Friday, March 2, 2018

Finding Asa Gray

Yesterday, after hitting the "publish" button for my humdrum post, I decided to pack up my laptop and venture over to the Mt. Auburn Cemetery to find Asa Gray. The cemetery itself is lovely, filled with extremely ornate grave makers and landscaping. It's no wonder that this place is also a bird-watching haven.

Now I know what you're thinking: who is Asa Gray? Why spend a lovely day like this hunting for the grave of someone most people have never heard of? Instead of giving you a link and letting you do some reading (I'll do that below), I can give you a summary. The question is which part of the summary to focus on.

You see, I could spend time telling you why Asa Gray, a professor at the Harvard Herbarium, is considered one of the most important botanists of the 19th century. How he was instrumental in unifying the taxonomic knowledge of plants in North America and how his extensive study of the morphological similarities between many eastern Asian and North American plants is still the foundation for ongoing work today. 

But I already know I've lost most of you there.

Instead, what I'll focus on is that despite being a Harvard professor, Asa Gray was deeply religious; fitting the definition of modern day intelligent designers. But how Asa Gray differed from other intelligent designers is that he was also a very close friend of Charles Darwin and believed in evolution via natural selection.

In fact, Darwin's modern-day fame is due to Asa Gray. Asa Gray and Charles Darwin had an ongoing correspondence with Gray's observations and beliefs helping drive many of Darwin's theories. But what really sealed the deal was that at the same time Charles Darwin was developing his theories, another colleague named Alfred Wallace also independently developed the same theory of evolution through natural selection. Why Darwin instead of Wallace got the credit for being first is because when Wallace's manuscript was read at the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858, so too was a letter between Asa Gray and Charles Darwin that outlines Darwin's theories on the origin of species showing that Darwin had outline all of this prior to Wallace's manuscript.

Asa Gray would go on to promote Darwin, receiving one of the first published copies of "On the Origin of Species" and then by arranging the publication of the first American editions, making sure that Darwin received the royalties. The pair remained close friends throughout their lives.

I've been thinking about Asa Gray for many months since I first learned about him this past autumn. With the ongoing divide in this country where people continually separate themselves from one another based on their beliefs and opinions, the relationship between Gray and Darwin is a shining example of how that doesn't have to be. Asa Gray firmly believed that religion and science were not mutually exclusive, something that modern day leaders in science like Francis Collins echo. Yet the myth remains that you either believe in God or Evolution and one has to wonder what underlying political forces are at play to perpetuate this false message and how they benefit from creating such fear.

There's another level though; one that I've been witnessing from bloggers who have resolved their infertility but are not parenting. The question posed of end of life issues but also whether they would even be remembered. It's a common fear that many are quick to brush aside with the belief that having children rectifies the problem as they will become the caregivers and the memory holders. And yet, I can tell you with utter confidence that I know next to nothing about my great grandparents. My own grandparents are also a bit of a mystery to me, so at the end of it all they have become lost in the masses.

And why I thought about that as I stood in front of Asa Gray's grave is because Gray and his wife Jane never had any children, despite a well known desire for them. Gray was very parental with his younger brothers, housing and caring for them and it is believed that he was well-loved by his mentees. In short, Asa Gray's legacy lives on due to how he lived his life.

I drove around Mt. Auburn Cemetery for about 30 mins before I located Holly Path. Walking on foot among the old stones, I swear there was a hush from all the birds as I located the site. 

Standing at the foot of the grave, marveling at the beauty in its simplicity and how white the stone was despite being over a hundred years old, I found myself overcome with emotion. After all, what does one say to the dead, especially given my own belief that we don't just live a single lifetime? What I found myself asking and reflecting on out loud was that given all the change on the horizon is did I had the courage to continue to stand by my convictions and pursue what I believed in. To live the type of life I believed to be full and good; to take all the knowledge and lessons gained from the past 3 years forward with me as I begin this next chapter. Something that I'm very scared I'll fail at.

Yet seeing this physical evidence of someone who seemingly lived a life I admire gave me renewed courage to try, even though I know failure, disappointment and pain are certainly ahead. Because finding Asa Gray wasn't simply about learning more about a part of history; it was also about uncovering something about myself. 


  1. Love the way you weaved this post. Now I know more today than I did yesterday!

    Have you read the Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert? (

    I love the way you focus on standing by one's convictions and not worrying so much about outcome. That's hard to do, but when you zoom out, you see how wise it is.

  2. Interesting history and connection to your life! Wasn’t Charles Darwin also religious though? So maybe not a huge gap in perspective

    1. Yes, he was. In fact the whole family was nonconformist Unitarian and in his earlier years he studied to be a clergyman. This always amazes people because there's this assumption he was an atheist, though he admitted to being agnostic later in life, but Darwin had many good friends who were deeply religious.

  3. How much do I love this post?? Fascinating & poignant at the same time. As you know, I love exploring old cemeteries, whether or not I have someone specific to look for/visit. Glad you drew some inspiration from your visit with Asa. :)


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