Fall 2017–Winter 2018

The Beast in the Bestiary

Charles Waterton’s “Nondescript”

D. Graham Burnett

Let’s begin with a minor scene in a major tale. Location: the wet hemp world of the Liverpool docks. The year: 1821. The season: spring, a cold May. Several dozen packing cases, crates, and sundry tattered valises lie sequestered in the customshouse, under the watchful eye of one Mr. J. R. Lushington, His Majesty’s Commissioner of Customs. Stevedores had lately liberated this exotic luggage, packed with peculiar naturalia (five armadillos; a caiman; a roll of curare darts; stinking bits of sloth; dank volumes of pressed vegetation; countless trays of scintillating insects, each pinned firmly to its card), from the hold of a slow boat recently arrived from the tropical jungles of Amazonia. The owner of the hoard, and its collector, Charles Waterton (Jacobite, squire, explorer, gadfly), had himself just debarked from the same ship, and, now, fighting mad, mounted his carriage, two live Malay fowls in hand, to speed away from the port—back to his regal seat in the midlands. Heads would roll!

A tiff over tariffs, it would appear. And yes, it was that. But pan back for the big picture.

• • •

Between 1400 and 1900, the most important program of encyclopedic world-knowledge was “natural history”—the sweeping, systematic inventory of the globe; the collecting, naming, and sorting of every kind of natural thing to be found on Earth (each plant, each animal, each rock). Practically speaking, this vast project, with all its epistemological import and Adamic ambition, came down to lots of scenes like this one: some explorer, loaded up with the cullings of rough travel, meanders back to the metropolis, there to sift the haul—distributing specimens to learned societies and colleagues, botanical gardens and herbariums, zoos and museums. New species will be declared, necessitating the expansion and revision of tomes like Linnaeus’s Systema naturae—just the most notable of the many massive, multi-volume books of nature that kept tabs on the tabulation of all things.

Our own era of concern about global ecology and dwindling biodiversity has seen a pronounced uptick in scholarly (and artistic) interest in this massive and significant intellectual-cum-material enterprise, which not only laid the groundwork for modern evolutionary and geotectonic theories but also intersected in complicated ways with the histories of colonial expansion and Anglo-European imperialism. We now understand a good deal about the networks of exchange (and systems of knowledge-appropriation) that undergirded, enabled, monetized, and mobilized one of the great achievements of modern science: the encyclopedic collation of most of the stuff on earth. Numerous dissertations have been written about changing ideas of natural order across the centuries in question (the rise and fall of nomenclatures and taxonomies) and about the intricate expropriation of native expertise. 

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