Darwin’s Barnacles

This is a page from Darwin’s journals on which he illustrated some of the barnacles he was working on. Before coming out with his Origin of the Species, Darwin had spent the previous eight years studying barnacles, publishing two monographs on the subject in that period.

In the actual drawings, the colors pop with much more brilliance and clarity, each barnacle delicately and exquisitely drawn.  The petticoat-like, pastel-colored illustrations are so different from the connotations that the word “barnacle” brought to my mind.  I had always associated the word, “barnacle” with roughness, coarseness, ugliness, but apparently I was mistaken, for these drawings are nothing but beautiful.  I saw them at an exhibit on Darwin at the American Philosophical Society Museum in Philadelphia.  The exhibit  was entitled “Dialogs with Darwin” and it included many of Darwin’s journals, scientific specimens, artifacts, personal effects and taxidermy.  Around the ceiling of the room was stenciled the words of a letter he wrote that began “There is a grandeur in this view of life … .”

The museum requested poetry to accompany the show, poetry inspired by one or more items in the show, poems that started a “dialog” with the items displayed and what they evoked.  I was drawn to the barnacles, to his life, to the death of his daughter, and to his discovery of emotion in animals.  The poem appears below:

There is grandeur in this view of life

There is grandeur in this view of life
where Victorian petticoats parachute along an ivory sheet,
barnacles floating on a women’s fashion page,
with precious pleats and twinkling color.

There is grandeur in this view of life
where elephants weep and moan and scream,
for the death of daughters, the loss of certainty,
where joy stretches true across a small chimp’s face.

There is grandeur in this view of life
where a captain’s gentleman unpacks
his crated books, his amateur’s tools
and sails to the bottom of a burgeoning world
beneath those stars from where these tracks begin.


2 thoughts on “Darwin’s Barnacles

  1. Beautiful poem. I had no idea that Darwin studied barnacles. My son takes photos in the ocean and out of it and of hundreds of photos of animals, my favorite is an up close shot of a barnacle. Now having read your poem I feel a complete picture. I love it. Will share with my son.

    • Thank you so much. It’s been more than a year since I first saw these drawings and, I must say, I am still over-awed by them. They are brilliantly done–I have trouble drawing stick-figures!–and they are so pretty. Encourage your son. We need people like him.

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