Darwin's original sketchbook scribble depicted a branching tree with each of its leaves representing a species. Darwin and Wallace's explanation of how this came about changed forever our perception of who we are.
In 2009, whilst on holiday in northern Spain, I took with me a book about the Tree of Life called 'The Ancestor's Tale' by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong. One day, whilst reading beside a path in the mountains, a group of pilgrims following the Camino de Santiago came into view. In order to greet them I closed the book and, as I did, the strap line on its front cover leapt out - a pilgrimage to the dawn of life. A thought emerged. In a location blessed with many footpaths, might it be possible to create an actual pilgrimage to the dawn of life by aligning the branches on this great tree with existing paths on the ground.
So in 2010, inspired by their vision, we laid a simplified template of the Tree of Life over the Quantock Hills in Somerset and, on a day in May, populated the tips of our trails with groups of walkers. Strictly speaking all these trails should be the same length seeing as all extant species share the same origins. However, not everyone is keen or able to walk up to 15 miles and so we made the trails many different lengths so that people may choose their walking distance through the Trail adopted.
To avoid the 'conceit of hindsight' where evolution is imagined to be pointing towards life's 'finest creation' ~ the human race, the Ancestor's Tale depicts a journey backwards in time. By starting their journey from the tips of the branches (representing the present day) and heading back in time the authors offer a far humbler interpretation ~ our origins shared.
If we are to reach our goal in a sensible time frame each step must represent thousands or even millions of years back in time. However, in terms of the life forms with which we are most familiar, very little happens in the first few billion years of evolution, and yet, especially from a primate point of view, everything happens in just the last few million years. Given this, we decided to create three different walking scales starting with each step representing 10,000 years back in time. After this our time travel increases by an order of magnitude to 100,000 years per stride and then to around a million years per stride for the last 2.7 billion years. In this way we ensure a relatively constant procession of rendezvous throughout the Trail.
These rendezvous are crucial to the concept because they represent reunification with shared ancestors. The idea that if we go back far enough we share a grandparent with all chimpanzees, and eventually with all life, irreconcilably cements our belonging in nature. To assist in processing this bigger picture we allude to family ancestry by perching people's family trees on top of the immensely larger Tree of Life.
Along the route and before/after the walk we offer information and lectures from scientists, naturalists and charitable organisations relating to evolutionary biology or nature conservation. These have included Richard Dawkins, Yan Wong (co-author of the Ancestor's tale) and his colleague James Rosindell (on their amazing One Zoom), Judith Mank (on sexual selection from UCL) and Dr Dan Danahar (on Butterfly conservation) and many, many others.
Like other pilgrimages, the Ancestor's Trail offers a shared metaphorical journey towards a special place of significance although it differs in two important ways. Firstly, as you might expect, given its roots in science and a Richard Dawkins' book, the event is not religious. Secondly our walkers start from disparate locations and amalgamate along the way. Witnessing families and friends joining at these rendezvous is one of my favourite aspects of the event.
By calling it a 'pilgrimage' we placed ourselves within an established realm of activity although everything we do is rooted in science. The event begun to adopt certain 'habits' such as encouraging volunteers to read short excerpts from 'The Ancestor's Tale' out-loud. For me, deep feelings of belonging and profundity are aroused through this wide angle lens of science, but in an attempt to help us connect emotionally, our walk is also accompanied by artistic and collective expression.
And in the Ancestor's Trail everyone really does belong. Every person on the planet, in fact every person who has ever lived and ever will live, and indeed every living thing on earth definitely belongs in this grand old Tree of Life. I was strongly attracted to this depth of 'inclusivity'. And in this spirit, should such an event interest you, please consider yourself invited. Whoever you are, the heritage celebrated in this event belongs as much to you as it does to anyone else.
Once established there followed many discussions about our purpose and I began to search for a good cause it might benefit. Of course evolution is one big biodiversity machine and science tells us that we really must urgently come together to protect life on earth. Imagine if you will the Tree of Life ~ its profusion of leaves representing millions of species. Our human leaf holds on greedily beside all the rest and, sweeping over its branches, we are increasingly aware of the terrible autumn we've caused.
To affect almost any change humans link arms. Walking together adds a special dimension because we face in the same direction with our shared perambulations oiling good conversation and original thought. Once you join a pilgrimage there is an inescapable feeling that you have become part of a movement. Many people relish the sense of 'loss of self' and deep belonging within a greater purpose. And what better concept than nature conservation around which to link arms.
We have billed the event as a celebration which, given our leading role in the present extinction event may seem bizarre, but it is also true that along with every other life form alive today, we've made it! All extant species are incredibly successful beings - not ONE SINGLE ancestor died before s/he/it first successfully reproduced. Viewed this way, inescapably, every thing alive today represents 4 billion years of uninterrupted survival success. We also represent a tiny, tiny number of species compared with the millions and millions now extinct.
To celebrate biodiversity my aspiration is that wildlife charities will head up their own trails to remind us that we all share the same mission. We have worked with the RSPB (as part of our 'year of the bird'), Butterfly Conservation ('year of the butterfly'), the World land Trust and The Durrel Wildlife Conservation Trust. Our events have also included live animal displays of bird's of prey, turtles and insects. In return we hope our event could raise funds or walking sponsorship for these participating organisations. Given our belonging as part of nature, I would like to extend a welcome to human charities also.
Because a celebration without the Arts isn't really much of a celebration we have embraced music, drama, poetry and the visual arts to help us negotiate the bewildering evolutionary landscape revealed along the Trail. Indeed, our very own 'wondering minstrel' Jonny Berliner has performed many times and written several songs expressly for the Trail.
A brief history:
The Ancestor’s Trail was conceived in response to the International Year of Biodiversity and Darwin’s 150th anniversary and first took place in Somerset with forty or so friends and family. In 2014 the UK Trail moved to Epping Forest and the River Lee Country Park in Essex where it has since taken place thanks to the support of volunteers from Central London Humanists. One of their team struck upon the idea of starting all trails from public transport hubs to avoid car travel and parking issues.
Outside the UK, trails have been organised by Humanists but also by academic institutions. The Canadian Trail was hot on our heels headed up by Dr Kevin Saldanha of the Halton Peel Humanist Community. They were followed by University staff in the 'Academic town' of Akademgorodok near Novosibirsk in Russia. In 2018 Glenn Geher, Aron Wiegand and Olivia Jewell of the State University of New York enacted their own trail event within the Mohonk Preserve.
The event has featured on Clare Balding's BBC radio 4 show Ramblings in 2011 and then in the Smithsonian in 2013 when we raised money for a statue of Alfred Russel Wallace now residing at the Natural History Museum in London. In 2017 we featured on the Australian Broadcasting Association's 'Science show' hosted by Robyn Williams.
In 2011 Richard Dawkins became aware of the project, providing publicity and financial support, and in 2013 and 2014 he appeared in person as a speaker.