JF Ptak Science Books Post 1068
In the 19th century, when the rich were insane, they were simply eccentric; when the poor were insane, they were crazy. Luckily for Charles Waterton (1782-1865), he inherited a large estate and could insulate himself from legal scrutiny and indulge his whims and interests. Waterton would make a problematic biography, his life filled with front-line environmentalism, exploration, taxidermy, and natural history interests wrapped around a solid steel stake of bizarre personal behavior. Money was his greatest curative, an elixir of great depth and more understanding than Dr. Freud could ever muster. But ultimately I think that with all of this behavior masked a terminal boredom--Mr. Waterton was both bored and boring.
Waterton wrote three volumes of Essays on Natural History and the best-selling Wanderings in South America1, turned his estate into what amounted to be the first nature preserve, talked to bugs, barked like a dog, tried to fly from his outhouse, left his gloves at the top of St. Peter's, and on and on. His portrait by Charles Wilson Peale shows him with a sharp eye, weird hair, and a cat head as his buddy on a book.
Later in life he had a bitter dispute with JJ Audubon--this was mostly a one-sided affair, Waterton seeing mostly invisible complaints with the great ornithologist's work. Audubon rarely responded to Waterton's very public and in-print diatribes, ending only when Waterton left England for New Zealand in 18392.
The man did form a considerable collection of natural history specimens and medical oddities.
Perhaps the most interesting thing for me to take away from Mr. Waterton are the subject headings of the biography written for him by his long-time fried, Dr. Charles Hobson, (Charles Waterton, his Home, Habits and Handiwork3), published in the first edition a year after Waterton's death (and somehow reaching a second edition three decades later). The book is a very tough go from where I sit, and my main interest is just in the sub headings for the book's chapters. For example, how could one resist the story of such an odd man when presented with chapters like these:
"Mr. Waterton recounts a conversation with a Man representing himself Skilled in Egg Gathering at Filey ..... "
"Remarkable Willow, from the Stump of which have sprung Twelve Stems, designated by Mr. Waterton "The Twelve Apostles," and one detrimentally influenced by a Storm being named "Judas "
"Securing of Pike by the Bow and Arrow a favourite Amusement of the Squire"
"Mr. Waterton "fairly floored" by Mr. Salvin's .clever Imitation of a Pig"
"The Ape Searching the Squire's head reminds him of a Cambridge anecdote"
"Special immunity in the female sex from death by lightning" (which is a loose, semi-statistical discovery of challenged means)
But once you open the book and make your way through Hobson's unusual prose, the book becomes almost instantly resistible. And so my interest in Waterton wanes down to almost nothing--he seems like an interesting guy, but not so much so that it eclipses all of the egomaniacal stuff that went along with him. He seems to be made of the stuff that excludes friendship, and that leaves me out--and with which Waterton would have had no problem.
1. The book has not been out of print since it first appeared 170 years ago. It is filled with adventures high and low, some of which are real, some not. Adventuring in Guiana in the first third of the 19th century was an exotic affair--much more so than could really be imagined in general today--and so the book was a best seller.
2. That's okay--the arguments defaming Audubon came to nothing, and Waterton was generally wrong in the main points if not no-wrong in a few minor ones. I don't know what his problem was with Audubon and his great work, but it really doesn't matter. Audubon described one of Waterton's missives to him as a "scrubby letter", and I'm pretty sure it must've been so.
3. The book is available on Google to be read in its full majesty here. I'd say "pass" to the general reader, but if you're in the exhibits/museum world, I'm sorry to say that it is probably a must-read.
Waterton," from the Catholic Encyclopedia
Wanderings in South America, by Charles Waterton
A nice chapter appears on Waterton in Lynn Barber's The Heyday of Natural History, 1820-1870 (1980).
And a very nice appreciation of the man (with a much more useful stuff about his history) from the Pyromaniac blog.