The Ancestor’s Trail
Are you free on the 19th June? Chris Jenord introduces an evolutionary walk back in time to the origin of all life on earth.
Imagine, if you will, the evolutionary tree of life, its branches bristling resplendent with countless leaves, each representing a single species of life on earth. A simple enough analogy, but there is no denying the potent truth sparkling within Darwin’s original sketchbook scribble; a truth that has changed forever our perception of who we are.
Our human “leaf” on the tree flutters beside all the rest, and so many other leaves have long since perished, or seem destined to lose their precarious hold. However, unlike every other survivor, only human beings are able to understand the full profundity, and vulnerability, of our existence. Humanity has now had more than a century to ponder this incredible truth, and still we struggle to understand and come to terms with everything this means. Last year we celebrated Darwin’s 150th anniversary. His contribution was rightly and properly recognised. But is that it? Must we now sit patiently and wait for his 200th?
It seems humanity is always up for a celebration. There already exists a super abundance of annual festivals around the world. They mark all manner of things, from steam rallies to the birth of religious deities. And yet nowhere do we find celebration of the mother of all birthdays; our shared origins with all life on earth. Why not? This simply isn’t good enough!
So how do we try to make up for this embarrassing oversight? Well, the Taunton Humanist Group, with some support from the British Humanist Association to which they are affiliated, have made efforts to establish a wholly new festival and so, it is with much excitement, that we invite you to join us in our just-a-bit belated homage to life’s remarkable 3.7 billion year journey. The Ancestor’s Trail is a pilgrimage, but a pilgrimage wholly unlike any other.
The event was inspired by Richard Dawkin’s magnificent book, The Ancestor’s Tale: a pilgrimage to the dawn of life, and, if you have not already done so, we would recommend finding the time to read this book ! It will undoubtedly hugely amplify your pilgrimage experience. Like most pilgrimages, the Ancestor’s Trail is a backwards walk. Not physically backwards, but a symbolic journey back in time, only in our case we go back further than ever before. Of course, we should not forget that it’s not just our birth story, but that of all life on earth, and consequently the event also promotes theInternational year of Biodiversity.
So how will it work? At this point you’ll need to manipulate Darwin’s evolutionary tree in your head. Lie it flat along the spine of some picturesque hills in Somerset; its branches approximately lining up with its many tributary footpaths (see our map!). Now add yourself at the end of one particular branch, representing one particular life form. As you journey from your starting point you will “rendezvous” with the walkers representing other species. These convergences represent the points at which single species original diverged to form whole new branches of the tree of life.
Your choice of life form will dictate the distance you walk. But if we walked the whole tree of life to scale then chimpanzees would meet with humans in just the first few steps! So if we are to reach our goal in a sensible time frame, each step must represent thousands or even millions of years. We decided to create three different scales over the trail. The first expands the mammalian renaissance period since the terrible climatic catastrophe that ended the reign of the dinosaurs. Here you will walk back 10,000 years every step. Beyond this point, our time travel increases by an order magnitude to 100, 000 years per stride. Finally, for the last 2.7 billion years, we increase by another order of magnitude to around a million years every stride. In this way we ensure a relatively constant procession of rendezvous throughout the trail.
The event is participatory. This is important. Indeed, it is within this collective dimension that we hope it will take on a deeper meaning. As an overwhelmingly social species, our sense of belonging strikes right to the heart of our very nature, and so, although alone we may start, together we shall gather. Eventually our symbolic re-enactment will reach its ultimate origin; the dawn of life itself.
The walk will be staged along the rolling green hills of the Quantocks (an area of outstanding natural beauty) and we are very fortunate to have nearby a fitting place to represent the origin of life; a beautiful, rugged, rocky beach called Kilve, appropriately famous for its fossils.
Given the hugely long periods of geological time involved, it seemed only fitting to choose a date close to our longest day. Consequently, for 2010, we have chosen the week end of the 19th June.
This whole project has, rather appropriately, developed a life of its own, and is now growing wings (and probably legs, fins, twigs amongst other appendages). For instance, we have just acquired an educational grant to run a school’s version of the trail at a local secondary school. A single class of students will begin a walk around their playing field representing the human race. As they walk further back in time, they will be joined by other classes representing their ancestors in a similar fashion. Each joining group will have a placard announcing their life form identity, and students walk by, teachers will flash them cards showing their current time period. At around 65 million years a large replica asteroid will be carried into the middle of the field and the children (or most of them) will be asked to lie down briefly to represent a major extinction period! Eventually the whole year group will be led into our main hall where they will be greeted by a large birthday cake with 3.7 BIG candles. The events they will have represented are, after all, a celebration of our original birthday with each candle symbolising a billion years! A small group of student dancers, trained by the Rambert Dance Company, will then provide a more artistic interpretation of evolution through dance (inspired by the Rambert piece called a ‘Comedy of Change’) and this will be followed by an explosion of rap from the evolutionary rapper Baba Brinkman. To finish up we will all sing happy birthday ‘to life’ and blow out the candles. At this point, the students will be encouraged to make a wish to preserve the wonderful biodiversity of life on earth.
We haven’t got time to tell you about our plans to create an evolutionary ‘cell’ sculpture at Kilve, or about our plans to create a permanent Ancestor’s Trail accessible all year round, but hopefully next time!
In the mean time, we are all hugely looking forward to meeting you on June 19th at Kilve.
You can find out more and register to walk at http://ancestorstrail.net.
Chris Jenord is a teacher, a member of the Taunton Humanist Group, and a keen Darwinian!