Monday, February 16, 2009

Guest Blog from Lauri Lebo: Darwin's Pilgrims 4

On our last full day in England (Friday 13th February), I visited Darwin's birthplace in Shrewsbury. It was the day after Darwin Day and the rest of this hodge-podge group of pilgrims had scattered by now for other sites and commitments. Only Alex Prodoehl, a 23-year-old hip-hop music agent, and I remained to the end.

Our larger group had toured the village of Shrewsbury earlier in the day. Our guide was Jon King, the director of the town's Darwin festival. He appeared to be a bit exhausted and perhaps hungover from the previous 24 hours of Darwin Day celebrations. Nonetheless, he was a terrific, gracious and exuberant storyteller.

I hate to say it, but Shrewsbury looks just like my mother-in-law's collectibles of Dickens' Houses. The buildings are 17th Century Tudor structures with steep-pitched gables and moss-lined roofs. Arched doorways lead to gardened courtyards and cobbled streets so narrow folks could lean out their windows and shake the hands of their neighbors.

King told us a story behind Darwin's acceptance of passage on the HMS Beagle to be a companion to the captain. After Captain Robert Fitzroy made his offer for the trip, which was due to embark in less than four weeks, Darwin's father first balked. Darwin was only 23 at the time (the same age as my youngest - a fact that never fails to give me pause) and had been an unambitious student, preferring riding, shooting and the gathering of beetles to the classroom. Robert Darwin considered the journey to be a waste of time.

Darwin wrote a letter of regret to Capt. Fitzroy. However, Josiah Wedgwood intervened on Charles' behalf and convinced his brother-in-law to let him go, arguing it would be good for the boy.

Here's where the story takes its dramatic turn: Darwin now had permission, but the letter of regret was already on its way to Fitzroy in London, 150 miles away. When he learned he could go, Darwin, as the story goes, immediately raced uphill from his home to The Lion, a pub that also chartered coaches. Breathlessly, he booked the next one leaving for London. As King said, the longest journey Darwin ever took wasn't on the Beagle, but was on that coach as he raced to beat that letter.

As it turned out, Fitzroy had received the letter, and had offered the position to another person, who had declined. Darwin was given another chance.

While others, including Cyndi, took in a bit of shopping, Alex and I walked to the edge of town to The Mount, where Darwin was born. Today, the expansive brick building is home to a government accountant agency, but one of the employees, Lorraine, was only too happy to invite us in to see the room where Susannah is believed to have given birth to Charles.

A steep hill from the house leads down to the slow-moving Severn River. Alex and I hiked down the hill and walked along the muddy banks. This used to be a garden when Darwin's family owned the land. Today, it is overgrown with brambles. As a young boy, Darwin collected bugs and other critters down here. This is where he was born a naturalist - as they say in Shrewsbury.

As Alex and I walked back to the hotel, we stopped in a shop selling bottles of Darwin's Origins, a rich brown ale brewed for the bicentenary. We asked the salesman if he might open the bottles for us. Outside, Alex raised his bottle and offered a toast, "To Darwin and his magical idea."

Home now. Took hike today with husband and flopped down on the ground in the sunshine in an open field at the top of a hill. Five turkey vultures started circling over us, spying possibility in our prone bodies. Apparently, my feigned death throes weren't convincing enough to hold their attention - Jeff noted that carrion doesn't typically giggle.

The turkey vultures glided off.


NickM said...

Hey Lauri! Glad your trip was fantastic, Mark does give the primo Darwin tour!

In the interests of pedantry, turkey vultures are restricted to the Americas, so whatever you saw wasn't turkey vultures!

Furthermore, this random website says "There are no vultures of any type in England."

Maybe you were seeing dragons or something, even higher up than you thought!

Mark Pallen said...

Nick, you need to re-read what Lauri wrote! She was describing the vultures after she got home to the USA! Sadly, unlike you, Darwin's pilgrims this time didn't get to see inside Christ's college, although we did catch a glimpse of the new Darwin statue en route to its new home at Christ's.

Lauri said...

Thank you for clarifying, Mark. Nick, I say this humbly, I will always defer to you on all things Darwin, but I know a turkey vulture when I see one.

Although the notion of seeing a dragon is a charming thought.