Posts Tagged nature

The Curious Taxidermy of Walter Potter

23 December 2011

While the preservation of hunting trophies may be the best-known use of the taxidermist’s art, fans of Walter Potter’s anthropomorphic tableaux can attest to the fact that it has its other, more silly uses. Potter (1835-1918) was a self-taught taxidermist who grew up in the rural community of Bramber, Sussex, at a time when stuffing dead animals was considered to be a suitable hobby for young boys. For technical assistance, he would have had any number of popular manuals at his disposal. For inspiration, he had his younger sister’s illustrated nursery rhyme books and the Great Exhibition of 1851, where anthropomorphic taxidermy was first displayed to the British public. 

His first major contribution was an elaborate diorama depicting the death and burial of Cock Robin, which he began at age 19 and took seven years to complete. Each of the animals from the English nursery rhyme are represented, behaving in character; a rook with a book is parson, a mourning dove leads the funeral procession, an owl digs the grave. 

The Death of Cock Robin

Potter was encouraged in his hobby, which brought customers to his father’s inn. By 1880 his collection had grown into an important attraction for the tiny village of Bramber, and came to be housed in a separate museum building on land next to the inn. Here he welcomed visitors, received donations of small game from local farmers, and steadily improved his displays. The museum became so packed, and its tableaux so rich in detail, that returning patrons were never at a loss to find some new and interesting feature that they had overlooked before. 


The Moonflowers Bloom at Night

6 August 2011

Datura inoxia -- Photo by Clinton and Charles Robertson

Datura inoxia -- Photo by Clinton & Charles Robertson


THE sun has burned his way across the sky,
And sunk in sultry splendor; now the earth
Lies spent and gray, wrapped in the grateful dusk;
Stars tremble into sight, and in the west
The curved moon glows faintly. ‘T is the hour!
See! Flower on flower the buds unfold, until
The air is filled with odors exquisite
And amorous sighs, and all the verdurous gloom
Is starred with silvery disks.
                            Oh, Flower of Dreams! —
Of lover’s dreams, where bliss and anguish meet;
Dreams of dead joys, and joys that ne’er have been;
Keenest of all, the joys that ne’er shall be!            

                                    —Julia Schayer 

The common name “moonflower” has been applied to a variety of fragrant, vespertine plants that ranged across Europe and North America during the Victorian period. One in particular is Datura inoxia, which evokes the name not only for its ethereal white, night-blooming flowers, but for the deadly madness it produces when ingested.

Like all members its genus, Datura inoxia is a potent deliriant that contains malignant alkaloids chemically similar to those of deadly nightshade. Its effects include acute psychosis, lasting visual and spatial distortion, itching and dryness, disruption of the urinary tract, amnesia, and, all too often, death. In spite of a history of shamanic use, it is notorious, even among psychedelic luminaries, for producing the sort of drug trip that leads to such questions as “How did I get here?” and “What chewed off my fingers?” With its toothed flower and thorny fruit, D. inoxia signals danger to those who would unlock its secrets. 


The Rats of London

12 March 2011
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The rat who inhabited the sewers and basements of Victorian London was bigger, meaner, and generally better adapted to urban life than his predecessor. The brown rat, or Norway rat, arrived in England during the 18th century and quickly supplanted the native black rat; a smaller, arboreal species that was ill-equipped to stand up for itself. “The large grey rats,” wrote naturalist Charles Fothergill in 1813, “having superior bodily powers…would easily conquer and destroy their black opponents wherever they could be found, and whenever they met to dispute the title of possession or of sovereignty.”

Not only did the brown rat usurp his English counterpart, Fothergill writes, but he was also a bloodthirsty tyrant in his conduct toward his own species, and an all-around bad family man:

The male rat has an insatiable thirst for the blood of his own offspring; the female, being aware of this passion, hides her young in such secret places as she supposes likely to escape notice or discovery, till her progeny are old enough to venture forth and stand upon their own energies; but, notwithstanding this precaution, the male rat frequently discovers them, and destroys as many as he can; nor is the defence of the mother any very effectual protection, since she herself sometimes falls a victim to her temerity and her maternal tenderness.

Besides this propensity to the destruction of their own offspring, when other food fails them, rats hunt down and prey upon each other with the most ferocious and desperate avidity, inasmuch as it not unfrequently happens, in a colony of these destructive animals, that a single male of more than ordinary powers, after having overcome and devoured all competitors with the exception of a few females, reigns the sole bloody and much-dreaded tyrant over a considerable territory, dwelling by himself in some solitary hole, and never appearing abroad without spreading terror and dismay even amongst the females whose embraces he seeks.

Fothergill supposed that it was only an innate propensity for cannibalism and infanticide that prevented the brown rat population from exploding out of control and rendering “the whole surface of the earth…a barren and hideous waste…against which man himself would contend in vain.”

Clearly, this is something of an exaggeration, drawn from accounts of rats living under distressed conditions; as the inhabitants of London, rodent and otherwise, often did. Under ordinary circumstances the brown rat prefers cereals and grains to the viscera of his offspring, though he is also an accomplished predator, known to feed upon frogs and salamanders, spiders and insects, fish, mollusks, and even poultry. Under extraordinary circumstances, however, he is known to go too far: (more…)