The Ghost in the Garden. In Search of Darwin’s Lost Garden
par Jude Piesse. Scribe, XX P., XX €.
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We must protect nature – how can we not agree to this statement, well in tune with the times? However, do we know it, and, above all, do we observe it with the attention it deserves? Probably not. Recent studies have shown, for example, the ignorance of younger generations when it comes to simply recognizing and naming species of flowers or vegetables. However, nature begins in the garden, which can be the source of prodigious observations and discoveries at all ages, and even lead to brilliant scientific vocations. Take Charles Darwin, for example: he probably would not have embraced the career of a naturalist if he had not spent the first sixteen years of his life in Shrewsbury, in the west of England, equidistant from Liverpool and Birmingham, in a mansion called The Mount House, owned by his mother Susannah Wedgwood, from the wealthy founding family of the porcelain factory that bears his name. The Darwins and Wedgwoods had long been linked when Robert, Charles’ father, married Susannah in 1796.
From his birth in 1809 to his adolescence, Charles Darwin therefore lived at the Mount, where he discovered and became passionate about nature, more than for studies. It was this period in Darwin’s life that a nineteenth-century scholar, Jude Piesse, professor of English literature at John Moores University in Liverpool, chose to tell.
Susannah Wedgwood had converted the 3 hectares of the estate into a botanical laboratory, with its greenhouses, its dairy, its vegetable garden, its orchard, so many places where young Charles spent hours watching and tasting, not to mention the bees. and pigeons, of which he speaks moreover in The Origin of Species. His father even built special greenhouses to plant a banana plantation, named Don Carlos in honor of Charles. Later, he grew pineapples and potatoes there using plants sent by Charles from South America. The Mount House was also endowed with a “path of Thought” supposed to promote scholarly itinerancy. And, to remove from sight the first attacks of the industrial era, the tanneries or breweries that were built around, it was necessary to surround the property with a thick hedge of shrubs, “like a screen in front of a chamber pot” , writes Jude Piesse.
During his entire life, Charles Darwin will keep an intense memory of the Mount. He would continue to visit there twice a year after his father’s death in 1848. His own home, Down House, Kent, was modeled after that in Shrewsbury. When shipped to the Beagle, with Captain FitzRoy, he wrote to his sisters how much he missed the Mount Garden, and that he wanted to reappear there as a “ghost”.
Jude Piesse’s book is also the story of Charles Darwin’s stubborn desire to become a naturalist, when his father intended him first for medicine, then for theology. Although his initial training in natural history was most incomplete, he persisted until his embarkation on the Beagle in 1831, at the age of 22. There is no doubt that this obstinacy was born around the beehives and in the greenhouses of the Mount.