Katie Willingham

Darwinist Logic on Disappointment


                                    Last week, I learned

how to make my own truffles and also

about the horseshoe crabs—did you know

their blood is baby blue like a lamb’s

ear, like an Easter egg? Each summer,

we harvest them by the thousands, use

their magic ink to reveal any

bacterial presence.

                                    I am the only

left-handed person in my

family, which is why at holidays

I was made to sit on the edge, to leave room

for my elbows when sawing a roast. After,

my twin brother and I would pick over the box

of chocolates and swap them half-eaten to suit

our preferences.

                                    As Darwin writes,

I was afraid of disappointments. But then, How

utterly vain such fear is, he decries days later, from his perch

on the volcanic rocks of Santiago. Delighted

by the abundance and variety of bird and insect, he

nonetheless thought little of the banana, insisting

the texture was mawkish and overly

sweet. The horseshoe crab, says my brother,

is also used as fertilizer and bait.

                                    In 1839, the year Darwin

published his journal from the H.M.S. Beagle, Louis

Daguerre went public with his invention

of the daguerreotype. In his attempt to capture

a congested Paris boulevard, the street appears

deserted. Even the horses and carriages moved

too fast to register on film.

                                    The time it takes

to materialize thus equals the length

of a shoeshine—blur of a man in the foreground,

his leg lifted. It is only recently scientists

have begun to tag the half-drained horseshoe

crabs returned to the sea. The resulting

conclusion: an ocean of horseshoe crabs too lethargic

to reproduce. Of course, not

all specimens recover equally.

                                    In the process of editing

his journals, Darwin became ill. No passing

seasickness, the man trembled

uncontrollably. Stomach pains, they

said, then heart palpitations. On better days,

he would visit farmers and pigeon keepers, ask

how any one thing ever got passed

to the next.

                        In time, the daguerreotype became

a popular form of portraiture but American

photographer Robert Cornelius was the first to turn

the camera on himself producing what we now call

the original selfie, though you wouldn’t

recognize it. The process was so slow he had plenty

of time to lower his arm to his side.

                                    To distinguish me

from my twin brother: a boy and a girl. He is

allergic to Penicillin, but I

am not. I return again and again

to Darwin’s journals. How does anything learn

to be alone?

                                    For a week after birth,

we were separated due to complications

of the blood—one Type A, one O, the first

of many things we might have wished

to share. I can only imagine I dreamed like

Darwin—that I might see any spot or any

object, which I have seen before and can say

I will see again.



Darwin (disambiguation)


An early sign of Darwinism is a penchant

for collecting. In extreme cases, the child can think of little

but buttons or bottle caps. From a certain angle,

this collection will appear to be a veiled obsession

with death, each thing carefully removed from its context, arranged


and preserved with its like kind. Darwin himself began

with matches, but quickly turned to insects, despite

the great chagrin of his peers. He was insufferable on a hunt,

constantly stopping to collect new specimens. Once, two rare beetles

in each fist, he spotted another at the base of a young oak. Overcome,


Charlie popped one into his mouth to take hold of the precious third.

Even those of us who are not collectors might recognize

this moment, in which the beetle scrabbling furiously against his upper canines

is the only thing one can now hope to save.





Up near the tree line on Wheeler Peak, they’re all

bristlecones. Wide, old wood, almost gold where

the sun hits. But after a time, you stop taking

photographs, focus on what you came here to do.

And when you’re holding a core drill all the way from

Switzerland, they start to look like urns more than

trees. Urns full of history you could slip out and count

like an hourglass no one’s ever flipped and if you could

get at the grains of sand you might just find something.

Something remarkable. You could graph it all

out—what years dry and what years wet and maybe

since everything moves in circles (the Earth both

rotating and revolving), perhaps there’d be a

pattern, something that hints at what’s to come.


And they didn’t call it Prometheus then. They didn’t

call it any damn thing, really. Just another bristlecone,

with a number like a prison line-up—a designation like

all the rest—WPN-114. But if naming is any indication,

this bristlecone was only like the others up to a point,

a point that unfolded quickly, spread like a stain back

in the lab—like when you match the robber with the witness

sketch—the rings just kept going back and back. 4,800

and change. Have you ever counted that high, one by one?

4,800 pencils, 4,800 folded napkins, 4,800 bricks in a

wall. It’s mind-numbing. 4,800 grains of sand would only be

a handful but 4,800 tree rings? This tree was the oldest

tree, the oldest living anything and this cross-section

under the damn halogen. It was August of 1964.


I could tell you killing the oldest tree doesn’t change

you, or that those rings, those bright kernels of sand

predicted our end so it was worth it. So we could prepare

ourselves. But what haunts me is that damn name.

All the metaphors taste wrong, see. If Prometheus out-smarted

Zeus and brought fire to man, shouldn’t it be that this

bristlecone lived to tell us something? Something only

she was smart enough to shelter in her innermost

sanctum until the time was right? And this

is the kicker, the part that gets me every time: for

Prometheus, immortality was a curse, a fate not even a god

could endure forever, because it involves such suffering—his

liver eaten and regrown daily. In the myth, Hercules

comes to free him, a hero to lay him (at last) to rest.

        return to poetry

Katie Willingham received her MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan where she was the recipient of a 2014 Hopwood Award in Poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ilk Journal, Paper Darts, Phantom Limb, A Clean Well-Lighted Place, The Pinch, Whiskey Island and Revolver.