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Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) are still on the track, and have been since 1992. But as if chasing unknown animals wasn't enough, we are involved in education, conservation, and good old-fashioned natural history! We already have three journals, the largest cryptozoological publishing house in the world, CFZtv, and the largest cryptozoological conference in the English-speaking world, but in January 2009 someone suggested that we started a daily online magazine! The CFZ bloggo is a collaborative effort by a coalition of members, friends, and supporters of the CFZ, and covers all the subjects with which we deal, with a smattering of music, high strangeness and surreal humour to make up the mix.

It is edited by CFZ Director Jon Downes, and subbed by the lovely Lizzy Bitakara'mire (formerly Clancy), scourge of improper syntax. The daily newsblog is edited by Corinna Downes, head administratrix of the CFZ, and the indexing is done by Lee Canty and Kathy Imbriani. There is regular news from the CFZ Mystery Cat study group, and regular fortean bird news from 'The Watcher of the Skies'. Regular bloggers include Dr Karl Shuker, Dale Drinnon, Richard Muirhead and Richard Freeman.The CFZ bloggo is updated daily, and there's nothing quite like it anywhere else. Come and join us...

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

OLL LEWIS: Crypto Cons - The Eccentric Naturalist (Part One)

Taxidermy has always been an important part of the arsenal of hoaxers; from the Feejee mermaid to Jackalopes, it was often used to offer unbelieving members of the public and scientists as proof of the existence of a strange animal. It also had the added bonus that whichever showman got his hands on it would have an attraction that they would not have to pay money to or feed. During the 19th century the amount of fake taxidermy knocking around led scientists to despair, so much so that when the first stuffed platypus made its way to Britain it was assumed to be a fake and torn apart by scientists looking for the joins.

Not all fake taxidermy was created to make money, however; some was created for stranger and more convoluted reasons. Such was the case of Charles Waterton's Nondescript.

Charles Waterton was perhaps the model for all eccentric English aristocrats and was well known in social circles for his peculiar deeds, actions and beliefs. These included sporting a crewcut when the fashion at the time was one for long hair, biting guests legs at the dinner table pretending to be a dog and climbing to the top of St Peter's in Rome to leave his gloves on top of the lightning conductor. The last deed supposedly caused the Pope himself to ask Waterton to climb back up and take his gloves down. Waterton's curious ways did not stop there; he believed in the medieval practice of blood-letting as a cure for illness, slept on the floor with a block of wood as a pillow for the rest of his life after the premature death of his wife (they had known each other for about a year when she died in childbirth) and would perform frequent 'flying experiments' by jumping off the roof of an outhouse on his estate.

Whatever the truth and motives behind Waterton's eccentric practices, he was actually quite an important naturalist. He invented bird nesting boxes and walled off 5 square kilometres (about 3 square miles) of his estate with a 9-foot wall in the 1820s to form the world's first wildfowl reserve.

Waterton was also one of the first people ever to warn about and raise objections to the problem of pollution when he successfully proved that chemicals from a nearby soap factory were killing his trees and polluting his lake, and he forced the factory to relocate.

He was also a brilliant taxidermist and one of his students later went on to teach Charles Darwin how to preserve specimens. His writing also attracted praise and his book Wanderings in South America, written about when he went to British Guiana to attend to his late uncle's estate there and the various explorations he had there, inspired many young men to take an interest in the natural world, including Alfred Russell Wallace and the afore-mentioned Charles Darwin.

For all his seriousness about his passion for the natural world, Waterton's eccentricities and peculiar sense of humour shine through even here. He would often create satirical taxidermy tableaux of events of the day, which became a source of great amusement. For example, his most famous work was a tableau of reptiles dressed in dapper clothes made to look like famous Englishmen of the day entitled 'The English Reformation Zoologically Demonstrated.' Another famous example of Waterton's humorous taxidermy was 'John Bull and the National Debt' which depicted a grotesque chimera of tortoise and porcupine with a human-like face being beset by small dragon-like lizards. Because of this sideline it was not a good idea to cross Waterton, as one customs man from Liverpool would find out....

1 comment:

spiraldance said...

Excellent writing! Waterton wrestled the crocs as well.