A proper 18th century English naturalist does not wear a crew cut.
He also does not pretend to be a dog and bite his dinner guests under the table. He never rides a crocodile. He never punches out a python. When visiting the Vatican, a proper naturalist does not scale the roof of St. Peter’s. The Pope should not have to tell him to remove his gloves from the lightning rod this instant. It is unseemly for a naturalist to traverse South America entirely barefoot. And it is downright unheard-of for a naturalist to put one specimen’s head on another specimen’s body for the express purpose of making fun of the Protestants. But Charles Waterton, known to all as The Squire, was not a proper naturalist.
The Squire abides.
If Alexander von Humboldt was the paragon of a scientifically reasonable European naturalist in South America, Charles Waterton was his opposite. If Humboldt was the hero, Waterton was the joker. Whether The Squire was simply an aristocratic eccentric or a dangerously unhinged, bat-shit crazy lunatic, well, you decide.
Born to a Catholic noble family whose lineage included eight saints and four historical figures found in the works of Shakespeare, Waterton’s hyperactivity and rambunctiousness defied his blueblood upbringing and pushed him toward naturalism and exploration from an early age. Though he never discovered any species, or even bothered using the scientific names of the ones he studied, he was a keen observer of animal behavior. Basing his explorations around his family estate in British Guiana, he contributed to Europe’s understanding of neotropical fauna, and published a wildly popular memoir of his travels called Wanderings in South America that inspired a young Charles Darwin and, later, an even younger Alfred Russell Wallace to set sail for the continent.
The Squire’s eccentricities were innumerable. When a doctor told him to put his injured foot under running water, he went to Niagara Falls. He was a devotee of the medical practice of bloodletting — considered obsolete quackery even in his day — and wanted so badly to be bitten by a vampire bat that he maintained a habit of sleeping with his big toe uncovered to bait one. (He never succeeded.) He fell in love with his wife at first sight… at her baptism. She was the daughter of an Arawak princess and a Scottish nobleman and colleague, and at the infant’s baptism he fell in love and decided there and then that she was the girl he was going to marry. After that, he planned his expeditions so that they traveled through her small Guianan village, so that he could visit and check up on her. When she was seventeen, he took her away to England and married her. She died the next year, giving birth to their son. After that, and for the rest of his life, he always slept on the floor with a thin blanket and a wooden block for a pillow, out of equal parts grief and guilt. In Waterton’s later years, he established the world’s first nature preserve around his English estate, and became one of the world’s first opponents of pollution when chemicals from a nearby soap factory began affecting the waterfowl. He kept his propensity for walking around his grounds barefoot and climbing both trees and walls without ladders (which he deeply distrusted.)
Besides scientific experimentation, he had two major hobbies. The first was writing essays damning his scientific nemeses, namely John James Audubon and Charles Darwin. In truth, he considered most scientists his enemies, as he was regarded as an unhinged kook by the naturalist community. The most minor disagreements set him ranting and raving; after a manifesto-length screed against Audubon spurred by some negligible quibble over the olfactory faculties of vultures, one prominent scientist declared him “stark, staring mad.” When magazines would no longer publish his invectives, he printed them on pamphlets and sent them to everyone.
His second hobby, and perhaps his greatest legacy, was taxidermy. Today, taxidermy seems to be strictly for redneck hunters who want that 8-pointer on their wall, and the Norman Bates types with a death fetish. But for most of the history of zoology, taxidermy was an essential skill for any naturalist. It was simply too difficult to capture a live animal and transport it out of the jungle and over the ocean. Alfred Russell Wallace financed his journeys in the South Pacific by shooting and stuffing birds-of-paradise, and Audubon’s paintings were certainly not modeled on live birds. Charles Waterton was a master taxidermist, inventing his own procedure using something he called “sublimate of mercury.” (In fact, he taught his unique procedure to a slave at his British Guiana estate, and that slave, later freed and practicing taxidermy in Scotland, ended up teaching The Squire’s future nemesis Charles Darwin the art.) Greater than his gift for preservation, though, was his creativity. For many of the specimens that The Squire sent home from Guiana had no likeness to any creature, living or previously imagined.
It was Jim Stewart of The Zymoglyphic Museum who told me about a league of rebel wildlife artists called The Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists. Their purpose is to revive the ancient art of building chimeras and nonsuch from real animal specimens: Siamese twin squirrels, griffons, winged monkeys and jackalopes. Though M.A.R.T. coined the term, rogue taxidermy has been practiced for centuries. The Mayor of Hamburg, Germany owned what he thought was a real stuffed hydra until 1735, when Carl Linnaeus examined it and discovered that it was stitched together from weasels and snakeskin. This explains why it was presumed to be a practical joke when the first platypus was sent from Australia to England in 1798.
The Quantum Biologist has talked about the platypus before: once to showcase the venomous spurs on its hind legs, and once to highlight the electroreceptive properties of its bill. The bulletpointed bizarro factoids about the platypus are well-known to anyone who ever graduated from ZooBooks: It lays eggs! It lacks nipples! It has ten pairs of sex chromosomes instead of two! (A male platypus is XYXYXYXYXYXYXYXYXYXY.) It’s also commonly known that it was thought to be a taxidermist’s hoax at first, the confabulation of a beaver with a duck. George Shaw, who drew that first specimen sent to him by Capt. John Hunter in Australia, took scissors to it to find the hidden stitching, and confessed in Naturalist’s Miscellany that “it is impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal, and to surmise that there might have been practised some arts of deception in its structure.” After all, such chimaera were produced from the far parts of the world all the time. The mid-1800’s saw the discovery of the Feejee Mermaid, a mummified monkey with a fish’s tail, which became a popular artifact in circus midways. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, created a fad for taxidermied grotesques that lasted for decades. Universities had to beware.
The Squire had a different use for rogue taxidermy: social satire. Of all the things Waterton hated (with Audubon, Darwin, and rats near the top of the list), he reserved a special vintage of ire for the Protestant Church, which was responsible for confiscating most of his Catholic family’s lands under the English Reformation of King Henry VIII. The funky orangutan pictured above is his mock-up of Martin Luther. He once recreated a tableau of famous Protestant figures using grotesquely-posed lizards. The Squire did “create” new species, but more as a joke than a hoax. His “Noctifer” was really an eagle owl head stuck on a bittern’s body. His “Nondescript” was made from a howler monkey’s buttocks, reformed into the shape of a man’s face.
As far as we know, Charles Waterton never met a platypus. But he would have appreciated it. Like the platypus, he seemed to be stitched together from disparate parts: aristocrat, naturalist, buffoon. Though he fancied himself a scientist, Waterton really fell into a long and noble tradition of scientific fabulists. Even before rogue taxidermy, we were creating chimaeras with our language. European explorers could only describe the strange animals of Australia, Africa, and the Americas in terms of what they knew from home, so an anteater became an “ant-bear” and the American bison was a hump-backed cow with the tail of a lion and the beard of a Spaniard. What would The Squire have made of an era in which we can genetically modify hybrids by stitching DNA together, creating goats that produce spider silk and mice that can grow human ears on their backs? In the past, chimaeras were created out of ignorance or misunderstanding. Today, the rogue taxidermists are bringing chimaeras to life on purpose. And in between sits the joker, an obscene and passionate naturalist in South America sewing faces into monkey’s butts. And inside the joker, an artist. “In a word, you must possess Promethean boldness, and bring down fire, and animation as it were, into your preserved specimen,” he once wrote. Like Dr. Frankenstein, “the New Prometheus,” he believed in the power of creation. For The Squire, the fabric of life could be cut and arranged from whole cloth. It was meant to be fabricated.