“Billiards drives the horrid species out of my head”

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Charles Darwin: eminent naturalist, geologist, biologist, author, and avid billiards player.
The summer is over, the vacation (mainly in SE France) is a pleasant memory, the awful backlog in my over-stuffed inbox is more or less under control if not dealt with, and life has returned to its mind-racing pace. The problems of conserving the species occupy the majority of my mind space.

Towards the end of my vacation my wife and I did something which had been on our mutual ‘to-do’ list for decades – visiting Down House. This was the home of Charles Darwin in the small and leafy village of Downe (yes, the spellings are different) 25 km south-east of London and has been maintained more or less as it was in Darwin’s days. It was a remarkable feeling being in his dining room where he entertained many of the great names of the day, and of course in his study where he thought so intensely about the dynamics of life, be it the role of earthworms, the pollination strategies of orchids, and the taxonomy of barnacles, and where he penned the dramatic text of The Origin of Species and pondered the impact it was going to have when published .

It was probably in that room that he first read the letter from Alfred Russel Wallace indicating that he was coming to the same conclusions as Darwin, a letter which prompted him to get on with publishing his many years of thoughts. "Darwin was not in good health and apart from having to have a commode in the office, we went for long walks along what he called his Sand Walk around his not insubstantial garden and grounds, used for mulling over problems he had in his writings, or teasing apart problems." It was touching to hear that his gardener had once remarked that Mr. Darwin would feel so much better if only he could find a proper job.  

My personal discovery from the visit was Darwin’s passion for billiards. He had a full-sized table set up in one of the large downstairs room and he used to play there with his butler, Joseph Parslow. Parslow later reported that his master had told him he enjoyed billiards so much because it helped to “drive the horrid species out of my head”.

I had been really ready for a break without my laptop; it’s the two-week annual treat to focus on family and fun. But there is something about the global biodiversity community which drives them to continue to think about the species they are concerned about, even when they are on holiday. Our own vacations generally take us to great biodiversity areas such as dramatic mountains with interesting range-limited plants and animals, and the promise of great walking to blow the mental cobwebs away.

I don’t read for relaxation much because there always seem to be urgent emails to read or write instead. However, during the summer I do try to read something worthwhile which will “drive the horrid species out of my head” and this summer it was Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, the novel cum quasi-autobiography which won the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize. When released in China in 2004 it became one of the country’s largest selling books, breaking all sales records. Jiang (a pen name) was sent to Inner Mongolia in the Cultural Revolution in 1967 while he was being educated at the Central Academy of Fine Art. He volunteered to work in the east of Inner Mongolia where he lived and worked with the nomadic herders for the following 11 years. While there he became obsessed with understanding wolves and their relationship with, and role in, the steppe. As the book progresses, the process of converting the steppe of the nomads to intensive uses and the accompanying elimination of the native fauna is shown to be the death knell for the grasslands. So, although it was indeed a great book to read (the description of the wolf attack on the horse herd brought shivers to my spine) it is also a book with lessons to heed about ecosystem management in the Mongolian (in the broad rather than national sense) grasslands. It is singularly relevant for some of our projects in Mongolia, where I spend quite a bit of each year, and for any project which seeks to tame and organize those vast spaces. As far as I have been able to ascertain so far there is not a Mongolian translation, nor is there one underway. This gives me ideas. It didn’t drive thoughts of species and their conservation out of my head, but it was a very satisfying.

Perhaps I should take up billiards.


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