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Igms issue 15, p.7

IGMS - Issue 15, page 7


IGMS - Issue 15

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  It would be simpler, therefore, to suppose that fairies were a separate creation. After all, why should we require all creatures to be related?

  We indeed require it, for if we allow that any creature may be a separate creation, then we must allow the possibility to all creatures. How could I argue that a wolf must have descended from canid predecessors, if I cannot argue likewise for a fairy? Any opponent could simply say, "The wolf was independently created in its current form, just like a fairy." I would have no refutation for such a critique. Even those who accepted the Wolf might balk at the descent of Man from simpler progenitors, if given the excuse of the Fairy.

  My hypothesis must explain all creatures, or it explains none. Everything, or nothing. The thought burned in my mind: If this fairy truly exists, it will destroy my whole Theory. I could sleep only briefly, and kept waking in turmoil. In my dreams, I walked restlessly in a huge library, with a green figure fluttering bat-like above me; and wherever it brushed the shelves, the books crumbled to dust.

  If the creature should prove authentic, I would have to write to Murray and ask him to halt publication of Origin. All my work wasted, the labour of twenty years overthrown by a single specimen from a Yorkshire farmyard.

  You may smile at my fears that a fairy could exist. Yet seeing such a specimen might be my punishment for the sin of pride. If I profess to know the Origin of Species, might not God rebuke my presumption by sending a creature that my Theory cannot explain?

  I tried to comfort myself by reflecting that the creature would most probably be something commonplace, or at least explicable. I grew happier for a few moments, until I realised that I had fallen into a far worse cast of mind.

  No true philosopher fears the evidence. Does any naturalist ever wish not to discover a rare specimen?

  If I could authenticate a Fairy, that would be an achievement as great as the discovery of innumerable species in the Antipodes. The perplexity of folklore would be resolved. Our knowledge of Nature would still advance, albeit in another direction -- away from my cherished Theory.

  And if the Fairies were established to be a separate race, then this would show the direct handiwork of the Lord. Our most eminent divines would speculate upon their spiritual status: they might even be considered as an Unfallen race, living in harmonious relations with nature, in contrast to Man. "And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree . . . cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread . . ." Yet we see that Fairies do not plough nor reap; they are reported to dance far more than they labour.

  The direct handiwork of the Lord, I wrote. No doubt many people -- including you, old Fox -- would find nothing surprising or untoward in that. It is a greater challenge for me. Over many years, and particularly as I became convinced that Man descended not from a recent Garden but from a much older lineage, I have grown to doubt the visible handiwork of God. And from there, it is but a short step to (as I hardly dare write) doubting God. I have not yet taken that step, but it is constantly in mind: a precipice upon which I stand, looking out into a vast void . . .

  In writing this, I rely on your strictest confidence. I would never express such sentiments in public. Any merit in one's theories is easily overlooked if opponents can attack ad hominem on the grounds of unorthodox belief. I am hardly alone in such discretion. For instance, Lyell is firmly convinced that in his Principles of Geology, he has weakened faith in the Deluge far more efficiently by never having said a word against the Bible, than if he had acted otherwise.

  And, too, I know how deeply it would distress my wife if I proclaimed myself an Atheist. Emma remains fervently devout. She is aware that my reflections have caused me to reject the literal interpretation of Genesis, but she does not (yet) suspect how far my doubt has carried me, and how much further it may lead.

  She fears for the state of my soul. I know that she prays for me.

  If evidence of God's handiwork impelled me to renounce doubt and wholeheartedly accept Christian Doctrine, then Emma would rejoice. She would be as relieved from worry as if she'd seen me saved from a sinking ship. At present, she pictures me floundering in the water, flailing further and further from land, imminently drowning yet wilfully refusing the lifeboat offered by the Church.

  And so I knew that if this Fairy proved authentic, then I should be reconciled to the Christian Faith and my wife would be so happy as to weep with it.

  When something momentous is at hand, it is natural to prefer one outcome over another. Tomorrow I would discover what kind of creature lay within Annette's barn. Either my theory would stand, or my soul would be saved.

  Yet I could not decide which result I most desired. I would settle upon the first, and feel guilty about Emma's anguish; then I would opt for the second, and regret my twenty years of lost labour.

  The dilemma grew so sharp that I even thought of offering up a prayer, begging the strength to deal with either outcome. But I did not; I own that it has been some time since I had the habit of prayer. As to the issue confronting me, I felt I should be guided by the evidence at hand -- not by a prompting that I could never be sure was the Lord's answer rather than my own base and selfish wish.

  It shouldn't matter what kind of wishes -- if any -- filled my heart when I examined the creature. Yet our desires and preconceptions may shape what we see, and what we conclude. All geologists see the same Earth, but some infer a swift Flood while others deduce slow changes over immense time.

  I spent such a restless night that my aches magnified themselves, undoing all benefit from the Hydropathy, and the following morning I broke fast in a state of ill humour quite unlike my usual anticipation before field excursions.

  When Annette arrived, I was surprised to see that she had come alone. "Perhaps your aunt might prefer that a chaperone accompany us?" I suggested. I was not sure who might serve that role, since Mrs. Danzig looked too ill to undertake country walks.

  "I thought you were married, Mr. Darwin."

  "I am. It's your reputation I would preserve, unless you are unconcerned about being seen walking away with a stranger."

  She laughed it off. "I have no reputation to protect!" Then she gave me a wary glance and said, "I only mean that I'm a farm girl, not a fine lady on an Estate. I assure you I don't take a chaperone when I walk up with the shepherd to help get the sheep in."

  Thus rebuked, I pressed no further on the topic, and we set out. As a veteran of many expeditions, I had known to wear my most robust clothes and boots, of which I was soon glad when we turned onto a muddy track at the bottom of the Moor. To our right, cattle and sheep occupied green pastures divided by dry-stone walls stretching down to the River Wharfe. To our left, the moor rose steeply, with crags jutting out between the bracken and bilberry bushes. I had arrived in Ilkley too late in the year to sample the bilberry, which I understand is a northern delicacy. (Perhaps you have it in Cheshire?)

  The weather was cold and grey, with a flinty breeze blowing through the valley. Yet as I am so often ill, or working in my study at Down, I relish any chance to get outdoors and look at the landscape. I saw that the edge of the Moor is formed of what they call gritstone, a hard coarse-grained sandstone. How many aeons must it have taken for estuary sandbanks to subside and compress into these rigid rocks! It makes the mind dizzy to contemplate.

  I have been told that there is a Roman Road running through the vicinity, and that the moor shows evidence of even earlier occupation, as the Swastika Stone and other carvings are thought to be relics of the illiterate pre-Roman inhabitants of these isles. People have lived here for thousands of years. The area feels ancient -- even the lichen-encrusted stone walls, while merely a few centuries old, contribute to the aura of antiquity hereabouts.

  But if we compare the age of Man to the age of the rocks on
which he walks, we find a difference of immense magnitude. Geologists cannot yet calculate the relative proportion, but looking at the mile-long track, and imagining it as the age of the Earth, I felt that Man could not account for more than a few steps along the way. Sandstone accretes with imperceptible slowness. Natural selection operates over myriad generations. This is the aspect of my Theory that the public will find hardest to comprehend: the enormous span of time over which species may change.

  If God is so concerned with human behaviour that he gives commandments and answers prayers, then what occupied His attention throughout all the aeons before Man arrived upon the Earth?

  As if in reproach to my thoughts, church bells began ringing in the town below.

  "Will you be attending church later?" I asked Annette, in the spirit of making conversation.

  "No, I have to feed the chickens," she said.

  We trudged onward, Annette not quite hiding her impatience at my slower pace, and she burst out, "I have to feed the chickens, collect the eggs, milk the cows, muck out the pigs, do the washing . . . It's not easy, you know. We can't all marry a rich husband, like my aunt. I scrape for every penny. Capturing this fairy was like a blessing from Heaven." Again she spoke in the tone of a verbal commonplace, rather than as if receiving an actual gift from the Lord. "What do you think such a prodigy is worth, Mr. Darwin?"

  The question did not surprise me. A pure love for natural philosophy is rarely found among folk with immediate practical concerns. "If it's genuine, I'm sure it's worth something," I replied. I would pay her from my own accounts, if necessary. "But I cannot say for sure until I have seen it."

  Yet although the question did not surprise me, it somehow disheartened me. Annette's conversation had the air of someone who cared nothing for knowledge, religion, propriety, or aught other than immediate advantage.

  I wanted to attribute this to her circumstances. If we complain about the morals of the poor, we should at least consider whether the fault lies in their morality, or in their poverty.

  But I had a darker fear. Why does the world have such a horror of Atheism? It must be because our churchmen and most of our philosophers believe that as religion stems from God, so morality stems from Religion. Therefore a world without God is a world without morality -- a world where people care for nothing beyond their own advancement.

  When I suggest that the origin of species is not the direct work of God, and when geologists do likewise for the landscape, we are accused of arguing for a world with no morals, no scruples, no higher feelings than base selfishness.

  I do not relish the thought of such a world. But I follow wherever the facts may lead.

  Our path led into a farmyard, with the usual earthy smell of such places. Chickens clucked nearby, and a grey cat surveyed us with disdainful gaze. The farmhouse appeared old but sound, built from squared-off stone. The shabbier outbuildings had irregular patched-up walls, and roofs bowing under the weight of years.

  Somewhere in one of these barns lay the creature that could save us from a Godless, empty world of meaningless strife. All of an instant, the idea struck me that perhaps it wasn't a material creature at all, but something supernatural. Perhaps it was even an angel, albeit a tiny angel.

  I only relate these thoughts to illustrate my disordered mind. Many factors had jointly reduced me to this state: working too hard on my Species book, having been forced to rush into publication; my recurring illness; then the strain of the journey North and apprehension over how my book would be received; now the mysterious Fairy and the conflicting sentiments it engendered . . .

  Annette pointed to the most distant of the barns. "I have work to be getting on with -- the cows need milking -- so you must examine the creature alone. Mind you don't let it escape!"

  I let her depart. If the purported prodigy proved genuine, I would subsequently enquire how it had been captured, whether others had been seen, what habitat and sustenance it favoured, and so forth. If it were a fraud, I would at least have spared myself listening to a lot of lies beforehand.

  She hurried to the farmhouse and emerged with a milking pail, the grey cat taking its opportunity to slip inside the kitchen door. I walked across the yard to the indicated building, an ancient hut of ramshackle stone and boarded-up windows. It might once have been a small one-room cottage for farm workers. The original hinged door had gone: the replacement door merely leaned against the outside wall. A swathe of coarse netting hung from nails hammered into the lintel. The net was an incongruous sight so far from the sea, and I wondered what use it had on the farm; perhaps there were fishponds near the river.

  I pulled aside the netting to reach the door. Before I entered, I draped the net behind me, ensuring that it blocked the entire doorway, weighting the bottom with a heavy stone. The creature might be ready to rush out, alert for any chance to flee. I slid the door aside.

  As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I distinguished a pile of hay, a stone water-trough, a stack of fence-posts, and many small pellets that looked like the droppings of rats or mice -- or the Fairy.

  Nothing stirred. I listened, but heard only distant chimes reverberating up the valley from the town below. The barn smelled old and stale and rotten. I walked carefully across the floor, peering into the shadows behind all the clutter, then up into the sagging rafters and the underside of the slate roof.

  A movement! Something emerged from within the rafters. The creature flew so fast, I caught only the barest glimpse. It made not the least sound as it alighted elsewhere in the interior. The faint noise from the valley seemed far, far away. Inside the barn the silence weighed down, as heavily as the sunken roof, and I had a sudden dreamlike dread of being crushed.

  I walked across the room toward the creature. When I approached, it took flight once more. It fluttered in front of the doorway, allowing me to estimate its wingspan as about that of a rook, although it had a proportionally larger body relative to the wings. Then it retreated to the dim crannies of the rafters.

  I had brought no butterfly-net or the like to Ilkley, not having anticipated any field expeditions, so perhaps it was no surprise that I hadn't thought to bring anything with me to this barn: not a lamp, nor a net, nor aught useful. But I berated myself nonetheless. I realised that I'd pre-judged the issue: I'd brought nothing that a naturalist might normally carry, because I had not expected to see anything. After twenty years of working on my Theory, I had become so convinced of its correctness that I assumed no contrary example could possibly exist.

  Rather as a writer on Natural Theology can point to any worldly phenomenon and find ways of relating it to God, I had -- in opposite fashion -- begun to see everything as only worldly, relating only to other creatures. I had fallen into a trap of false thinking. No: in becoming aware of it, I hadn't yet wholly succumbed. But I was falling . . .

  A wave of dizziness swept over me. As the daylight outside grew brighter -- the sun having come out -- so the interior of the hut became darker by contrast, full of shadows. A thought struck me that it would be simple to let the creature escape, thus avoiding the revelation of what it might be, and what it might imply. The temptation seemed to hang in the air before me, needing but a single step to reach out and grasp.

  No true philosopher fears the evidence.

  I resolved to look without prejudice and discover the truth, whatever it proved to be. I grasped a spare corner of the netting. Then I threw up a handful of hay and shouted, "Reveal yourself, whatever you are!" I calculated that the noise and disturbance would provoke the creature to attempt escape. If I acted swiftly enough, I could wrap it in the net and thereby capture it.

  The creature indeed emerged and flew toward the doorway. I swiftly pulled the net around, closing in on the wildly fluttering form. It struggled so much that I obtained no clear view of its structure, save that it appeared to be bipedal with owl-like wings. I thought I glimpsed a visage at first stark and stern, and then a moment later resembling the old marble statues of saints worn sm
ooth and blank by the passage of years and the rubbing of numberless hands. My mind surged with excitement at the prospect of such an intriguing specimen to examine. Soon, very soon, I would see the truth.

  Yet as I closed the net tighter, the captive's wings shrank away. As I leant inward for better examination, I found I could not discern the creature's face. The closer I looked, the less I saw. Before my astounded gaze, the creature vanished.

  Rather than "vanished", I could write that the creature "shrivelled" (if I credited a subjective impression), or "dissolved" (if I conjured a fanciful metaphor). But the subjective and the fanciful have no place in the sober record of natural science. I write "vanished" as my only definite knowledge is this: one moment, the creature was caught in the net; the next, it had utterly disappeared.

  I examined the netting, expecting to find a previously unnoticed slit in the mesh. But I could discover no fissure large enough to permit escape. And, indeed, I'd not seen anything fly away.

  If it had escaped unseen into the open air, the creature was beyond retrieval. But if it yet lurked somewhere within the barn, then perhaps it could be recaptured. Again I searched the shadowy interior. The silence was increasingly oppressive, all reverberation from the valley having ceased. The church bells had stopped ringing.

  My initial inspection found nothing. I would have continued searching, but Annette returned. "Have you finished in there?" she called. "What do you think it's worth?"

  "It's gone, I'm afraid," I said.

  "Gone?" She trembled with indignation, and I could see that if I were a small boy, I would have received a fearsome slap across the face. "How can it have gone? I told you to be careful!"

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