A number of the studies of natural history we have reissued in the Cambridge Library Collection have been by clergymen – with Gilbert White of Selborne as the archetype. John Ray, John Stevens Henslow, Adam Sedgwick, John Fleming and William Buckland were all ordained churchmen, and there is a long tradition of ‘amateur’ naturalists among the clergy, whose observations on the wildlife of their parishes now provide a possible historical baseline for ecological and environmental change.
But another group with a deep interest in natural history was, paradoxically – at least, to our modern way of thinking – most excited at the prospect of destroying it: the hunters. Mostly military men, for whom ‘field sports’ were the normal recreation in whatever part of the world they found themselves, they became experts in observing, stalking and tracking their prey, and sometimes they wrote about it in as much detail as any scientific observer.
Take, for example, ‘Captain Flack’ (ancestor, one hopes, of the legendary captain of the Trumpton fire brigade), author of A Huntsman’s Experiences in the Southern States of America (1866). The pseudonymous captain describes the pursuit of antelopes, bison, bears, wild turkeys, fish, alligators and snakes, to say nothing of bees. Some of it makes distressing reading – the (acknowledged) gratuitous cruelty to a trapped and dying alligator, for example. On the other hand, his minute descriptions of the animals he is pursuing, the environment in which they live, and the skills of the hunters (both white and Native American) who assisted him, are fascinating. For ‘don’t try this at home’ advice, try the cure for rattlesnake bite in Chapter 17.
Another hunter in North America, though a generation earlier, was Captain R.G.A. (later Sir Richard) Levinge. A professional soldier, he was sent with his regiment (the 43rd) to Canada in June 1835, and fought in the suppression of the French Canadian revolt of 1837–8 (the same revolt that did for the political career of Sir Francis Bond Head, another explorer of military origins). His two-volume book, Echoes from the Backwoods, illustrated with his own quirky sketches, describes life in New Brunswick, now one of the maritime provinces of Canada, then an Earthly Paradise where nature was beautiful, game abundant, pioneers hard-working and prosperous, and the ‘Indians’, skilled hunters and trackers, recognised an English gentleman when they saw one. (The only flies in the ointment were the Yankees on the other side of the disputed border in Maine.) He takes hunting trips across the border (one as far south as New Orleans) during the plentiful leisure periods of his tour of duty, and describes both the country, the wildlife, and the people – Americans (most of whom he makes no bones about disliking intensely) and ‘Indians’, whom he respects and whose treatment by the American government appalls him.
Levinge is in fact on leave in England when the revolt breaks out, and has to head back hastily (a 65-day crossing) to join his regiment, which is then for some time stationed in camp above Niagara Falls, to prevent the rebel forces from crossing into Upper Canada. Although he frequently pleads his inability to produce a description of these surrounding that would do justice to them, in fact his simple and almost reverent use of language is effective and touching. He describes rather sketchily the course of the suppression of the revolt (during which the Native Americans remained consistently loyal to the British), and in great and loving detail various excursions from their beautifully located encampment to hunt deer, turkey, wildfowl, woodcock and quail. The idyll ends when, the revolt having been put down, Levinge is recalled to England: on the night of his departure a six-storey wooden hotel overlooking the Falls burns down, leaving him with a final, extraordinary view of Niagara, ‘not the one that my memory likes least to dwell upon’.
Other hunter/naturalists reissued so far include William Cotton Oswell, soldier and big-game hunter in India and Africa, Frederick Selous in Africa, and William Spencer Percival in China. Very much a naturalist/hunter, rather than the other way round was E.H. Wilson (‘Chinese Wilson’), the legendary plant-hunter who was responsible for introducing so many Chinese species to the West, and who called his wonderful account of eleven years of botanical exploring A Naturalist in Western China with Vasculum, Camera and Gun. The literal-minded if clunking title shows Wilson’s priorities in the right order, with the botanical carrying-case up at the front, but he does devote four chapters of his second volume to ‘Sport in Western China’, broken down into pheasants and other game birds; wildfowl (i.e. water birds); ruminant and other game animals; and carnivorous and other animals, which included monkeys(!), the snow leopard(!!), and the ‘parti-coloured bear, or giant panda’(!!!). Wilson seems not to have done much hunting (except of wildfowl) himself: he bought skins and skeletons when he could (and urges other travellers to do so, thus to extend Western knowledge of this rare and exotic fauna), but he had with him on his third journey a Mr Walter R. Zappey of Harvard University, from whose gun-sights no potential scientific specimen was safe – if his name didn’t give rise to the verb, it should have done.