I started rereading Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle this weekend and was struck by how fascinated he was by botany, as much as by zoology, geology, and the natural world in general. However, I was equally if not more interested this time by the many references to disease, illness, and quarantine, which kept the H.M.S. Beagle from stopping at some ports of call during the early stages of their five year mapping journey around the world. What would the resilient, young Charles Darwin (or “Chuck D.,” as I affectionately call him) have to say about social distancing rules in the Covid-19 Era? Do the rules apply only to humans, who can transmit the flu to each other, or to other species as well, like flowering plants?
I think Chuck would marvel at the power of the coronavirus to circumnavigate the globe on such tiny, little legs and to mutate so rapidly in a matter of months. Clearly, airliners today speed around faster than sailing ships of the 1830s, even those of the celebrated British navy. He’d likely follow the basic rules of social hygiene when required, but when it came to non-human beings, like flowers, I think he would say that social distancing was part of their evolutionary makeup. While plants compete for water, soil, and light, they also cooperate and communicate with others while doing so. Even the beauty of a flower has an allure to others, who pollinate or pick it, transporting them over small or great distances from where the plants originally were rooted.
I think that social distancing, which is always in place in some ways (think of your own “comfort zone” when meeting strangers) needs to be counterbalanced by creative forms of connectivity. This is the Darwin way of seeing and interacting with the world, in a nutshell. We zoom. We meet up to video chat. We text and talk. We journal. Maybe we do so online now using WordPress rather than pen and ink, and we post images without words on Instagram rather than using clunky cameras of old, or we review places visited on Yelp rather than publish them as a guidebook, but we aren’t that different than young Darwin was in his 20s aboard the Beagle or off adventuring in the wilds of South America and the Pacific. He marveled at the sheer audacity of plant and animal life, including the parasitic ones. He understood at some inner level how the pieces fit, but he could not grasp the concept yet of deep time, the millions of years of history needed for planetary changes to be observable.
Darwin did not experience the time-space compression that we do in the early twenty-first century, and he was famously socially averse in his later years, but he knew time. He knew that life was speeding up all around him and that this recent development was responsible for moving plants and animals all around the world in weeks and months, not centuries and millennia. As for flowers, I think that a walk through a field of them in bloom would have raised Darwin’s spirits quite a bit while traveling or simply sheltering in place at his later home in Kent, England. Down House, by the way, is now open to the public for visits, including the walking path and gardens that Darwin visited daily when he needed exercise, inspiration, or simply time to relax from the rigors of the day.
Darwin knew that life ultimately is about connectivity, not distancing. There are boundaries, but these eventually are meant to be bent, if not broken. When there is too much connectivity at too intense of levels, people, plants, and animals – not to mention protozoans – will start to compete too violently, and things can reach a breaking point. And that is when dynamic, catastrophic changes are most likely to happen. Flowers, however, remind us that they can coexist without letting one type or color overlord its way on top of all the others, when the environment where they grow is healthy and balanced. Let’s see how healthy our environments really are by testing them a bit to see where rules are working and where they might need some adaptation for future events of public health emergency. Darwin may not be here to guide us, but there are voices of sanity out there, if we have the courage and bandwidth to listen. Even flowers can speak to us, if we are patient and really try to hear their voices.