First published by Izaak Walton in 1653, The Compleat Angler remains one of the most original and influential books about the environment ever written in the English language. Walton’s narrative depicts a group of urbanites whose appreciation of the natural world deepens as they go fishing in the countryside north of London. In honor of Earth Day, here are some interesting facts about The Compleat Angler as an environmental text.
By Marjorie Swann
(1) Before The Compleat Angler, fishermen were regarded as loners, but Walton’s book transformed angling into a sociable activity that draws men together through their shared experiences of the natural world.
(2) Walton champions core principles of wildlife management, including closed seasons, size limits, and restrictions on fishing methods.
(3) For Walton, outdoor recreation enhances spirituality:
“So when I would beget content, and increase confidence in the Power, and Wisdom, and Providence of Almighty God, I will walk the Meadows by some gliding stream, and there contemplate the Lillies that take no care, and those very many other various little living creatures, that are not only created but fed (man knows not how) by the goodness of the God of Nature, and therefore trust in him.”
(4) Walton was an early advocate of food security. Without environmental laws to guarantee sustainable food production, Walton argues, fish stocks will drop so precipitously that the population of England “will be forced to eat flesh.”
(5) As Londoners visiting rural Hertfordshire, Walton’s anglers are exemplary ecotourists. They treat the natural environment they visit respectfully and take care to compensate fairly the local inhabitants who provide their food and lodging.
(6) Walton censures “conservators of the waters”—officials charged with overseeing rivers and their fisheries—who turn a blind eye to illegal (and environmentally harmful) fishing practices.
(7) Walton’s anglers practice environmental justice by giving financial donations and most of the fish they catch to poor residents of the countryside.
(8) Reading The Compleat Angler can also help us to appreciate how our attitudes toward the environment have changed over time. Walton regarded otters as pests that should be controlled in order to protect fish populations and in The Compleat Angler, Walton’s fishermen join an otter hunt at Amwell Hill in Hertfordshire. Otters became extinct in Hertfordshire in the 1970s, but in the 1990s, the Otter Trust successfully reintroduced otters to the Amwell Nature Reserve. The Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust is now working to improve otter habitat in the Amwell Nature Reserve by creating “fish refuges.”
(9) In the 1890s, the Pullman Company created a special railway car for American sportsmen called the “Izaak Walton.” Staffed by both a cook and a waiter, the car could hold twelve passengers and was fitted out with dog kennels, gun racks, an ammunition room, an ice-chest for game, and a wine closet.
(10) Walton’s depiction of a “brotherhood” of environmentally-conscious anglers inspired the creation of the Izaak Walton League of America, a mass-membership conservation organization founded in 1922 that now has more than 43,000 members in the United States and Britain.
Marjorie Swann, Associate Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, is the author of Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England. She has edited a new edition of The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton for Oxford World’s Classics and is now writing a book about Walton’s Angler and its post-seventeenth-century afterlives.