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19th century visionary asks all to be ecologists

Friday 3rd August 2018

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

19th century visionary asks all to be ecologists

The Very Rev. Damian Howard, SJ

Beneath a glass panel in the floor of the Wakefield Museum you’ll find a large caiman, a kind of South American alligator. It is a preserved specimen and part of a collection made by Charles Waterton, an alumnus of Stonyhurst College.

Waterton made several trips to British Guiana (now Guyana) in the early 19th century, building an impressive collection of preserved animals which he later presented to his old school. In 1966, the bulk of this collection was placed on display in Wakefield, and since then has often been back on display at Stonyhurst.

Central to Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ is the idea of ‘integral ecology’. This recognises that humans are part of a vast network of living beings on the planet upon which we are wholly dependent. That network is itself simply a part of a wider series of relationships with the entire creation: the light of the sun, the waters of the oceans, the minerals we build with, and the air that we breathe.

Pope Francis here joins his voice to those who call us to recognise that our current irresponsible use of the gifts of creation runs the risk of making the Earth uninhabitable by ourselves and other species. We have a duty to care for ‘our common home’.

Charles Waterton’s natural history specimens at Stonyhurst College c. 1890

There is something new here for Christian faith to grapple with. An old-fashioned but distorted outlook took the mandate of Genesis 1:28 (‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all the living creatures that move on earth’) as permission for human beings to dominate the rest of creation, exploiting it as we see fit to meet our needs. Those areas where men and women had not yet settled were ‘wilderness’, the habitat of evil spirits, and destined to be tamed and brought under human control.

Over the centuries, forests were cleared for agriculture, animals domesticated for food, rivers dammed and mines dug. Human beings were fruitful and multiplied, spreading across the globe, seizing the natural resources for themselves.

Left, detail of Charles Waterton’s bird specimens at Stonyhurst College.

By the 19th century, in the wake of the industrial revolution, the harmful effects of this unchecked exploitation were becoming clear. Pollution poisoned waterways and air, slums in the ever-growing cities and diseases such as cholera and TB were rife. Concern about this situation grew and, alongside this, some began to look for alternative lifestyles and modes of development.

Charles Waterton was an early example of this quest. In 1824 he returned from his last visit to Guiana to Walton Hall, his family home in Yorkshire. Over the next few years, he built a nine-foot wall stretching for three miles around his estate, and ran it as a nature reserve, with a lake for wildfowl. He prosecuted a local soapworks when effluent from their factory seeped into the water supply. He wrote extensively on natural history and conservation. These achievements were recognised by Sir Richard Attenborough when he opened a new display of Waterton’s work in Wakefield in 2013.

It may have taken the Church a little while to latch on to these concerns, but when she did she spoke firmly on the matter. By 1971, Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Octogesima Adveniens, was able to write that ‘due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation’ – lines quoted later in Laudato Si’.

Ecumenically, a movement which had been known as Justice and Peace was, by the 1980s, commonly employing the acronym JPIC – justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. This change recognised the fact that there could not be a just and peaceful world unless the Earth’s resources were shared equally. More, it acknowledged that these resources were finite, and it would not be possible for the developing nations to exploit them to the extent that the western countries had been doing.

No-one is surprised these days when a papal document is addressed not exclusively to the Catholic faithful but to all men and women of good will, of all faiths and none; and that is the audience Laudato Si’ has in mind, too. This commitment to work for an integral ecology is a prime example of an area in which believers find themselves collaborating with all sorts of different people. Some of them, indeed, are far ahead of most Christians in their engagement and experience. As well as something precious to offer, we have much to learn. Indeed, the scale of the crisis facing humanity is such that it will require as many as possible to work together if they are to be addressed adequately.

For the Jesuits in Britain, the much-regretted closure of Heythrop College, a college of the University of London, has presented an opportunity to explore new avenues, inspired by the teaching of Pope Francis. Heythrop offered excellent teaching and research in philosophy and theology for nearly 50 years. It is now our intention to redeploy some personnel and finance which once served Heythrop to the new intellectual task of coming to a deeper understanding of integral ecology.

It is important to note that this concept, as Pope Francis expounds in Laudato Si’, is not simply about climate change or recycling, important as these topics are. It means more; it is nothing less than a renewed vision of what it is to be a follower of Christ in the 21st century. Pope Francis wants us to take part in a bold cultural revolution, to reimagine society and our very civilisation in the light of the insight that “all things are connected”.

I believe that this new vision has the potential to bring diverse groups of people together, both inside and outside the Church, maybe even helping us overcome the divisions which still remain as the legacy of the Reformation.

British Jesuits are currently working in three ways. The first is to be a research institute, linked to Campion Hall, our Permanent Private Hall in the University of Oxford. Addressing the challenges we face will require careful interdisciplinary study. This institute will be able to pursue rigorous theological and philosophical research into the situation we face and help us to imagine alternative ways of living, more at- tuned to the Gospel.

The second element will be a centre, most likely in London, where we can provide education for people in the Church and beyond on these issues, and the Christian response to them. This will be aimed particularly at young adults, and is likely to include at least one Master’s level university course. Students will be able to draw on the resources of the Heythrop library, which is one of the largest libraries of Catholic theology and philosophy in the country.

Charles Waterton by Charles Willson Peale, 1824. Photo by Stephencdickson - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

These two academic strands will be complemented by a more practical project, offering people the opportunity to get involved in ecological and other social justice projects, while being guided in ways of reflecting on their involvement and integrating this into their faith. Pope Francis has spoken repeatedly of discernment, and looks to the Jesuits, among others, to help all to further develop this spiritual practice. In time it may prove possible to set up communities which will be able to offer witness to living more harmoniously with the rest of creation.

All of this may seem to be a long way from Charles Waterton and the preserved animals he presented to Stonyhurst. But he was one of the first to recognise the dangers of regarding creation as nothing more than a resource to be exploited for human need – and greed. His collections have inspired generations of young people to think about their place in the natural world, and in each generation since some have gone on to make this study their life’s work.

It is my hope that the new project the Jesuits in Britain are developing will be similarly inspiring, leading many more to commit themselves to caring for our common home for the greater glory of God.

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A life of exploration led Waterton to discover the need to preserve nature

Friday 2nd June 2017

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

A life of exploration led Waterton to discover the need to preserve nature

Stonyhurst College is renowned for its impressive collections of art, medieval manuscripts, Catholic artefacts, vestments and relics, displayed throughout the school and in its three libraries, home to some 60,000 books including a First Folio of Shakespeare.

What is less well know is that the College also houses many nationally and internationally significant Natural History collections, which reflect important 19th century developments in science and medicine.

Charles Waterton was a pupil at Stonyhurst College in the late 1790s. He came from a landed gentry family descended from numerous saints, including Vladimir the Great, Saint Anna of Russia, Saint Stephen of Hungary, Saint Margaret of Scotland and Saint Thomas More. 

The family remained staunchly Catholic after the Reformation and as a result forfeited much of their land and wealth, leaving them only Walton Hall near Wakefield. While at Stonyhurst, the young Waterton’s interest in exploration and wildlife was already evident and the Jesuit teachers encouraged him to explore while attending to his studies at the same time.

The painting of Charles Waterton riding on a cayman

They came to an unusual compromise with the 11-year-old boy, as he noted in his autobiography: ‘By a mutual understanding, I was considered rat-catcher to the establishment, and also fox-taker, foumart-killer, and cross-bow charger at the time when the young rooks were fledged. I followed up my calling with great success. The vermin disappeared by the dozen; the books were moderately well-thumbed and according to my notion of things, all went on perfectly right.’

In 1804 he travelled to Guyana to take charge of his uncle’s estates near Georgetown. In 1812 he started to explore the interior of the country, and reached Brazil having walked barefoot in the rainy season. He described his natural history discoveries in his book Waterton’s Wanderings in South America, published in 1821.

Waterton was a skilled taxidermist and preserved many of the animals he encountered on his expeditions for study by scientists and naturalists back in Britain. He employed a unique method of taxidermy, soaking the specimens in what he called ‘sublimate of mercury’, a highly toxic chemical.

 Unlike many traditionally stuffed animals, his specimens are hollow and lifelike. Some specimens displayed his anarchic sense of humour, as he created animals which resembled those with whom he disagreed, such as the Hanoverian monarchy, Martin Luther and an unnamed English Customs official who charged him excessive duty to bring his specimens into the country. 

Other creations reflect his affection for his Jesuit teachers, including a large crab holding a crucifix, beside which is a poem written by Waterton telling the story of the crab that returned St Francis Xavier’s crucifix when he dropped it in the sea in Goa. 

The crab holding a crucifix

Many hundreds of these remarkable animals are preserved to this day at Stonyhurst College, along with a remarkable painting showing Waterton riding on a cayman

Charles Waterton is credited with bringing the anaesthetic agent curare to Europe. In London, with Fellows of the Royal Society, he immobilised several animals, including a cat and a mule, with the substance which he called wourali, after the Guyanan name for the poison where it was used to hunt animals for food. The mule was renamed Wouralia and lived for years at Walton Hall as a local celebrity. This was the first recorded use of a muscle relaxant in a medical context, and was the basis for modern anaesthesia.

Waterton was keen to learn about all manner of poisons, collecting snakes and tarantulas, and used his own body in experiments to discover their effects. He longed to be bitten by a vampire bat, and slept in the rainforest with his feet sticking out of his hammock in the vain hope that the creatures would find them irresistible. He was a passionate conserver of nature, and spent the equivalent of £1million building a nine-foot-high wall around three miles of his estate at Walton Hall, turning it into the world’s first wildfowl and nature reserve.

David Attenborough has described him as a champion of nature conservation and “one of the first people anywhere to recognise, not only that the natural world was of great importance, but that it needed protection as humanity made more and more demands on it”. Waterton was a vehement opponent of slavery, finding the practice inhuman and utterly repellent to his strong Catholic faith. By an extraordinary coincidence one of the slaves with whom Waterton worked in Guyana was to have a significant influence on one of the greatest scientific thinkers of the 19th century

A large preserved jungle spider

John Edmonstone was a black slave, the property of Charles Edmonstone, an expatriate Scot who owned plantations in Guyana. He learned taxidermy from Charles Waterton, who had married Anne, Charles Edmonstone’s daughter.

 John accompanied Waterton on his expeditions into the rainforest to collect animals, learning how to preserve the skins to prevent their decomposition. In 1807 John Edmonstone was freed, and came to Scotland with his former master. He moved to Edinburgh where he taught taxidermy to students at Edinburgh University. 

Charles Darwin came to Edinburgh in 1825 to study medicine, but found himself unsuited for the study of human anatomy and surgery. During his first winter at Edinburgh, Darwin hired Edmonstone to teach him taxidermy for one guinea a week. Edmonstone gave Charles Darwin inspiring accounts of tropical rain forests in South America and may have encouraged Darwin to explore there. Certainly the taxidermy Darwin learned from Edmonstone helped him greatly during the voyage of the SS Beagle, and arguably he might have never embarked on the historic journey without Edmonstone’s mentorship

He spent his childhood in Brussels, where his father was Austrian envoy to Belgium, and moved to England in 1867. As a Catholic, von Hügel was ineligible for entry to Cambridge and Oxford and was educated through Stonyhurst College’s undergraduate programme, where he read Philosophy.

Suffering from bad health, he was advised to travel to a warmer climate and embarked on a trip to the South Pacific in 1874. He collected and recorded whatever information and objects he could find. Entranced by the beauty of Fiji, he learned the language, although his passion for collecting led him into difficulties and he was more than once rescued by the governor who described him as ‘half starved, having spent all his money, and having even cut the buttons off his clothes in exchange for native ornaments’. Back in England, in 1883 von Hügel was appointed curator of the new Museum of General and Local Archaeology in Cambridge, which is now the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. 

He was a surprising choice. Although his scholarship was well known by this time, he was a foreigner and Catholic. Throughout his life he devoted himself to Catholic causes and when Catholics were once more eligible for entry to Cambridge and Oxford in 1895, he immediately founded, together with Henry Fitzalan-Howard, 15th Duke of Norfolk, a hall of residence in Cambridge. 

Established in 1896, St Edmund’s College soon became the preferred college for Catholic students and scholars in Cambridge and now also houses a research institute named after von Hügel. Founded in 1987, the Von Hügel Institute is a Roman Catholic research institute dedicated to the study of the relationship of Christianity