right at the beginning of the application of computer technology to genetics and biology, a technology which has, ironically, rendered almost everything he wrote out of date.

– If you want to really understand Darwin’s theory there is no replacement for reading On The Origin of Species because, although many of the details may have changed and Darwin’s account notoriously contained no explanation of how variation came about (because he lacked any knowledge of genetics), nonetheless, the central idea is conveyed with a multitude of examples and with a persuasive force which really bring home what the theory actually consists of, far better than any later summary or populist account.

– If you want to read an up-to-date book about genetics and its awesome possibilities, I’d recommend Life At The Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life by Craig Venter.

– If you want to read about the wonders of the natural world, you could do a lot worse than E.O. Wilson’s wonderful and inspiring book The Diversity of Life.

The Mr Bean of biology

Having ground my way through this preening, self-important book, I came to the conclusion that ‘Richard Dawkins’ is best seen as a brilliant comic creation, a kind of super-intellectual version of Mr Bean – filled with comic earnestness, bursting to share his boyish enthusiasm, innocently retailing memories of his first Meccano set or his knowledge of spy planes and motorbikes, inventing ‘distinguished philosophers’ and ‘sceptical scientists’ to demolish with his oh-so-clever arguments, convinced that his impassioned sincerity will change the world, and blissfully unaware of the ludicrous figure he cuts.

It’s a much more enjoyable book to read if you ignore Dawkins’s silly argufying and see it instead as a kind of Rabelaisian comedy, told by an essentially ludicrous narrator, with characters popping up at random moments to make a Creationist point before being hit over the head by Mr Punch’s truncheon – ‘That’s the way to do it!’ – interspersed with occasionally useful, albeit mostly out-dated, information about evolution and genetics.

Credit

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins was published by the Harvard University Press in 1986. All references are to the 1994 Penguin paperback edition.


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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)

Back in the late 1980s and 1990s there was a fashion for popular science books, and I read as many as I could, becoming better informed about the three major subjects which dominated the lists – cosmology, paleontology with an emphasis on human origins, and environmental biology.

Among them were a number of books by E.O. Wilson, particularly the brilliant Diversity of Life (1992), which gives an unparalleled sense of the wonder and diversity of the natural world, and Richard Leakey’s book, The Sixth Extinction (1995). This latter is an often quite technical account of discoveries and debates in paleontology and environmental biology which, taken together, suggest that the rate at which humanity is killing off species of animals, plants, fish and other fauna amounts to a holocaust, a global extermination, which ranks with the other Big Five mass extinction events that have punctuated the 500-million year story of life on earth – hence the title.

Now, 20 years later, comes a book with the same title by American journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. I was interested to compare the books, not only in terms of what’s changed in our understanding and the plight of nature, but in style and approach.

The situation’s got worse, of course. One third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water molluscs, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of reptiles and a sixth of all birds are headed towards extinction. (p.17) (The radio news today informs me that 7 honey bees have placed on the US endangered species list, as colony collapse disorder continues to decimate hives.)

Kolbert approaches the issue through thirteen chapters, each devoted to a specific species, combining its history, her personal trips and visits to museums or rainforests, along with profiles of key contributors to the history of ecology, and ideas in evolution or conservation thrown up by each story.

The chapters

Thus she opens by visiting a research institute in Panama devoted to trying to save the Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki). It explains how the fungus Batrachochrytium dendrobatadis is wiping it out, along with scores of other frog species around the world – and so the chapter introduces and explains the notion of the historic mass extinctions.

The second chapter considers discoveries in the 1700s of large bones in America and Europe, specifically of what came to be named Mammut americanum, and how it led the French naturalist George Cuvier to develop and publish a theory of species being wiped out in sudden catastrophes (in an essay published in 1812) although the term ‘catastrophist’ (someone who believes the history of life on earth is marked by long periods of stasis broken by sudden catastrophes in which entire faunas are wiped out and entire new ones replace them) wasn’t coined until 1832, by William Whewell, president of the British Geological Society.

Kolbert contrasts Cuvier’s catastrophism with the ‘uniformitarianism’ of the great geologist Charles Lyell, whose epic work on geology inspired and underpins Darwin’s thinking. It was Lyell who for the first time gave a thorough sense of the profound age of the earth and showed how it had been formed over hundreds of millions of years by slow unrelenting forces. It was this rhythm and metaphor which helped the young Darwin grope his way towards a theory that life on earth had also changed in a slow but unrelenting way due to the process he called ‘natural selection’. The key to both is a nice steady uniform speed of geological and biological processes.

We learn this in chapter three, where it is tied into the history of the great auk (Pinguinis impennis) which went extinct in the 1840s. Kolbert takes a trip to Iceland to visit a nature centre and then go by boat out to the remote island where, supposedly, the last breeding pair of great auks were caught and killed before being sold for £9. This chapter is used to point out that Darwin must have known about man-made extinctions because he witnessed them wherever he went on his epic voyage round the world in HMS Beagle (1831-36).

Chapter four tells the story of Luis Alvarez’s discovery of a layer of iridium at the geological boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods, the so-called Cretaceous–Tertiary (K-T) boundary about 66 million years ago. Along with other scientists he interpreted this as meaning that the end-Cretaceous extinction, which saw about 70% of species wiped out, was caused by an asteroid or meteorite hitting earth. This chapter recounts the fierce opposition from most paleontologists who were wedded to one form or another of Lyell and Darwin’s uniformitarianism, and so harshly criticised Alvarez’s findings when they were published in 1980. As usual, Kolbert ties this account into a trip she took with paleontologists to a secret location in New Jersey where the K-T boundary is easily accessible and where they hunt for ammonite fossils.

Chapter five explains how ‘neo-catastrophism’ has become the new orthodoxy – i.e. that long periods of uniformity punctuated by disasters, have shaped the story of life and the nature of the current biosphere. This is told via a visit to Dobb’s Lyn, a mountainside stream in Scotland in heavy rain to look for glyptolites, followed by a warm dinner at a local B&B. Here the fossil hunters accompanying Kolbert explain the history of the term ‘Anthropocene’, first suggested in 2000 and now widely used.

Just as organisms are divided into kingdoms, phyla, families, genera and species, so geologists divide the entire history of the earth into eons, themselves divided into eras, which are in turn divided into periods, epochs and ages. Thus we are in the the Phanerozoic Eon, which dates from the beginning of multicellular life some 530 million years ago. This eon is divided into three eras: the Paleozoic Era, the Mesozoic Era and the Cenozoic Era, where ‘zoe’ is Greek for ‘life’ and paleo means old (Old Life Era), meso means ‘middle (Middle Life era) and ceno is from ‘koinos’ which means new = new life era.

Each of these eras is sub-divided into periods: the Paleozoic into the Cambrian Period, Ordovician Period, Silurian Period, Devonian Period, Carboniferous Period and Permian Period; the Mesozoic into the Triassic Period, Jurassic Period and Cretaceous Period; and the Cenozoic Era into the Paleogene Period, the Neogene Period and the Quaternary Period. And these periods are further divided into epochs: thus the most recent period, the Quaternary Period, is sub-divided into the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, the Pleistocene dated 3 million years ago to around 13,000 years ago i.e. until the end of the last ice age; the Holocene dating from around 13,000 years ago to the present day.

Over the last twenty years or so there have been growing calls from some biologists, paleontologists and archaeologists to define the epoch we’re living in as a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene epoch, because human interaction with the environment is creating unprecedented changes to the entire planet.

I already knew from books and articles about the calls for our age to be named the Anthropocene – but I had never properly processed the full implications of the fact that, not only are we driving species instinct at an unprecedented rate now, in the present – but that all future life on earth will only be able to evolve and cope with changing conditions, from the smaller and smaller and smaller starting base that we are creating. It is not just the present or our children’s world that we are diminishing – but all future possibilities for life on the planet – forever.

Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will be forever closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy. (p.269)

I had never grasped the deep historical implications of our greed and arrogance and destructiveness.

Chapter six records Kolbert’s trip to Kastello Aragonese, an islet near Ischia. The island is home to volcanic vents which release a steady stream of CO2 into the sea. Kolbert meets scientists who are researching the impact of rising CO2 levels in seawater: basically it prevents calcifiers, that is all animals which create shells, from being able to do so – starfish, barnacles, clams, oysters, and scores of thousands of other species. Never in the history of the Earth has so much CO2 been injected into the oceans so quickly. Sea life hasn’t time to adapt.

Chapter seven takes this forward via a trip to One Tree Island off the Great Barrier Reef. Here, in a rough and ready research centre, she meets an international team of scientists who say the future for all coral reefs in the world, and all the species they support is ‘grim’. By 2050 they may all be dead. The Chief Scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science has said, that he is

‘utterly humbled to have spent the most productive scientific years of my life around the rich wonders of the underwater world, and utterly convinced that they will not be there for my children’s children.’ (quoted p.138)

She times her trip to observe the wonderful and weird sight of the annual ‘spawning’ of the corals. How many more years will it take place?

Chapter eight takes us to the rainforest of Manú National Park in southeastern Peru where scientist Miles Silman shows Kolbert around the 17 plots, each at a different altitude, which he and his assistants have marked out to explore different tropical communities. They were laid out in 2003. It incorporates the research done by Chris Thomas and colleagues from York Uni which estimate that, with worst case rates of global warming, up to 33% of Earth’s species will be exterminated. Back in Silman’s forest, Kolbert describes their research which shows that, as the climate warms up, species are in fact moving up mountains slopes to continue living in the temperature ranges they’re used to. But only so many species can even move (trees are not so mobile) and not many have mountain slopes to move up, but the real killer is speed – scientists think previous changes occurred over millions of years; we are changing the Earth’s climate in a matter of decades.

One of the defining features of the Anthropocene is that the world is changing in ways that compel species to move, and another is that it’s changing in ways that create barriers – roads, clear-cuts, cities – that prevent them from doing so. (p.189)

Chapter nine sees her in the Amazon, visiting some of the squares of rainforest left standing among areas decimated for farmland, as an ongoing scientific experiment. Lots of numbers. There are about 130 million square kilometres of land which are ice free. Of this around 70 million have been drastically remodelled by man; of the remaining 60 million three-fifths is forest. (Another study, by Erle Ellis and Navin Ramankutty divides the world’s surface into 18 ‘anthromes’, or types of human land-use, which says that 100 million have been altered by human hand, leaving 30 million of wildlands – Siberia, northern Canada, the Sahara, Gobi, central Australian desert.)

Kolbert is taken into the rainforest by her hosts to look for birds, incidentally observing the mad profusion of trees, plants and insects, including a huge column of soldier ants (learning that up to 300 species of animals are dependent on soldier ants and the changes they create). At the base she meets Tom Lovejoy, now in his 70s, credited with putting the phrase ‘biological diversity’ into circulation.

Chapter ten The separation of ecosystems on different continents, islands, archipelagos etc has been one of the key drivers of speciation i.e. diversity. Man began to mess that up with his ocean going journeys from about 2,000 years ago as humans sailed out across the Pacific islands, with the Maori arriving 1,000 years ago in New Zealand and devastating its wildlife. But the real ecological mixing began in the Age of Discovery, which was kicked off when Magellan sailed round the world and Columbus discovered America – the introduction of thousands of Old World species to the New World is now referred to as the ‘Columbian Exchange’.

Nowadays human transports are criss-crossing the globe in mind-boggling volumes, transporting flora, fauna and diseases to every last nook and cranny. Kolbert quotes the estimate that in any given 24 hour period some 10,000 species are being moved around the planet just in ships’ ballast water. So it’s no surprise that diseases once restricted to tiny parts of the world can now travel widely, for example the disease killing off the Panamanian frogs we met in chapter one, and the fungus killing bats in Massachusetts – white-nose syndrome – which we meet here. She follows the catastrophic decline in bat populations in Vermont which have collapsed since the fungus was first identified in 2007. In less than a decade bats have gone from flourishing to endangered, and will probably go extinct in the next decade.

Chapter eleven A visit to see Suci, a captive Sumatran rhinoceros at Cincinnati zoo, is the peg for a review of the catastrophic decline of big mammals (elephants, rhinos, lions, tigers, pandas) over the last century. This leads on to a visit to Big Bone Lick, where 19th century naturalists found fossils and bones of huge animals which once roamed North America but which were completely extinct by the 1800s.

It was American ecologist Paul Martin who popularised the Overkill Hypothesis, which is that megafaunas were hunted to extinction wherever prehistoric man went – in Australia 40,000 years ago, in America from 13,000 years ago, in New Zealand 700 years ago and so on. Kolbert presents the counter-arguments of scientists who are not convinced that handfuls of technologically primitive peoples could wipe out entire continents full of big dangerous animals; and then the counter-counter arguments educed from mathematical models, which show that, given enough time, even killing only one big beast a month could wipe out entire species in a few hundred years – which is what appears to have happened.

The conclusion of this line of thinking is that man has never lived in harmony with nature but has massacred large animals and triggered major ecological change wherever he has gone.

Chapter twelve Kolbert visits the centre in the Neander Valley in Germany where Neanderthal Man was discovered (though the cliffs and cave where he were discovered were long ago demolished for construction material). Neanderthal man (Homo neanderathlensis) existed as a branch of the Homo genus for at least 10,000 years from 130,000 to 30,000 years ago. All the evidence is that, wherever populations of the more ‘advanced’ Homo sapiens appeared, Neanderthal man soon after disappeared. As Chris Stringer discusses in his book, The Origin of Our Species, was he pushed or did he jump? Was it environmental change which did for the Neanderthals or some form of warfare with our ancestors or both which led to his extinction?

The chapter is titled ‘the madness gene’ because one scientist contrasts Neanderthals with Homo sapiens – particularly in regard to adventurousness. As far as we can tell Neanderthals made the same stone tools without any development or improvement for 100,000 years, whereas modern man’s culture evolved quickly. The cave paintings in the Dordogne region of France were made by modern man, whereas nothing comparable exists for Neanderthals. Above all, modern man spread far and wide, and the ‘madness’ idea comes in when you consider the urge, the adventurousness, the recklessness of the peoples who set off in primitive ships 2,000 years ago into the vast empty seas of the Pacific with no maps and no guides and no certainty of finding anything but ended up populating Hawaii and all the other Pacific islands, thousands of miles from the mainland. What is that if not reckless adventurism bordering on madness!

Chapter thirteen features the last trip, to San Diego Zoo which has a facility for deep freezing remains of nearly or extinct species – nicknamed the Frozen Zoo. Kolbert views vials full of deep frozen organic matter from various defunct species and wonders – is this what it will come to, will thousands and thousands of life forms survive only as sketches, photos and tubes of frozen gunk? And the reader who has followed her this far on her deeply depressing journey is forced to answer, Yes.

She pays lip service to the good intentions of the millions of nice people who support the Worldwide Fund for Nature or the National Wildlife Federation or the Wildlife Conservation Society or the African Wildlife Foundation and so on and so on. In this she makes what I regard as the classic liberal error of believing most people are like her, or us, educated middle-class, concerned, white people. As the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote in Britain should have shown these kind-hearted liberals – most people are not like them. Most people in the West did not go to private school or attend university and didn’t study the humanities and don’t work in white collar professional jobs. Many are struggling to put food on the table or keep a roof over their heads.

And that’s without going further afield into the Developing World where the majority of the population lives in dire poverty, without access to clean water, sewage facilities or nourishing food, and don’t give a damn about the future of the Panamanian frog or the greater mouse-eared bat or the black-faced honeycreeper, let alone the thousands of insect and plant and fungi species Kolbert’s scientists are so concerned about.

There is no great conclusion. Read it and weep. In the book’s last pages she gives a few token reasons for hope and briefly references those sad people who think it will all be OK in the end because humankind can always go off and colonise the moon, or Mars, or other solar systems. Right. She doesn’t even comment on such expensive fatuousness. a) All attempts to live in artificial atmospheres or biomes have failed because we underestimate the complexity of the ecosystem which keeps us alive. b) We can’t even run this planet, what gives anyone the idea we’d do better somewhere else. c) Are we all leaving for Mars, then? All 7 billion of us?

Words and ideas

  • Hibernacula – a place (cave, mineshaft) where creatures seek sanctuary from the winter, often to hibernate.
  • The Latitudinal Diversity Gradient – the closer to the Tropics, the more species are found in ecosystems, thus the tropical rainforest is the most varied and densely speciated environment on earth. There are some thirty different theories why this might be. The Latitudinal Diversity Gradient
  • Psychrophile – a cold-loving fungus.
  • The Signor-Lipps effect – since the fossil record of organisms is generally incomplete, this makes it hard to be confident about the ends or beginnings of taxa or families. In practice it makes what may have been sudden extinction events look long drawn out. The Signor-Lipps effect
  • The Species-Area relationship – the larger an area you sample, the more species you find. The Species-Area relationship

Summary

At first I thought it was a gimmick that each chapter focuses on one particular species and goes to one particular location (sometimes two) where she meets one or more scientists working on a particular aspect of the massive issues raised.

But after a while I realised how cleverly Kolbert was dovetailing into each chapter not only snapshots of current research, but also key moments in the history of the discipline, going back to explain the early theories of a Cuvier or Lamarck, a Darwin or Humboldt, to give her reporting a historical dimension and to explain how theories about life on earth arose and have developed over the past century or two.

And I ended up respecting and admiring the skill with which the narrative moves forward on these multiple levels at the same time – all leavened with a dry American sense of humour and an eye for evocative similes (the thin layers of slate at the K-T boundary which she is shown how to handle, fall apart like the pages of an old book; stroking the tough hide of Suci the rhino is like running your hand over tree bark, and so on.)

If you’re new to the subject, this is an excellent, very readable, fascinating, wide-ranging and first-hand account of work going on all around the world. That said, most of us are by now very familiar with this subject. And all of us know in our hearts that things will only get a lot, lot worse.


Credit

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 2014. All quotes and references are to the 2015 paperback edition.

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Psychology

The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper (1823)

“I never read a book in my life,” said Leatherstocking; “and how should a man who has lived in towns and schools know anything about the wonders of the woods?”
(Chapter XXVI)

The Pioneers is the first of Cooper’s five ‘Leatherstocking’ novels, so-called because the hero – the tough tall, wizened frontiersman Nathaniel Bumppo – counts ‘Leatherstocking’ among his many nicknames (he’s also known as ‘Hawkeye’, ‘the Deerslayer’ and many others).

Cooper is generally reckoned to be the first notable American novelist. He’s credited with adapting the sprawling historical novel pioneered in Britain by Walter Scott (Scott’s first novel, Waverley, was published in 1814, so he was a big contemporary influence) to the American scene – both the distinctively American social scene (like the small, brand-new settlement deep in upstate New York which is the setting of The Pioneers) and the American physical scenery, in this case the huge untamed forest north-west of New York City.

The sub-title of the book is ‘The Sources of the Susquehanna; a Descriptive Tale’. The first part tells us of the location, and the second part accurately summarises the text: it is highly descriptive of this specific landscape.

Cooper knew it well. His father, William Cooper, bought an extensive tract of land – which became known as the Cooper Patent – in 1785 from Colonel George Croghan, former Deputy to Sir William Johnson, British Superintendent of Indian Affairs (who I’ve been reading about in histories of the Seven Years War).

Cooper Senior founded a village on Otsego Lake which, with dazzling originality, he named Cooperstown. It was laid out by a local architect and is still there to this day. William went on to become a judge and then Congressman for the district. He married and had twelve children, most of whom died young. James Fenimore was the 11th.

The plot

The Pioneers opens with a judge – Marmaduke Temple – returning by sledge through the deep Christmas snow of the mountains. He has been to collect his young, marriageable daughter Elizabeth from school in New York, and is returning to the town he has founded, Templeton, laid out by a local architect.

In the opening scenes judge and daughter come across the ageing frontiersman, Leatherstocking, out hunting with a good-looking assistant. The judge takes a pot shot at a deer which runs nearby but accidentally wounds the young man who is with Leatherstocking. Appalled at his own clumsiness, the judge offers the young man a ride into the little settlement and medical attention from the local sawbones.

Thus is set in train an essentially light-hearted love story between the judge’s daughter and the shy but thrillingly competent young woodsman, all set against a series of vivid scenes involving the broadly comic characters who inhabit the village. The focus on village life and village ‘types’ reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s early humorous novel, Under The Greenwood Tree.

Comedy, at first…

I was surprised how comic this novel is, how tongue in cheek, right from the start. The long description of Templeton dwells on the preposterous pretentiousness of the colonial architecture, which in fact becomes a recurring joke – the so-called church is modelled by its pretentious architect on St Paul’s cathedral in London but ends up looking like a vinegar pot.

The sledge that comes out from the village to meet the judge is driven by this same preening architect, Richard Jones, who quickly shows himself to be a blustering nincompoop when he nearly tips the sledge over a cliff and then manages to overturn it, sending the distinguished men of the settlement he’d brought along – a stage Frenchman Monsieur le Quoi and a stage German immigrant (‘Donner und blitzen, Richart!’) – flying head first into the snow.

The physical comedy in the snow reminded me of the skating scenes in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (1836).

Similarly, the Christmas Eve sermon is an opportunity for satire on the mismatch between the formal approach to worship taken the Episcopalian minister, Mr Grant, and his mostly non-conformist or Dissenting flock who refuse to kneel or stand at the relevant Anglican prompts, being used to more informal style. (This is an element which modern readers probably could do with explanatory notes about.)

And the doctor called in to treat the wounded frontiersman, Elnathan Todd, is a masterpiece of fraudulent fakery. Cooper gives us his entire life story and ‘career’ to show just what a fraud he is as he pretends to know how to perform surgery or anything at all about the brightly coloured liquids he keeps in his impressive medicine chest. As we get to know them, we realise that most of the men of the town are pious frauds:

  • Jones the pretentious architect continually boasting about his hunting and shooting skills
  • Dr Todd referring to non-existent medical routines or bragging about procedures he has never carried out
  • Mr Lippet, the village attorney, using inaccurate Latin tags to bamboozle the ordinary villagers with his ‘learning’
  • Judge Temple’s ‘major-domo’ or general assistant, Benjamin Penguillan, a squat Cornishmen who ran away to sea in his youth and absolutely every time he is called on to say anything lards his speech with incomprehensible naval metaphors. Here he is explaining how he’s disabled a padlock:

“I have just drove a nail into a berth alongside of this here bolt, as a stopper, d’ye see, so that Master Doo-but-little can’t be running in and breezing up another fight atwixt us: for, to my account, there’ll be but a han-yan with me soon, seeing that they’ll mulct me of my Spaniards, all the same as if I’d over-flogged the lubber. Throw your ship into the wind, and lay by for a small matter, will ye? and I’ll soon clear a passage.” (Chapter XXXV)

It is Dad’s Army, Last of the Summer Wine, a whimsical portrait of the foibles of village life which just happens – disconcertingly – to include slaves and Red Indians.

The Turkey Shoot by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1857)

The Turkey Shoot by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1857) featuring from left to right: the old Mohican warrior Chingachgook, handsome young Oliver Edwards, the black slave Agamemnon kneeling, the heroine, raven-tressed Elizabeth Temple in a scarlet dress, her father Judge Marmaduke Temple in a black top hat, some village boys behind Hector the hunting dog, and Nathaniel Bumppo aka Leatherstocking, wearing his leather stockings and handling his powder pouch.

And so the gentle love affair between Oliver Edwards and young Elizabeth meanders on for 400 or so sweet-tempered and amusing pages (all of Cooper’s novels are long) through a succession of scenes – the sermon on Christmas Eve, the turkey shoot, the pigeon shoot, the fishing net scene.

We learn that Edwards, despite his good education, is in fact half-Indian, which explains his preference for the company of Leatherstocking and his old Indian friend, Chingachgook. When Edwards is offered the job of secretary to Judge Temple he takes it only reluctantly because it means being inside not out in the woods – but it does bring him into daily contact with pretty young Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is, of course, intrigued and attracted by Edwards, while he, used to the Great Outdoors, is ashamed to be placed in such a domestic situation.

A complication, like a secondary theme in a symphony, is that the new Anglican preacher, Mr Grant, also has a pretty young daughter, Louisa. She ends up staying at the Temple Mansion and in fact sleeping in the same bed as Elizabeth, so that the two young ladies are permanently in each others’ company. They go walking arm in arm through Templeton and the woods, thus witnessing many of the colourful scenes which Cooper depicts – and so the two young ladies become gentle rivals for young Mr Edwards’s attentions.

Stereotypes

Of course many of the characters, including the womenfolk and the Native Americans, are stereotypes. For example, here is Judge Temple’s housekeeper (given the strikingly Puritan name of Remarkable Pettibone) watching fair young Elizabeth take off her thick winter clothes.

The housekeeper felt a little appalled, when, after cloaks, coats, shawls, and socks had been taken off in succession, the large black hood was removed, and the dark ringlets, shining like the raven’s wing, fell from her head, and left the sweet but commanding features of the young lady exposed to view. Nothing could be fairer and more spotless than the forehead of Elizabeth, and preserve the appearance of life and health. Her nose would have been called Grecian, but for a softly rounded swell, that gave in character to the feature what it lost in beauty. Her mouth, at first sight, seemed only made for love; but, the instant that its muscles moved, every expression that womanly dignity could utter played around it with the flexibility of female grace. It spoke not only to the ear, but to the eye. So much, added to a form of exquisite proportions, rather full and rounded for her years, and of the tallest medium height, she inherited from her mother. Even the color of her eye, the arched brows, and the long silken lashes, came from the same source; but its expression was her father’s. Inert and composed, it was soft, benevolent, and attractive; but it could be roused, and that without much difficulty. At such moments it was still beautiful, though it was a little severe. As the last shawl fell aside, and she stood dressed in a rich blue riding-habit, that fitted her form with the nicest exactness; her cheeks burning with roses, that bloomed the richer for the heat of the hall, and her eyes lightly suffused with moisture that rendered their ordinary beauty more dazzling, and with every feature of her speaking countenance illuminated by the lights that flared around her. (The Pioneers chapter 5)

This extremely stereotyped ideal of female beauty remind us that the book was written in the early 1820s, only a few years after the Battle of Waterloo, in Shelley’s last year, before Beethoven completed his Ninth Symphony or Schubert began his Unfinished Symphony.

In other words, it is, in cultural terms, an enormously long time ago. The wonder is not, then, that it contains attitudes or comments which we, 200 years later, find questionable – it is that so much of it is still recognisably humorous and sweetly romantic.

The combination of broad comedy with a romanticised love affair reminds me more of opera than of a novel, maybe of the contemporary operas of the Italian Bel Canto school, Rossini and Bellini and Donizetti. Despite being Italian, these three turned several of Walter Scott’s Highland novels into operas. My favourite is the Elixir of Love, admittedly from ten years after The Pioneers (1832), but it gives a sense of the yearning, romantic sentimentality which was widely current at the time, and which was considered the appropriate artistic sentiment for cultivated listeners and readers.

Scenic descriptions

This, like all the Leatherstocking novels, is studded with extended lyrical descriptions of the landscape of northern New York state, along the Hudson and Susquehanna rivers and up into the Catskill Mountains. The hero, Leatherstocking, gives a description of the most beautiful place he knows, a passage which has subsequently become famous.

“There’s a fall in the hills, where the water of two little ponds that lie near each other breaks out of their bounds, and runs over the rocks into the valley. The stream is, maybe, such a one as would turn a mill, if so useless a thing was wanted in the wilderness. But that hand that made that `Leap’ never made a mill! There the water comes crooking and winding among the rocks, first so slow that a trout could swim in it, and then starting and running like a creater that wanted to make a far spring, till it gets to where the mountain divides, like the cleft hoof of a deer, leaving a deep hollow for the brook to tumble into. The first pitch is nigh two hundred feet, and the water looks like flakes of driven snow, afore it touches the bottom; and there the stream gathers together again for a new start, and maybe flutters over fifty feet of flat-rock, before it falls for another hundred, when it jumps about from shelf to shelf, first turning this-away and then turning that-away, striving to get out of the hollow, till it finally comes to the plain…. There has that little stream of water been playing among them hills, since He made the world, and not a dozen white men have ever laid eyes on it…. To my judgment…it’s the best piece of work that I’ve met with in the woods; and none know how often the hand of God is seen in the wilderness, but them that rove it for a man’s life.” (Chapter XXVI)

The very lyrical descriptions of this vast and picturesque New York state landscape depicted in the Leatherstocking novels inspired New York city painters to venture up the rivers and paint the scenes they encountered.

Within a few years of The Pioneers being published this had given rise to what became known as The Hudson River school of artists, who combined realistic detail with an overall romanticisation of the landscape, often infused with a Transcendentalist sense of the immanence of God in nature. The painter Thomas Cole is generally credited with being the first to paint this stunning scenery.

A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning by Thomas Cole (c. 1844)

A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning by Thomas Cole (c. 1844)

Cooper as early environmentalist

But this lyricism is endangered. Both Leatherstocking and the old Indian Chingachgook, or Indian John as he’s known in this book, are painted as being in the sere of life: Leatherstocking says he’s in his 71st year in chapter XXXIV and the Indian (‘past seventy’ in chapter XXXVII) feels as weak ‘as a squaw’.

They both remember their high times before the French and Indian War 1754-63, i.e. some 40 years earlier.

And not only are they old, but they feel that their way of life is coming to an end. Chingachgook routinely laments that all his tribe are gone to the Great Spirit in the sky:

“Why should Mohegan go?” returned the Indian, gloomily. “He has seen the days of an eagle, and his eye grows dim He looks on the valley; he looks on the water; he looks in the hunting-grounds—but he sees no Delawares. Every one has a white skin. My fathers say, from the far-off land, Come. My women, my young warriors, my tribe, say, Come. The Great Spirit says, Come. Let Mohegan die.” (Chapter XXXVIII)

And we rarely meet Leatherstocking – in the alehouse, at the turkey shoot, in his cabin – but he is lamenting the way the formerly wild countryside is being cleared and settled. A man used to be able to roam and hunt everywhere: now clearings and roads are breaking up the forest and fences block a man at every turn.

So Leatherstocking’s rather sad speeches are all-too-often laments for the spoliation of the spectacular American wilderness. Modern scholars pick on this as one of the central themes of the novel and it’s led critics to call it the first American environmentalist novel. If you google James+Fenimore+Cooper+environment you’ll get a surprising number of essays and articles expanding on this theme that Cooper was one of the first environmentalists.

“The wastefulness of the settlers with the noble trees of this country is shocking, Monsieur Le Quoi… like all the other treasures of the wilderness, they already begin to disappear before the wasteful extravagance of man.”

And it isn’t just Leatherstocking. Judge Temple, although a land speculator who is an apostle of settlement, having laid out Templetown in the logical grid structure so familiar from American towns and cities, is presented as being uneasily aware that the new arrivals must live with nature, not despoil her. In the middle of the novel there is a series of scenes whose main point seems to be to demonstrate the wastefulness of the settlers:

In chapter XXII we see them assemble for a mass shooting of the passenger pigeons which migrate over the town and nearby lake every spring: the settlers fire up into the sky thick with birds, massacring far more than they need.

The Judge and Elizabeth come across the rough woodsman Billy Kirby making sugar from maple tree sap but are horrified that instead of making discreet cuts in the bark he has slashed right across the base of all the trees, causing them to die. The judge says there’s a limited supply; Billy laughs, saying there’s an endless supply.

“Really, it behooves the owner of woods so extensive as mine, to be cautious what example he sets his people, who are already felling the forests, as if no end could be found to their treasures, nor any limits to their extent. If we go on in this way, twenty years hence, we shall want fuel.” (Chapter IX)

Then in chapter XXIII the judge and Elizabeth (and Louisa and Oliver) witness the spring trawl of the lake where the villagers combine to pull a vast net across the lake and net thousands of fish up onto the pebbly beach; again, many more than they can possibly eat; most will go to waste, as Leatherstocking observes when, in a haunting scene, he comes canoeing over the lake to observe the scene.

“No, no, Judge,” returned Natty, his tall figure stalking over the narrow beach, and ascending to the little grassy bottom where the fish were laid in piles; “I eat of no man’s wasty ways. I strike my spear into the eels or the trout, when I crave the creatur’; but I wouldn’t be helping to such a sinful kind of fishing for the best rifle that was ever brought out from the old countries. If they had fur, like the beaver, or you could tan their hides, like a buck, something might be said in favor of taking them by the thousand with your nets; but as God made them for man’s food, and for no other disarnable reason, I call it sinful and wasty to catch more than can be eat.”

In each of these scenes the judge both takes part but is simultaneously appalled. And not just him – Elizabeth, as a representative of tender ‘feminine’ sensibility, is also aware in her own way that her father’s projects and town planning are eliminating wildness.

“The enterprise of Judge Temple is taming the very forests!” exclaimed Elizabeth, throwing off the covering, and partly rising in the bed. “How rapidly is civilization treading on the foot of Nature!” (Chapter XIX)

Against these sensitive souls is set the preposterously confident Richard Jones, along with various hicks and rednecks like Billy Kirby voicing redneck, chop-it-down beliefs.

The sensitive party has all the best lines, and there are enough scenes where this nature concern is voiced to have given Cooper his reputation; but in fictional terms maybe what is most notable is that the concern is fully dramatised i.e. the opposing argument is given its say and its representatives: the world is bounteous and we are given God’s permission to use it, to feed ourselves and our children, to grow our society. Billy and Richard get their say as much as the judge and his sensitive daughter.

The story

After these picturesque-cum-ecological scenes, the second half of the novel develops a plot which escalates in speed and incident.

At first it appears to be a two-pronged attack on Leatherstocking. On the one hand, the preposterous Richard Jones becomes convinced that Leatherstocking and Chingachgook are hiding an illegal silver mine, digging into the back of a remote cave up on the mountain and bringing their finds to his woodland hut – which is why Leatherstocking’s so wary of letting anyone enter it. The second attack is led by the scheming lawyer, Hiram Doolittle, when he discovers that Leatherstocking, in his innocence, has killed a deer in the ‘out’ season, contrary to a law recently passed by Judge Temple.

This is all swiftly followed by a dramatic scene in which Leatherstocking comes across Elizabeth and Louisa, out for a quiet stroll in the woods with their dog, when they’re menaced by a wild panther/mountain lion, and her cub, which first kills their pet mastiff and is then turning its attention to the helpless maidens – when our hero emerges from the woods and shoots it dead. This scene in particular inspired a number of contemporary American painters.

Leatherstocking Kills the Panther by George Loring Brown (1834)

Leatherstocking Kills the Panther by George Loring Brown (1834)

Quite a flurry of incidents! As Richard (who’s been away for two days) comments, upon hearing all this from Benjamin Pump:

“What the devil has got into you all? More things have happened within the last thirty-six hours than in the preceding six months.” (Chapter XXXII)

When the judge hears all this information, he is placed in a quandary – Leatherstocking has clearly broken the law, is possibly involved in illegal mining – but has saved his daughter’s life! Also there is not a lot of love lost between the pair, as Leatherstocking has always been a critic harping on how the judge’s land management is destroying the wilderness.

The judge has to be seen to be above personal concerns and so signs a warrant for Hiram Doolittle to search Leatherstocking’s hut in the woods. Leatherstocking reacts badly to having his privacy invaded and picks the oily lawyer up and throws him down the hillside (not seriously hurting him), but unfortunately turning something the judge could have turned a blind eye to, into a case of assaulting an officer of the law.

Leatherstocking tried This all leads up to a court case in front of a jury of villagers, in which Leatherstocking epitomises the spirit of natural honesty and fair-dealing dragged into the mazes of man-made law. As with a lot of the rest of the novel, the courtroom scenes are broadly comic, with much satire of the prosecuting advocate, but Leatherstocking can’t evade the law and is sentenced to sit in the stocks for an hour and then do a month in prison. Earlier in the novel – in the net fishing scene – we had seen Leatherstocking save the life of Benjamin Penguillan, Richard’s major-domo. Now the ex-sailor Cornishman feels dutybound to come to his aid and volunteers to sit in the stocks along with Leatherstocking and then contrives to beat up Hiram Doolittle enough to himself be sent to the village’s little gaol.

Leatherstocking breaks out of gaol Hither come Louisa and Elizabeth, mournful maidens come to bring sustenance to the man who saved them from a horrible death, only to discover Leatherstocking has cut his way through the prison’s log walls and is about to break out with the now very drunk Benjamin. Although the guard discovers the breakout, Leatherstocking is helped by young Oliver Edwards to escape out of town and up into the hills. Before he leaves, Leatherstocking asks Eliza to do him a favour and buy two dollars worth of good gunpowder and meet him on the hill known as ‘the Vision’.

Fire on the mountainside Unfortunately, she has barely arrived at the rendezvous the next afternoon, and discovered Indian John but no Leatherstocking waiting for her, than the smoke which had been growingly obvious, becomes increasingly stifling and then young Mr Edwards bursts into the rocky ledge where Eliza and Indian are sitting to announce that the entire hillside is on fire (it is now the height of the dry summer) and the flames have almost surrounded them. a) Indian John, past seventy now, is completely resigned, indeed happy to go meet his fellow braves and family in the Happy Hunting Ground b) Oliver makes frantic efforts to save Eliza including rigging up a makeshift rope to lower her from the rocky ledge, but it isn’t long enough. When into the smoke-filled terrace bounds a frazzled Leatherstocking who quickly leads them out through the burning trees via a little known stream and marshy path, carrying the resigned-to-death Indian on his back.

Siege of the cave They arrive safe and unharmed at the cave which the suspicious villagers thought was an attempted silver mine, which now has a stockade built round the opening and a) are quickly joined by Louisa’s father, the reverend Grant who came looking for Eliza and b) by a big posse of villagers rounded up by the zealous Richard Jones and incited by the malicious Hiram Doolittle. There is an armed standoff, with Leatherstocking and Benjamin manning the barricade, and Jones, Doolittle and the enormous tree-feller Billy Kirby threatening to rush them.

Big revelation Things are teetering on the edge of becoming really violent, when the siege and all the tension which has been building up for a hundred pages is released by Oliver’s sudden action in producing the reason Leatherstocking wouldn’t let anyone enter either his hut or, now, his cave. It is because both were sanctuaries for a white-haired old man far gone in senile dementia. This old man is none other than old Major Oliver Effingham (who had been referred to by Indian John throughout the novel, rather obscurely, as ‘Fire-Eater’). Back in the day, the Delaware Indians had adopted him as one of their own and given him possession of all these lands.

His son, one Colonel Effingham, managed the land for him and took on a partner, Judge Temple, to help. When the Colonel decided to fight on the side of the British during the War of Independence he had, obviously, been defeated and the colonial government confiscated his land. The Judge then took over complete ownership and management of his defeated partner’s property. The Colonel had returned to England to claim reparation for the land lost to him, but, alas, perished in a shipwreck which, we now realise, the judge had learned about in an earlier scene, when he received a letter which made him sad (though he didn’t tell anyone the contents, which were also kept a mystery from the reader). What also made the judge sad was the thought that the Colonel’s young son must have perished with him, and so all claimants to the land.

But he didn’t. The Colonel had left his young son (Oliver) behind in Nova Scotia. When this young man set off to find his grandfather, he discovered that the latter’s loyal servant, Natty Bumppo (aka Leatherstocking) had been looking after the old man for all this time. All kinds of small mysteries are thus cleared up: this is why Chingachgook kept referring to Edwards as ‘Young Eagle’ – not because he had Indian blood, but because he was of the line of the old warrior, ‘Fire-Eater’, a purebred white man but honoured by his tribe. Oliver had joined Natty in his hut and both of them vowed to keep the Major’s presence a secret, in order to conceal his poverty and senility. This is why Leatherstocking wouldn’t let the slimy magistrate set foot in his hut, and then was prepared to defend the stockade with bloodshed, if necessary.

But now that Oliver brings his grandfather out for everyone to see the standoff ends. All conflict comes to an end, the judge orders Hiram, Richard and his men back to the village, whither they take the gaga old man in a carriage. Here the judge shows Oliver Effingham (as we now know to call him) the will he had made out which promised to leave half the Temple Patent to any surviving heir of Colonel Effingham – which means Oliver. In fact, on the spot the noble old gent hands over to Oliver half of the property. He is rich!

It’s at this point that Elizabeth feels emboldened to declare her true feelings for young Oliver (now that she knows he is a) not an Indian ‘half-breed’, b) is very rich). Seeing as the judge had made Elizabeth, his only child, heir to the other half of the Patent, everyone realises that in the fullness of time young Oliver will inherit all the land which has featured in the novel.

What a turnaround!

Very similar to the orphan-who-turns-out-to-be-the-long-lost-son-of-a-millionaire plots which fuel many of Charles Dickens’ early fictions. The novel as fairy tale. Or, as I’ve suggested earlier, with the conveniently happy ending of an essentially comic opera.

Goodbye Leatherstocking The final scene takes place some months later. Oliver and Elizabeth, now married, stroll along to Leatherstocking’s hut to find him sentimentally tending the gravestones made for both the old man and Chingachgook, who both passed away soon after the traumatic events of the fire and the siege. They’ve come for a routine chat but are horrified when Leatherstocking announces he is heading west, lighting out for the territory, going where wilderness still exists and a man isn’t plagued with the sound of trees being chopped down and clearings cut and fences built and all the rest of civilisation. They barely have time to beg him to stay before he’s on the edge of the wood, everything packed, his dogs by his side and then… gone.

Elizabeth raised her face, and saw the old hunter standing looking back for a moment, on the verge of the wood. As he caught their glances, he drew his hard hand hastily across his eyes again, waved it on high for an adieu, and, uttering a forced cry to his dogs, who were crouching at his feet, he entered the forest. This was the last they ever saw of the Leather-Stocking, whose rapid movements preceded the pursuit which Judge Temple both ordered and conducted. He had gone far toward the setting sun—the foremost in that band of pioneers who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent. (Chapter XLI)

Other points of interest

Footnotes Cooper is anxious to tell us stuff. The text is festooned with explanations. My Oxford University Press edition includes the original dedication, the 1823 preface, the 1832 introduction, the 1851 additions to the 1832 introduction and his separate 1850 introduction to the Leatherstocking tales. Also, for the 1832 edition Cooper added lots of factual notes indicated by asterisks in the text, telling us about all kinds of trivia, for example, the exact population of New York in 1832, the difference between a sled and a sleigh, the derivation of the phrase ‘Santa Claus’ or ‘Yankee’, and so on. The excess of facts makes the novel feel like it is overflowing.

Slavery had never been practiced in Quaker Pennsylvania and was dying out in New York State (as Cooper tells us in a lengthy footnote. It’s still striking that the judge has an out-and-out slave, Agamemnon (nicknamed Aggy) and a number of domestic servants who are black. That certainly doesn’t occur in Dickens or Hardy.

The reader is just as surprised when Leatherstocking is found guilty of manhandling the magistrate, and for a moment there’s the possibility he’ll be sentenced to the whipping post! The whipping post!

In the event, Judge Temple softens this to having to stand for an hour in the public stocks. Abrupt reminders that the story is set 223 years ago, in a different world.

Guns The sexist stereotyping of the women. The racist stereotyping of the native American and of the black servants and slaves. The Hudson School lyricism. The proto-environmentalism. All these themes are fully discussed in essays and articles about the book.

But I haven’t seen any comment on one of the other really obvious features which is that – everyone carries a gun, carries a gun in such a way as to create a constant undercurrent of threat.

Even at a supposedly festive occasion like the turkey shoot, the sheriff is aware that men carrying loaded weapons are getting angry and he has to defuse the situation.

And the entire plot is started by the judge accidentally shooting an innocent bystander.

Leatherstocking goes everywhere (even into church) with his gun.

I’ve read no end of American liberals pointing out the bleeding obvious fact that all the white characters’ claims for ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ are actually built on the labour of slaves and stealing the land from the native Americans.

But nowhere have I read what, for a European, is the equally prominent fact that Freedom, the kind of primal, wilderness-wandering freedom which Leatherstocking pines for – is intimately entwined with the right to bear arms.

Like the slaves and the Indians, the ubiquity of firearms is something taken for granted in the novel and, apparently, by its modern American critics – but which strikes a gunless European as disconcerting.


Related links

The Leatherstocking novels

1823 The Pioneers – The Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale
1826 The Last of the Mohicans – A Narrative of 1757
1827 The Prairie – A Tale
1840 The Pathfinder – The Inland Sea
1841 The Deerslayer – The First War Path

Walk: Cranleigh

12 May 2012

By train to Ockley in Surrey, a few stops south of Dorking. Cycled 6 miles to Cranleigh through the villages of Ewhurst and Forest Green. For the first few miles the tower of Leith Hill was continuously in sight and in the sunshine, revealed by a clearing in the trees on the ridge. Somehow comforting. St Margaret’s church, Ockley. St Peter and St Paul, Ewhurst. Cranleigh styles itself the biggest village in England. I didn’t like the high street, disfigured by all the usual chain stores, nor the leisure centre and scrappy playground at the end of a tarmac cul-de-sac. Here the 30 mile long muddy Downs Link path comes to a temporary end, obliterated by a shopping centre. But…

But walk back along the sports centre track to Knowle Lane, turn left, and in a hundred yards you come to a gap in the hedge on the right. Walk through it and this is what you see.

Knowle Park, Cranleigh

Knowle Park, Cranleigh

Knowle Park is a white Victorian mansion, built on a commanding bluff, overlooking miles of farmland to the distant North Downs, now converted into a care and retirement home. The walk skirts the edge of the grounds with magnificent views in every direction.

view of Knowle Park

view of Knowle Park

Reluctantly you leave the views behind upon joining Alfold Road, stroll along a few hundred yards before turning down a gravel drive to the impressive Utworth Manor. Through a gate into fields, across an old wooden bridge and you reach the lazy Wey and Arun canal, built in the 1810s and abandoned as long ago as 1870, lined with trees, a haven for wildflowers and a wonderful walk.

footpath beside the Wey and Arun canal

footpath beside the Wey and Arun canal

Everywhere I saw red campion, little blue germander speedwell, greater stitchwort and – a flower new to me – ground ivy. After half a mile the canal ends and becomes the dry moat for a farmhouse. You cross an ancient brick bridge decorated with lichen, and squelch through boggy fields to a fine timbered house, Great Garson.

Great Garson

Great Garson

In a pond I saw marsh marigolds and next to it red and purple orchids. The drive brings you back to Alfold road, open views of wide fields, with a little verge of bluebells, beneath an English summer sky…

view from Alford road, Cranleigh

view from Alford road, Cranleigh

…and then into bluebell woods lining Lion’s Lane, a half a mile ambling track through old woods. Across a few grassy fields belonging to Snoxhall Farm, and up steps onto the embankment which formerly carried the Cranleigh to Guildford railway. Closed in the 1960s this now forms a long straight section of the Down Links path. Half a mile of ferns and dog violets and you’re back in Cranleigh.

Cycling back to Ockley station, I was struck by this very red example of Surrey architecture, note the decorative brickwork and hanging tiles. It was not a rich man’s house, which made the effort which had clearly gone into building and decorating it all the more striking.

Surrey architecture, on the Ockley road

Surrey architecture, on the Ockley road

For photos of the flowers I saw on this walk, go to English Wild Flowers.

Walk: Albury Park

7 May 2012

Just as I stepped off the train at Clandon it started to rain. I thought I’d figured a neat short cut to Albury without quite realising it involved cycling over the North Downs. In the rain. With the wind in my face. Still it was downhill on the other side to Silent Pool, where I locked the bike and strolled through the Victorian village of Albury, all decorated brick, mock Tudor chimneys and – if you looked closely enough – wild flowers in the rain.

Forget-me-nots in Albury

Forget-me-nots in Albury

Up the hillside to the Victorian church of St Peter and St Paul. Strange how ugly Victorian churches can be. A pile of red bricks surrounded by dismal cracked flagstones, it felt like a factory or a workhouse. Reminded me of the horrible brick church in the village where I grew up, Chavey Down. And the vast empty barn of a church round the corner from me, St Thomas’s, Streatham Hill. But in the rainy churchyard there were primroses and cowslips.

Primroses in the graveyard of St Peter's church, Albury

Primroses in the graveyard of St Peter’s church Albury

Up a deep muddy country lane in the rain to Albury Warren, conifer woods at the top, then through a gate into the 150 acre grounds of Albury Park, still dominated by  its Victorian mansion, the hillside landscaped with rhododendrons, and more flowers: I saw goose grass, dog’s mercury, white dead nettle, archangel, scads of dandelions but not many bluebells.

Wood cranesbill in Albury Warren

Wood cranesbill in Albury Warren

Finally, I escaped the rain in the historic Saxon church of St Peter and St Paul. This used to be the heart of the village till the early Victorian landowner turfed the villagers out, rebuilding their village a mile to the West. That explains why modern Albury is so Victorian in feel, and explains the horrible ‘new’ Albury church he built for them. He let the original medieval church slowly decay, till it was saved and restored in the 1920s and is now open to visitors, bare empty inside, except for a rare medieval wall painting – of St Christopher – and the florid family chapel designed by Augustus Pugin.

William Oughtred was rector here for 50 years in the 17th century. Who he? The leading mathemetician of his day who invented the slide rule in 1622, introduced the ‘x’ symbol for multiplication, and was tutor to Sir Christopher Wren. All that and a sermon every Sunday!

Moreover, Robert Malthus, the man who invented the gloomy Malthusian economics which dominated Victorian England, wrote his famous book here, ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’. It’s well worth reading in order to grasp the impact it had over the entire succeeding century. It was one spur for the drafting of the Poor Laws which led to the Victorian Workhouses which Dickens so railed against, and which Albury church so balefully reminded me of.

Malthus’s impact was felt not only here but in Britain’s Imperial colonies. In his wonderful book on Kipling, Charles Allen points out that it was the insistence of the Viceroy to India, Lord Lytton, appointed by Disraeli, that doctrinaire free market and Malthusian principles were followed during the famines of the later 1870s – directly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Indians from starvation – that led to the founding of the Indian National Congress and the beginnings of the struggle for independence. Malthus hovered over all Victorian thought like the threat of nuclear annihilation dominated the later 20th century…

England has such depth, such resonance.  All this history and significance packed into a little stone building by a tiny gurgling stream (the ‘river’ Tilling). And the pretty flowers, blowing all around in the steady English rain…

Greater stitchwort, Albury Park

Greater stitchwort, Albury Park

Flowers

Every walk I try to identify one new wild flower. In the Lakes I was struck by the hosts of not-yet-flowered bluebells, their shiny green leaves like a carpet of seaweed beneath the trees; the equally long floppy bright green leaves of ramsons or wild garlic, bulging pods about to burst into ragged white flower; and the minty, toothed leaves and almost invisible flowers of dog’s mercury. Some herb robert was flowering in cracks and crannies of the dry stone walling.

And tucked into the wet nooks down by the beck were plentiful clumps of golden saxifrage, looks like a euphorbia, but the leaves are tougher, rubberier. A shy, retiring, sweet little English flower.

Golden saxifrage down by the Troutbeck in Cumbria

Golden saxifrage down by the Troutbeck in Cumbria

Windermere

10 April 2012

To Windermere in the Lake District, to the Troutbeck youth hostel, to be precise. The whole family have sailing lessons Saturday and Sunday mornings; then I spend the afternoons walking, up and round the valley to Jesus Church with its Burne-Jones east window, down to Brockhole activity centre, to the viewpoint at Orrest Head behind Windermere, and on a long one to Ambleside and back up and over Wansfell in a horizontal rain storm.

I discover that standing in freezing lake water in the morning and being pelted in the face with sleet all afternoon seems to be a perfect recipe for Man Flu.

I asked a taxi driver why there were so many Chinese everywhere, the hostel was heaving with them. He replied, It’s Beatrix Potter. In Windermere is the Beatrix Potter World Attraction (and her house is somewhere nearby) and it turns out the Chinese learn English using Beatrix Potter’s books. And so Windermere is stuffed with Chinese people all year and frequently to be seen walking round holding enormous fluffy Peter Rabbit cuddly dolls.

View over Lake Windermere

View over Lake Windermere

Nature

In flower in the back garden are crocuses and daffodils, in the front garden snowdrops, hyacinths and lesser celandines. Buds appeared overnight on the lilac tree and the flowering blackcurrant.

In wide Thornton Avenue numerous trees are decorated with delicate pink or white blossoms, already beginning to scatter like confetti on the pavements, the magnolia trees are coming into their brief, creamy bloom, and lush pinky-red cammelia flowers are burgeoning out from their dark green foliage.

In the back garden in the last few minutes I’ve seen a coal tit, some blue tits, a pied wagtail, a fat thrush preening itself, two wood pigeons canoodling on next door’s fence, a robin on the climbing frame, two striking black and sheeny-blue magpies, and a green woodpecker inquisitively poking at my overgrown lawn. All that’s missing is the sun!

Flowering blackcurrant blossom in my back garden

Flowering blackcurrant blossom in my back garden

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