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English Nature Writers: Charles Waterton


Charles Waterton by Charles Willson Peale oil on canvas, 1824 ©National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons BY-NC-NDCharles Waterton by Charles Willson Peale oil on canvas, 1824 ©National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons BY-NC-NDMost recently discovered, just last week, is Charles Waterton (1782–1865). I've not read enough to evaluate him as a writer (of which all authors tremble in dread), but he certainly led an interesting life. Of a very ancient Catholic family including St. Thomas More and Margaret of Scotland among his ancestors, he became interested in nature in 1804 when he travelled to British Guiana to oversee his uncle's estates.

By 1824 he had made four trips into the interior, walked to Brazil, arriving barefoot(!) in the rainy season, which are the basis of Wanderings in South America (can't wait to dip into that). He was a highly skilled taxidermist and indulged his humours by dressing and arranging the stuffed things as contemporary politicians. He built a nine foot wall around his three mile estate, forbade any shooting or hunting there, in an age that took extirpation for granted, and thus was one of the world's first environmentalist. His grave was between two oak trees which have disappeared — a flock of birds followed the barge to his grave — a linnet sang as the coffin was buried.

Below is a bit about the heron, from his Essays on Natural History, and an extract from Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics, in itself a wonderful book.

"In the daytime this bird seldom exhibits any very extraordinary activity. Although it will fly from place to place at intervals, still it seems to pass the greater part of the time betwixt sunrise and sunset quietly on the bank of a stream, or on the branch of a tree, often with one leg drawn up under the body in a most picturesque manner. But, as soon as the shades of night set in, the heron becomes as anxious and impatient as a London alderman half an hour before the Lord Mayor's festive dinner. It walks up and down the bank, or moves from branch to branch with extraordinary activity, every now and then stretching out its wings, and giving us to understand, by various gesticulations, that it is about to commence its nocturnal peregrinations in quest of food. One loud and harsh cry, often repeated, now informs you that the heron is on wing, wending its way to some distant river, swamp, or creek. I suspect that this cry is never uttered but when the bird is flying."
"He was a great gentleman, one of a long race of untitled nobles, and showed the pride and splendour of his race in every action of his long life. He comes into this book because his very bravery is born of such an irrepressible sense of fun that it is impossible to exclude him. He was an eccentric only as all great gentlement are eccentric, by which I mean that their gestures are not born to fit the conventions or the cowardice of the crowd. His biographer, Father J. Wood, says, very rightly: 'It was perhaps eccentric to have a strong religious faith, and act up to it. It was eccentric, as Thackeray said, to "dine on a crust, live as cheaply as a hermit, and give his all to the poor." It was eccentric to come into a large estate as a young man, and to have come to extreme old age without having wasted an hour or a shilling. It was eccentric to give bountifully and never allow his name to appear in a subscription list. It was eccentric to be saturated wih the love of nature. It might be eccentric never to give dinner-parties, preferring to keep an open house for his friends, but it was a very agreeable kind of eccentricity. It was eccentric to be childlike, but never childish. We might multiply instances of his eccentricity to any extent, and we may safely say that the world would be much better than it is if such eccentricity were more common."


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Waterton in North America

Lt Thomas Blakiston, a member of the Palliser Expedition, names the lakes in Waterton after Sir Charles Waterton. Glad to know about the namesake of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park World Heritage Site. Thanks for the information.

Sir Charles Waterton

Very glad to hear Sir Charles was recognized! - many thanks - JB

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