Izaak Walton Still Informs and Inspires Conservation

Marjorie Swann
Painting of Izaak Walton - credit National Portrait Gallery, London

If Izaak Walton had stepped into a time machine and travelled to modern America, he would have jumped at this opportunity to expand the pool of recruits for his merry band of angler-conservationists.

In his personal life, Walton regularly left his social comfort zone to make friends with people who had backgrounds and worldviews very different from his own. In his famous book The Compleat Angler, Walton’s alter-ego Piscator likewise befriends strangers who are dissimilar to him in many ways.

As a conservationist and environmental educator, Piscator meets people where they are: he adapts his own leisure-time activities to give his new companions enjoyable outdoor experiences; he provides them with the venue, equipment and coaching they need to gain proficiency and confidence; and he welcomes them wholeheartedly into his ever-expanding circle of friends.

Understanding the history of Izaak Walton and the organization that borrowed his name is richly instructive for conservationists today.

A Call to Action in 1922

The Izaak Walton League of America was founded a century ago in response to environmental crisis. By the early 1920s, decades of unfettered resource extraction, economic development, commercialized hunting and fishing, industrial pollution and harmful agricultural practices had devastated the American outdoors.

Determined to halt this destruction, 54 avid fly-fishermen gathered at the Chicago Athletic Club on a frigid Saturday in January 1922. After lunch, the firebrand advertising executive Will H. Dilg bluntly described the terrible decline of the environment – “denuded hills, once rich in forests; polluted cesspools that once were glorious rivers alive with fish; a mere trace of wildfowl that once had darkened the sky” – and then asked an urgent question: “WHAT SHALL WE DO TO SAVE OUR FISHING?”

In response to Dilg’s impassioned call to action, the group decided to create a national alliance of conservationist-sportsmen who would fight to preserve entire ecosystems. The founders’ comprehensive approach to environmental stewardship – their recognition that Americans must conserve their nation’s soil, air, woods, waters and wildlife – was decades ahead of its time. Yet the visionary founders of the League chose to look back across the centuries, and across the Atlantic Ocean, and name their cutting-edge conservation organization after a 17th-century Englishman: Izaak Walton.

Historic car - credit Virginia Room Roanoke Public LibrarySince its beginning, the Izaak Walton League focused on conservation and outdoor traditions.

Who Was Izaak Walton?

Like the founders of the League, Izaak Walton was an urbanite who loved to go fishing in his spare time. Born the son of a small-town tavern-keeper in 1593, Walton completed the equivalent of high school before moving to London, where he became a prosperous clothier. In 1653, when England was still recovering from the human and environmental carnage of years of civil war, Walton published what would become one of the most beloved and influential books ever written: his narrativized fishing manual The Compleat Angler.

Inspired by what they called “Waltonism” – a philosophy of outdoor recreation and environmental stewardship that unites groups of people through their shared love and experience of the natural world – the founders of the Izaak Walton League used Walton’s story of a springtime fishing trip as a blueprint for both the overarching goals and the chapter-based structure of their new organization.

At once idealistic and pragmatic, spiritually fulfilling and politically savvy, Waltonism is a powerful philosophy of community-building conservation.

The plot of The Compleat Angler is straightforward. Early on a Sunday morning in May, Walton’s fictionalized alter-ego (an expert fisherman named “Piscator,” Latin for “angler”) leaves busy, crowded London and walks north into the countryside to meet up with some friends and go fishing for several days. As he reaches the outskirts of the city, however, Piscator encounters a stranger named “Viator” (Latin for “traveler”) who is likewise heading out of London. The two men don’t have much in common, and Viator has never gone fishing. But Piscator (who’s the Dale Carnegie of fishermen) nonetheless persuades his new acquaintance to join the anglers at their rural guesthouse for a couple of days and learn how to fish. Piscator and his buddies lend Viator some fishing gear, and as Piscator gives the newbie fisherman riverside angling tutorials, he also educates Viator about ecology and conservation.

At night, the master-fisherman and his pupil reunite with Piscator’s friends back at their guesthouse, where they all eat their freshly caught trout for dinner, sing songs, and toast each other’s health, happiness and love of angling with lots of beer. When Piscator and Viator return to London, the novice angler declares himself a born-again new member of Piscator’s “brotherhood” of fishermen: “I thank you for your many instructions, which I will not forget; your company and discourse have been so pleasant, that I may truly say, I have only lived, since I enjoyed you and them, and turned Angler.” As the book concludes, the two men promise they’ll meet again in a few days to buy fishing tackle for Viator and plan more outdoor adventures together.

Cartoon from Outdoor America, 1929 - credit IWLACartoon from "Outdoor America", 1929. (Click for larger image.)

Conservation is central to the relationships that Piscator and Viator establish with both the natural world and each other. Walton’s anglers are sharp-eyed observers of the beautiful web of life that surrounds them in the countryside, and they understand that fish are just one part of this complex ecosystem. Like Izaak Walton himself, Piscator is a devout Christian who uses outdoor recreation to worship the Creator who made and sustains all living things, from angleworms to fishermen.

So in The Compleat Angler, conservation is a moral as well as a practical imperative: not only would unregulated angling deplete fish stocks, but it would also commit “a sin against nature” by destroying the wonderful riparian ecosystems that God has created, and Walton’s anglers carefully obey laws mandating closed seasons, size limits and restrictions on fishing methods. In The Compleat Angler, Walton thus translates his Christian environmental stewardship into practices that we now recognize as core principles of wildlife management.

Historic Backdrop

The Compleat Angler also fearlessly speaks environmental truth to power. Walton wrote his book when England was ruled by a military dictatorship that had abolished his beloved Anglican Church along with the British monarchy. As part of its crackdown on religious expression, the government had forbidden people from taking walks or engaging in outdoor recreation on the sabbath: so by heading into the countryside on a Sunday morning with his fishing gear, Piscator was defying laws designed to thwart his deeply spiritual love for the natural world.

But just as Walton believed that the government should not frustrate humanity’s God-given relationship with the outdoors, so he also believed that the government should protect the environment itself. In The Compleat Angler, Piscator argues that the officials responsible for enforcing environmental regulations must be held accountable, and he lambasts “conservators of the waters” – the government employees charged with overseeing rivers and their fisheries—who turn a blind eye to illegal (and environmentally harmful) fishing practices. In The Compleat Angler, Walton thus champions a comprehensive strategy of conservation that shapes the policies and activities of all levels of government as well as the behavior of individual sportsmen.

At the same time, Walton also creates a bold new model of community-building outdoor recreation. Before Walton published The Compleat Angler, fishing had always been regarded as a solitary pastime; Walton’s book, by contrast, transforms angling into a shared experience that forges and strengthens personal relationships.

The Compleat Angler vividly portrays environmental engagement as an enjoyable social activity: while Walton’s anglers develop their knowledge and concern about the outdoors, they also become good friends who share fellowship and delicious meals together. Walton thus depicts outdoor recreation as a uniquely holistic experience that strengthens our bonds with the natural environment, our Creator, and each other. At once idealistic and pragmatic, spiritually fulfilling and politically savvy, Waltonism is a powerful philosophy of community-building conservation that has only become more relevant as the Izaak Walton League of America celebrates its hundredth birthday.

Wildly Popular for Centuries

The Compleat Anger - credit Oxford University Press

Izaak Walton’s fishing manual The Compleat Angler holds a unique place in the history of publishing. Ever since it first appeared in 1653, the book has been remarkably popular. Rivalling the King James Bible in the sheer number of times it has been reprinted, the Angler is also noteworthy for the grassroots quality of its fame: unlike the works of Shakespeare, which in the name of high culture have been force-fed to generations of students in Britain and its former colonies, Walton’s book has always attracted a strictly voluntary readership.

Over the years, the audience of the Angler has grown far beyond the boundaries of the English-speaking world through translations into more than a dozen other languages, including Japanese, Norwegian, Chinese, Russian, and Korean. Political defiance pervades Walton’s fishing manual, so it was no coincidence that the first Danish translation of the Angler was published during the Nazi occupation of Denmark.

Thus like the founders of the Izaak Walton League in 1922, readers through the centuries have cherished The Compleat Angler because of Izaak Walton’s accessible, inspiring portrayal of how, especially during the toughest of times, we can make our lives better by bonding with the natural world and each other through our shared love, experience and stewardship of the outdoors.

Walton’s Philosophy in the 21st Century

As our nation struggles to recover from the COVID pandemic, the Izaak Walton League can once again draw on its proud heritage to further the cause of conservation. But the League must strategically adapt Waltonism to meet America’s needs at this moment in our history.

Multiple studies reveal that Americans who have discovered the outdoors during the pandemic differ demographically from typical pre-COVID outdoors enthusiasts. These new participants in outdoor activities are younger and more likely to be urban, female and ethnically diverse than established outdoors enthusiasts; and many new participants have become engaged in activities that can be pursued close to home, require little specialized equipment and are easily accessible: walking, running, biking, hiking, birdwatching and fishing.

The Outdoor Industry Association argues that to keep this more diverse population engaged with the outdoors, organizations must “help new participants make their activities more social” and “develop programs and services with the specific goal of diversifying the participant base.”

In the lingering aftermath of the COVID crisis, this model of community-building conservation remains more powerful than ever. So, by adapting Waltonism to meet the needs of the millions of Americans who have just discovered the outdoors, the League can and should strive to recruit the most diverse membership in the organization’s history—and thus dramatically propel the American conservation movement forward yet again.

The COVID Opportunity, By Marjorie Swann

Author Marjorie Swann and Kiba take daily nature walks - credit William M. Tsutsui

Unless stormy weather keeps us indoors, my dog and I go for a walk every morning in the nature preserve near our home. While Kiba conducts her daily census of the cottontail population, I try to catch a glimpse of a muskrat or heron. Until 2020, Kiba and I would usually have the trails to ourselves, but as the COVID-19 crisis intensified, we began to encounter other dogs out walking their humans. Now we’re part of a group of early-morning regulars who look forward to seeing each other – as well as wildlife – amidst the beautiful scenery of the wetlands.

In response to the COVID pandemic, people around the globe have headed outdoors. Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that visits to parks increased worldwide during COVID’s first wave in 2020. Another team of scientists has shown that in Norway, activities in urban green spaces increased by 291 percent when the country was placed under lockdown.

Americans have likewise reconnected with the natural environment. Research undertaken at the University of Vermont reveals that in the United States, the COVID pandemic “drove many people into nature for the first time in years,” with 59 percent of respondents in one study reporting that “in nature they cherished a greater sense of mental health and wellbeing.” Thus as a side effect of COVID-19, millions of Americans have discovered that they’re happier and healthier when they spend time in the natural world.

How can the Izaak Walton League transform these fledgling outdoors enthusiasts into life-long conservationists? Understanding the unique history of the League’s community-building approach to conservation provides the answers to this question.

This article was excerpted from “Outdoor America” 2022 issue #1. Want more articles like this? Join the League and get four issues of our award-winning magazine every year.

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Marjorie Swann is Professor of English at Ottawa University in Kansas. Her edition of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler – the first to emphasize the book’s environmentalism – was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. Her latest book, Environment, Society, and The Compleat Angler, opens with a discussion of the founding of the Izaak Walton League and will be published in 2023 by Penn State University Press. Swann holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Oxford University.

Top photo: Painting of Izaak Walton by Jacob Huysmans.

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