DARWIN (CHARLES) Autograph letter signed ("C. Darwin"), to [Joseph Dalton Hooker] ("My dear H."), telling him that he "had better not send, if in earnest, the earth from St. Helena to me, as I could not distinguish commonest weed from the rarest now extinct plant"; [Down], received 23 January 1867

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Lot 51
DARWIN (CHARLES)
Autograph letter signed ("C. Darwin"), to [Joseph Dalton Hooker] ("My dear H."), telling him that he "had better not send, if in earnest, the earth from St. Helena to me, as I could not distinguish commonest weed from the rarest now extinct plant", [Down], received 23 January 1867

Sold for £ 4,437 (US$ 5,402) inc. premium
DARWIN (CHARLES)
Autograph letter signed ("C. Darwin"), to [Joseph Dalton Hooker] ("My dear H."), telling him that he "had better not send, if in earnest, the earth from St. Helena to me, as I could not distinguish commonest weed from the rarest now extinct plant"; confirming that he would like Miquel's photograph but promising that he will deal with the matter himself if Hooker sends the address, and thanking him for his "pleasant letter just received" ("...We are very glad Mrs H. goes on well..."); docketed by Hooker "Jay 23/ 67", 2 pages, trace of mounting in margin verso, oblong 8vo (neatly torn by Darwin from a larger sheet), [Down], received 23 January 1867

Footnotes

  • 'I COULD NOT DISTINGUISH THE COMMONEST WEED FROM THE RAREST NOW EXTINCT PLANT' – A NEW LETTER BY DARWIN TO JOSEPH HOOKER. This hitherto unknown letter was written in response to Hooker's "pleasant letter just received" of 20 January, in which he had promised Darwin: 'By Jove I will write out next mail to the Governor of St Helena for boxes of earth; & you shall have them to grow'. In the same letter, Hooker tells him that Professor Miquel of Utrecht would like his carte-de-visite photograph (while confessing that he is 'sick & tired' of the fad for exchanging such photographs), and assures him that his wife, who had recently given birth, 'goes on well but has a horrid face-ache' (see the online Cambridge University Library Darwin Correspondence Project). Hooker's letter, in its turn, was written in response to one from Darwin, dated 15 January, in which he had chided Hooker for his doubts about the long-term viability of seeds: 'You have no faith, but if I knew any one who lived in St Helena, I wd supplicate him to send me home a cask or two of earth from a few inches beneath the surface from the upper parts of the I., & from any little dried up pond, & thus as sure as I am a wriggler I shd revive a multitude of lost plants' (ibid.).

    As his Cambridge editors point out, Darwin had described the viability of seeds in pond mud and seawater in the Origin of Species, as for example on pp.387-8: 'I do not believe that botanists are aware how charged the mud of ponds is with seeds: I have tried several little experiments, but will here give only the most striking case: I took in February three table-spoonfuls of mud from three different points, beneath water, on the edge of a little pond; this mud when dry weighed only 6¾ ounces; I kept it covered up in my study for six months, pulling up and counting each plant as it grew; the plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup! Considering these facts, I think it would be an inexplicable circumstance if water-birds did not transport the seeds of fresh-water plants to vast distances, and if consequently the range of these plants was not very great'.

    The exchange regarding St Helena and its seed deposits arose from Hooker's lecture on 'Insular Floras', published in the Gardeners' Chronicle for 12 January 1867; in which he gives 'a brief outline of Mr. Darwin's arguments in favour of trans-oceanic migration' and describes the extinction of the island's flora: 'The botany of St. Helena is thus most interesting; it resembles none other in the peculiarity of its indigenous vegetation, in the great rarity of the plants of other countries, or in the number of species that have actually disappeared within the memory of living men. In 1839 and 1843 I in vain searched for forest trees and shrubs that flourished in tens of thousands not a century before my visit, and still existed as individuals 20 years before that date. Of these I saw in some cases no vestige, in others only blasted and lifeless trunks cresting the cliffs in inaccessible places. Probably 100 St. Helena plants have thus disappeared from the Systema Naturæ since the first introduction of goats on the island. Every one of those was a link in the chain of created beings, which contained within itself evidence of the affinities of other species, both living and extinct, but which evidence is now irrecoverably lost. If such be the fate of organisms that lived in our day, what folly it is to found theories on the assumed perfection of a geological record which has witnessed revolutions in the vegetation of the globe, to which that of the Flora of St. Helena is as nothing'.

    This letter comes from the collection assembled by Hooker's uncle, Dawson William Turner (see also lot 59).
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