Charles Waterton (1782-1865) was a true English eccentric, ironically self-styled ‘the most commonplace of men’. He talked to insects, fought with snakes, rode an alligator and lived like a monk. He was made famous in his own lifetime by publication of his wide-ranging travels and natural history observations – always fun, often perceptive, and unfailingly individual. One of his more notable contributions to science was the introduction into Europe of curare, now an invaluable drug in surgical operations. He turned his family estate into an extensive nature reserve, long before such things were heard of, and threw open his gates to the local populace as long as they understood that birds and animals had security of tenure.
Waterton wrote three volumes of Essays on Natural History and the best-selling Wanderings in South America, which has never been out of print since the first publication in 1825. He was a fearsome satirist and pamphleteer, attacking prominent figures of his day both with his powerful pen and with his taxidermy skills. His simple charm made a mockery of all those enemies who tried to capitalise on his human failings.
Unlike previous biographies, this book is an unabashed celebration of his eccentricity, a fond salute to a fine old English gentleman. In the centenary year of the Canadian national park which is named after him, the life of Charles Waterton should encourage the preservation of what remains of his kind of world, and remind us of what the world has lost to insensitivity and greed.