Wearing Darwin’s Beard

After days of playing outside, my mom curiously wondered why I was so quietly content with my Strawberry Shortcake pail. I would return to the house with my hidden collections stowed away like a prize. This activity continued until one day my mother investigated and was stunned to see who I had invited into our home. “Snails!” she gasped.

A spare room, partially empty, was now inhabited by hundreds of snails. “They are happy snails,” I exclaimed, as we watched the creatures climb the walls. One by one, a snail would slide down, crashing onto the carpet below in a dewy pile of slime. Quickly, I would rush up to the baseboard and reattach the snail to the wall. “I wanted to bring them in from the rain,” I explained.

The snails streaked the flat, almond colored walls, creating glistening trails in their wake. “It sparkles,” I said, admiring my genius idea to shelter my new pets from the outside drizzle.

It was 1979 and I was almost five years old, full of green curiosity for anything that moved, especially a creepy crawly insect. I found insects in the most unexpected places. They always had an open invitation into my world, and I into theirs.

Growing up, my mother, grandmother, and I visited a few local museums. We visited the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose and my grandmother, Betty, talked about her visit to see the King Tutankhamun Exhibition, at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. My grandmother was fascinated with anything related with the Sumerians. She would write to Egyptian dignitaries and other prominent people in faraway lands. In return they would send her sand. She had a small collection of grains of grit from places she visited and from places, she could only dream about. She was a curious woman who wanted to travel to Egypt and see the Great Pyramids. Sadly, my grandmother died shortly after her trip to see the lavish gold mask of King Tut; she was only 60 years old. The trip to the exhibit is mostly forgotten, but her curiosity left behind an indelible mark on me. During my invitation to the museum, one detail stands out. I was mesmerized with an Egyptian insect, the Scarab Beetle.

I didn’t know how far away Egypt was and yet I always hoped I would find a Scarab beetle. Without my grandmother, I thought I would never see the beetle again. It was my interest in beetles that led me to the writings of Charles Darwin.

After the death of my grandmother, my mother and I moved from one temporary home to another. As my surroundings were changing, my life continued to find unobstructed adventure in a land that was becoming very planned and organized. In Silicon Valley, where we moved, urban sprawl was a hungry monster that was gobbling up much of the open space to make way for gated communities and designer parks. I found solace in nature and wonder in the world around me. With little parental supervision, my unstructured upbringing provided a lot of opportunities for risk, imagination, and daydreaming. I would climb trees and wait for my mysterious father to find me. Life had so many unanswered questions, but nature invited my thoughts and evoked a lost and found imagination that still awakens the best parts in me.

I created a map in my head of the neighborhood where I lived. I explored a labyrinth of concrete sidewalks, asphalt-jogging paths, and assigned bike trails. I dodged the sprinklers that missed the green grassy yards. The water, missing its mark, would hit the sidewalks edge, leaving a darker shade on the wet concrete. I believed the designs and the curvature of each path were designed for my skates. In search of finding a friend of any kind, I traveled many miles through most of the streets, tracking down a few creatures, only to come up with poison ivy, wriggly worms, and tired, limp moths.

In 1983 my mom rented the film Watership Down. The story of anthropomorphic rabbits, combined with the memory of my grandmother, held my thoughts like a dark plague. My perception of nature and the circle of life and death shifted greatly in my head. I began to question many things. I would wonder, where do all the snails go when the rain comes and the bulldozers move in? Where do we begin and where do we end?

Despite my love for even the smallest of living creatures, I didn’t turn to be the animal activist lying in front of huge machinery, protesting the development of a gated housing development (though I have had ill feelings for my neighbor across the street, who cut down an amazing and beautiful sycamore in my neighborhood recently, for no good reason). I didn’t turn out to be the environmentalist, lecturing a corporation committee on the perils of toxic gas emissions and its effect on the spotted moth (though, I would hold a sign in protest, if asked). I don’t even own a hybrid car (yet).

Instead, I became a parent, an advocate, a writer, and a humanist. I never grew out of my insect stage (I collect beetles), but becoming a mother returned me to my roots of green curiosity and the evolutionary process. And though I could never grow a beard, I wear the beard of Charles Darwin. And it fits my family just fine. Every year in February I join my family, friends, and even strangers as we come together and celebrate Darwin Day at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

Charles Darwin loved beetles and worms almost as much as I do. The level of curiosity he displayed, and the way in which he questioned nature and the evolution of life, is something we should all celebrate.

Darwin Day is a recognized day of celebration, abroad and in the United States, for all who recognize the importance of evolution. Although it hasn’t yet received full support in Congress, many U.S. Representatives have introduced resolutions to express support for the federal designation of an official Darwin Day to be recognized each year.

Here are six ways you can rediscover your inner Darwin roots and celebrate Darwin Day on February 12:

  1. Attend a celebratory Darwin Day event in your area. Our event is held in Washington, DC, at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The website Darwinday.org is a site with hundreds of events listed all over the world. Many of these events are held in locally accessible public places like museums, scientific halls, and art galleries. Many events are family friendly and include fun things like contests, scavenger hunts, special exhibits, and films.
  1. Prepare a potluck with “primordial soup” or Phylum Feast. Invite your friends and family and plan accordingly to add delicious foods to your feast.
  1. Wear a beard or grow one! Snap a picture with you and your “Darwin” beard. Create a new “selfie” or profile picture of yourself for Facebook. Kids can make beards too. Here is a video of our family making Charles Darwin beards—it’s super easy, and your kids will enjoy making the craft as much as they will enjoy wearing the Darwin beards they make!
  1. Spend time outside. Be curious together. Dig up worms in your backyard or look into the trees and watch for birds. You don’t have to go far to find something that is relative to Darwin’s philosophy or ideas.
  1. Read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species or a book that features Darwin’s theories. There are books for all ages. My son and I recently read Our Family Tree, How Evolution and I Came to Be, by Lisa Westberg Peters and Lauren Stringer. Pick up Little Changes by Tiffany Taylor or Older Than the Stars by Karen Fox. A unique book called Darwin and Evolution for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities is great for budding scientists!
  1. Watch a film that relates to the science of evolution or biology. The documentary The Genius of Charles Darwin and Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life are well-reviewed films that capture the essence of Darwin’s ideas. A movie about Darwin titled Creation was released in 2009 (don’t let the title scare you; read the reviews and judge it for yourself). This film came to life in order to tell the personal story of Charles Darwin, based on a book written by a distant relative through letters. If you need a science related show to quench your thirst, consider Your Inner Fish with Neil Shubin, or Cosmos (both Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s versions are great!).

Maybe your child will sprout the roots of Darwin’s beard. Curiosity is contagious, and its voice needs to revealed now more than ever. Consider returning to your curious naturalist roots and try on the beard of Darwin. You may be surprised by what you discover.