In the peaceful surroundings of the Cambridge Botanic Gardens, a small coniferous sapling (Pinus nigra) luxuriates in the hopeful winter sunlight after days of frost and snow. Visitors strolling along under the majestic branching canopy created by its older relatives bend down to peer at the plaque and realise that this young plant commemorates the achingly early death of Kate Stokes, a young natural scientist and explorer who worked with Fauna & Flora International and the Conservation Leadership Programme.
They might then turn their eyes to the spreading limbs of the older Pinus varieties around them. They might take note of the garden's "Discover Darwin" exhibits commemorating that earlier natural scientist and explorer whose birth 200 years ago we are celebrating today. Combining the two, they could learn that these very trees could claim to have inspired the thinking that led to Darwin's life's work. How so?
Well, firstly, as you can learn from the Botanic Gardens web site ... "the range of variants of Pinus nigra from across its range in Europe was planted along the main avenue by Professor J S Henslow, Darwin's mentor, in 1846 to demonstrate variation within a single species. It was this revolutionary theory that Darwin explored in depth by Darwin in Origin of the Species, published in 1859."
Secondly, it is possible that, but for John Henslow's recommendation, Darwin might never have set foot on the Beagle at all. Henslow wrote to Darwin in 1831...
"I have been asked by Peacock...to recommend him a naturalist as companion to Capt Fitzroy employed by Government to survey the southern extremity of America. I have stated that I consider you to be the best qualified person I know of who is likely to undertake such a situation. I state this not on the supposition of yr. being a finished Naturalist, but as amply qualified for collecting, observing & noting anything worthy to be noted in Natural History."
So, to all those other "unfinished" naturalists in the blogosphere or electronically connecting with your communities of interest..... get along to your local Botanic gardens, park, woodland, entangled bank or otherwise to observe, think, draw, comment, experiment ... and enjoy. Happy birthday Charles.