Darwin’s walking stick

L0035471 Whalebone walking stick with skull pommel in ivoryWith only two posts to go to the end of Nano poblano. I am running out of steam but am also aware of the many things I have not blogged about. For example, I am a great fan of Charles Darwin and his works and I love natural history museums and i haven’t mentioned either. So, I thought I might write about Charles Darwin’s walking stick. It that seems a bit obscure, I agree it is.

My reasoning is that I would like to write about this. When I last wanted to write about an object, I wrote a post about it and it helped straighten my thoughts and allowed me to draft a poem about Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium.

The walking stick I want to write about is not the one in the picture above. Not the one with the shaft made of whalebone and the skull of ivory set with green glass eyes.That one is currently owned by The Wellcome Trust and on display in their museum. Even though the Victorians would not have been squeamish about the use of these animal products, I can only think it was an ill-conceived gift to Darwin and meant for ornamentation rather than to be useful.


The walking stick I want to write about is the one resting on Darwin’s work chair in the picture to the left (Darwin’s study in Down House, Kent).  The chair is also interesting, raised in height to accommodate Darwin’s long legs (he was about six feet tall) and fitted with wheels so he could move between his microscope, preparation table and note book with ease.

But for now I want to focus on the wooden cane. This surely is the one he used everyday when walking his Sand walk and thinking through his many ideas. It was apparently made by a man who lived close to his house in Kent (I have lost the reference for this), the greenwood coppiced locally. It has a helical groove running its length caused a vine of climber, possibly a honeysuckle, using it for support.As both plants grew together, one (the vine) restricted the growth of the cane wood (possibly hazel) forcing it grow around the unforgiving, inflexible honeysuckle.

Darwin was fascinated with the mechanisms that climbing plants use to clamber up to the sun and noticed some plants always twisted in a clockwise direction whilst other always twisted in a anticlockwise direction. He even wrote a book on the subject. Honeysuckle opted for clockwise which I think happened with his cane – if you follow the groove clockwise it gains in height.

There is a poem in there somewhere. Perhaps referencing the support given by one scientist to another. Darwin drew on a plethora of sources and an army of helpers who sent him specimens from around the world, for all his work. In On the Origin of Species he was notoriously bad at acknowledging anybody and the early editions barely contain a reference. Yet he is the one whose name survives today, rather like his cane, the honeysuckle long forgotten.



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