Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons (2009)
Part II. REVOLUTION
THE CHANGING PEOPLE ON THE EAST COAST
Chapter 5. ENGLAND
One Last Frozen Image
I am determined & feel sure, that the scenery of England is ten times more beautiful than any we have seen.
—DARWIN, IN A LETTER HOME, JULY 18, 1836
There we British sat, poor grey sodden creatures, huddling under our grey northern sky that seeped like a rancid dishcloth.
—DOUGLAS ADAMS, THE SALMON OF DOUBT
ON A TYPICAL WELSH SUMMER DAY I hunched against rain and wind, burrowed down into the sodden collar of my jacket and thought back to an admonition I’d heard earlier that morning, “there’s nothing like Wales when it’s wet.” Mist swirled, fog condensed, and beads of water dripped from my hair onto my nose. Two months after leaving South America, I was here to see where Darwin had come from and where he would return, never to leave again. A sharper contrast between the arid Patagonian plains and this leaking-sky climate would be hard to draw.
“Ah, drizzle,” explained my English friend Nathan, pulling up beside me on the rocky summit of Snowdon, Wales’ highest mountain. “It’s more English than scones, drizzle.”
One hundred seventy-five years before us, Charles Darwin stood somewhere near here and took in his last mountaintop view of Great Britain for five years. Even on a moderately blustery August day, he would have seen a beautiful panorama of jagged rocks sawing through saturated turf, deep blue mountain lakes pooled under soaring crags, and pastoral stone fences crisscrossing verdant pastureland.
“I can picture Darwin at the top,” Nathan continued. “He would have stood here and said, ‘I can’t see shit.’”
Nathan Cooper was an old friend and, more importantly for my Darwin-studying purposes, an old friend from suburban Worcester with a taste for adventure. My trip up the River Santa Cruz had given me the idea that to really dig into South America I’d need a better understanding of England. Somehow this notion did not sound so crazy when repeated to someone like Nathan. I liked bouncing ideas off of Nathan because he’d say the first thing that came to mind and, usually, it was hilarious.
“Darwin,” Nathan said, the first time I asked. “He’s the guy with the beard, right?”
“Um,” I said. “What else?”
“Golden Hind,” he said, referencing an English exploring ship, albeit one that belonged to Sir Francis Drake and thus predated Darwin by about three hundred years. “And a man who is pathologically obsessed with worms.” (This is true, by the way.)
He paused to collect more thoughts. “Also,” he said, “they had a poll a while ago about who was the greatest Briton, and Charles Darwin was number two. Behind Churchill.”
Nathan’s wild speculation was not limited to Darwin. He had literally emerged from the mists and into my life several years earlier, on a frigid morning in Cusco, Peru, as I sat in a van with several other language school students on our way to backpack in the high Andes. While the rest of us had stuffed our packs for an icy adventure and were now huddled for warmth, Nathan strolled down the street—twenty minutes late, as the van was just about to leave—in a light fleece jacket, carrying an uncharged digital camera and an iPod in a backpack just large enough to fit a water bottle. Fortunately, he didn’t have a water bottle, so there was plenty of room. Two days later, while wearing my extra jacket and watching me cut up food to share, he looked up at me and remarked, “Mate, you do come well-equipped on these trips.”
I struggled for a moment for an adequate response (“umm”), failed to find one, and then, as often happened with Nathan, just laughed. He laughed right back at me, and I promptly decided that here was most definitely a friend worth keeping around.
For a few years, Nathan’s job consisted of playing the FTSE—the English stock market—via Internet trading, so he wasn’t required to be in any one location, which he took to mean he might as well be anywhere. Since our meeting and subsequent two weeks of traveling together in Peru, he had kept in touch through a series of hilarious emails that described chess matches with drug dealers in small-town Andean bars, sheep impressions from street touts in Bolivia (a particular hobby of his, trying to get people to imitate sheep), and a triumphant ride on the shoulders of the citizenry through the streets of Holland. My personal favorite was his citizenship in a self-declared new country in Western Australia. Apparently, he’d stumbled across some sort of Aussie tax-revolt and decided on the spur of the moment that he’d always wanted a second passport. (“I’d like you to meet his Excellency sometime,” he told me. “If you become a citizen too, maybe next year we can have a soccer team.”) A disaster of a planner who was relentlessly cheerful, Nathan lived by the motto, “Cheeky Not To,” which he’d recite happily each time some bizarre challenge stared him down.
Nathan had now settled down in western England and worked, frighteningly, as a driving instructor. (Even more frightening, he appeared to be really good at it.) And it was only here, about an hour from the spot where Darwin grew up, that I began to understand why it really was cheeky not to.
Darwin was fascinated by the idea that he—a young man never considered extraordinarily smart or talented—had arrived at a very radical, very different new idea. Yet one of the fun things about evolution is how extremely logical it is. (As Thomas Huxley, one of Darwin’s great defenders, recalled thinking, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!”) Despite nearly two centuries worth of concerted attempts to kill it, evolution by natural selection survives because it is a triumph of common sense. And one of the questions I liked to ponder while I traveled was whether the theory had clarified itself in Darwin’s head after a few eureka moments, or if the specific examples themselves were less important than the travel experience. Did Darwin learn the logic in England, then bring it to bear on examples as he found them in South America? Was this a product of education and place, where any similarly educated and disposed Englishman, introduced to the finches of the Galapagos, the rheas of Patagonia, and the fossilized remains of long-extinct giant sloths would have arrived at the same conclusion? (Say, for example, Darwin had stayed home, but someone had mailed him the fossils, finches, and rheas to study.) Or was there something about the travel itself, the length of time away from home, and the broad diversity of events—not just scientific, but cultural and personal—that turned him into an expert logician and allowed him to put all those specific examples in context?
I’m not sure Darwin himself could have answered this question. And he did occasionally consider it. In a delightful concluding chapter in his autobiography titled “An estimation of my mental powers” (a segment dedicated for the most part to lamenting that he no longer enjoyed poetry) Darwin evaluated his mental qualities like this: “I have no great quickness of apprehension or wit . . . My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; I should, moreover, never have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics. My memory is extensive, yet hazy. . . . I have a fair share of invention and of common sense or judgment, such as every fairly successful lawyer or doctor must have, but not I believe, in any higher degree.” On the plus side, he wrote, “I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully,” and “From my early youth I have had the strongest desire to understand or explain whatever I observed,—that is, to group all facts under some general laws.”
That early youth was spent unremarkably, perhaps, but in a way that prepared him well for life on the Beagle: outdoors, and in collecting plants and animals. Darwin’s family hailed from Shrewsbury, a small country town three hours west of London by train. So while Nathan f i nished lecturing sixteen-year-olds on the merits of the roundabout, I went to visit some friends in Shrewsbury who lived a few blocks from Darwin’s old haunts.
Although Shrewsbury has grown a bit since, Darwin was a country boy. He entertained himself in the great outdoors as a child, wandering alone along the Severn River, which wound just behind his home, and where he could dabble in hunting and fishing. He liked collecting all sorts of plants and animals from the outdoors, but became particularly smitten with collecting beetles, a mania apparently quite popular in England at the time. “I will give proof of my zeal,” Darwin wrote in his autobiography. “One day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.” A cartoon, drawn at the time by a friend of Darwin’s, shows the young man wearing a top hat and riding a beetle, waving his collector’s net above the caption, “Go it Charlie!”
Within half an hour of arriving in Shrewsbury, I found myself hiking through a pasture with a fishing pole and a hunk of Spam in hand. The Spam was for bait, a gift from my host, Rich, who was a rather expert angler. He’d lived all his life in Shrewsbury and knew all the fishing holes on the Severn River. (And probably, for that matter, most of the fish.) Rich had driven me out to the middle of a large pasture, parked his car in the shadow of a hayloft, and set off across the country, following a cow path toward the Severn. The way he picked his own route reminded me of hiking somewhere like the Monte Wood in Port San Julian, except the environment around us was radically different. In England, everything about the scenery, down to the almost stifling peacefulness, demonstrates man’s ability to manipulate the environment. In South America, there was absolutely no question who wore the pants in the man-vs.environment relationship. (Not that destructive humans weren’t doing their best to catch up.) The human settlements I passed through felt fragile and slapdash. Even places like Rio de Janeiro, concrete-straitjacketed as they were, seemed overwhelmed by the absolute vastness of Brazil when I saw them from the airplane window. In Darwin’s time, the contrast between North and South, stately countryside and untamed wilderness, must have seemed even greater.
We left off fishing late in the afternoon and drove back to town for fish and chips, beer in the pub, and a fervent discussion of the Liverpool soccer team. (Sample dialogue, between a soon-to-be-bride and her close male friend: “You told me in December that you’d be at my wedding no matter who was playing!” “Well, I didn’t know they’d be at home.”)
The next morning Rich had to work, so I wandered around the Shrewsbury town, touring the thirteenth-c e ntury castle, admiring the signs outside the pubs that granted the owners a license “to sell by retail all intoxicating liquor for consumption on or off the premises,” contemplating the modern “Darwin Shopping Centre,” and strolling through blackberry bushes along the Severn, which wound in slow, stately curves from our countryside fishing spot back through town and right up to Darwin’s childhood home.
The Mount, as it was known, stood apart from the rest of the houses in town and was snugly walled off in a suburban neighborhood. (Darwin’s father was a wealthy, popular country doctor, and he could afford to splash out on his estate.) A small plaque on the façade commemorated Charles Darwin’s birth and noted his “detailed observations of the Galapagos.” The house itself had long since passed from the Darwin family, and now served as the local land valuation office, full of white-collar land valuers buzzing about attaching numbers to parcel maps. This was a curious thing to me: the country house that Darwin had purchased in his thirtiess, where he had lived and worked until his death, was now an English heritage site, perfectly preserved down to the furniture, paintings on the walls, and plants in the garden. I’d been to Down House, as it’s called, a few days earlier, before coming out to Shrewsbury, and found there a steady stream of tourists, myself among them, wandering through, gawking at Darwin’s rocking chair, and taking pictures of Venus flytraps in his greenhouse. While each house was significant to Darwin’s life and personality, the relative importance attached to them—the touristy, well-preserved landmark house on the one hand, and the land valuation office on the other—seemed yet another reminder that Darwin the evolutionist superseded most other aspects of him.
I rang the bell at the front door of the Mount, and after a few moments, a pleasant, middle-aged red-haired woman let me in. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said.
I asked if there was anything Darwin-related to see.
“There’s really nothing left,” she said, but then she added, “You can see the room where he was born.”
I said I’d be delighted, and we walked upstairs. She led me toward a door, and as she was about to open it, a man in suit and tie walked out. “Is the Darwin room free?” she asked him.
He nodded and turned to me.
“But the doctor’s not in,” he said.
The woman opened the door for me. The room was plain white, with an uncluttered desk, a flat-screen computer monitor, and a small, framed display hanging on the wall that commemorated the site of Darwin’s birth. It was empty and quiet. A window overlooked the front lawn and a mulberry bush that appeared old enough to have entertained a ten-year-old Charles. The woman watched as I did a quick turn around the room, and then walked me back downstairs and outside.
Nathan didn’t have to work the next day, and he picked me up in the morning and drove me fifty miles to the west. In a packed parking lot at the base of Snowdon mountain, day-hikers in colorful parkas lined up to ascend the peak while less adventurous travelers skipped the exercise and boarded a smoke-belching rail car, which creaked its way up along an ancient track to the summit. Nathan and I walked, slipping on bathtub-smooth rocks and loose shale. Sheep clambered across landslides, bleating, and their wan cries drifted through the clouds. When we startled sheep they bounded away down the trail, long, cat-like tails swinging. This long tail surprised me; I pointed it out to Nathan. “That sheep has a really long tail!” I said.
“Oh, yes,” he said, completely deadpan. “That’s where the Welshman grabs hold.” (Seriously, the English and their sheep jokes.
We continued up through the fog. When we finally reached the summit, we were rewarded with a view of white sky and mist-enveloped, dripping black rocks. I thought of the young Darwin, his entire travel experience forged between here, Shrewsbury, and Cambridge, at the time a fairly suburban university town. He had gone backpacking near Snowdon after graduating from college in August 1831 because he hoped a few days of geologizing might help him to sort out his future. Darwin’s family had secured him a job as a clergyman, and such a post would allow him to continue living in the country, hiking and casually researching natural history. It was a secure, safe future—and one that his restlessness, and desire for new opportunities for observation, wouldn’t abide.
Darwin left the mountains and the fog behind in August 1831, at the age of 22, and returned to Shrewsbury, where he found a letter from his favorite college professor, J.S. Henslow, inviting him on a surveying voyage to South America. It took him less than a week to commit to traveling around the world for the next five years. I could easily see Nathan, and a great many Englishmen who found their home island simply too small to contain their desire to fill in the lines on the atlas, grasping at the promise of such adventures. It would be, obviously, cheeky not to.
But then we’re still back at that question, about the power of specific examples versus the power of traveling. Darwin’s insatiable curiosity and mania for observation were formed by his childhood and focused by his travels. He obviously needed the scientific findings from South America to help think up evolution. But he spent five years on the Beagle and had plenty of learning experiences that had nothing to do with natural history. And some of them were just as influential in Darwin’s mental development as his observations of the varying-beaked finches.