Thursday, 12 February 2009

Happy Birthday Darwin

Can you see Darwin?
If you went down to the Royal Botanic Gardens today (just near the Children's Fig, beside Farm Cove) - around 10.30 am - you would have scored yourself a cup cake as well as a place in our D-A-R-W-I-N written in people. It was a fun occasion, with cordial, fairy bread and lots of scientists.

It was the opening of our new installation, which interestingly also spelt out D-A-R-W-I-N, this time in large mirrored letters covered in erudite quotes (see the picture). It's part of our thinking path through our 30-year old 'Myrtales Bed', soon to become an evolutionary garden.

This was also the morning after the night before, when 160 darwinians dined and debated in the Pavillion Restaurant in the Domain - see our website (http://www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/) for who was there and what they talked about.

Both events were perfectly placed. The botanic gardens are of course a celebration of evolution. They are also pretty to look at. In fact some of the few kind words Darwin had for Sydney concerned our wonderful institution. In 1836, he said the botanic gardens and domain have 'a number of pleasant walks - no fine trees, but the walks wind about the shrubberies and are to me infinitely more pleasing than the formal Alameda of South America'. (BTW, we now have plenty of fine trees.)

In welcoming (with Frank Howarth from the Australian Museum) our guests to the dinner last night, I mentioned a few other of Darwin's observations. Although he said he looked forward 'with more pleasure to seeing Sydney than to any other part of the voyage', he famously left saying 'I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.‘ (Wisely, he noted elsewhere that 'after so very short a visit, one's opinion is worth scarcely anything'.)

He talked of 'thin scrubby trees bespoke useless sterility'. Still, like everyone else from Europe, he enjoyed the views of the Blue Mountains around Blackheath - 'to me quite novel, and extremely magnificent'.

Darwin was quite capable of the odd wry comment and I repeated this one on radio during the day and at the dinner. 'I was told at Sydney not to form too bad an opinion of Australia by judging the country from the roadside, nor too good a one from Bathurst; in this latter respect, I did not feel myself in the least danger of being prejudiced'.

He was travelling through Australia in fire and drought, in the middle of summer...

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