Sunday, May 11, 2008

Nature or Nurture?

Here's a question that's been puzzling me: What impulse drives certain individuals to adopt the naturalist persuasion? Three long months ago I was writing about how we get interested in Nature, what makes us become naturalists. Rather than update that old post, I'll add some new links here:

Dave at Osage + Orange writes today about his mom's influence on his interest in Nature.

Another Dave in a different state seems to have been the fortunate recipient of a similar family mentoring process, most likely aided by solitude in the woods.

And, of course, we know that others find their own way. In our discussion of the role of books, Matt of Sitka Nature commented aptly:

In a culture with a sad lack of personal natural history elders/mentors, through their books, authors are able to play that role. They provide a greater context and allow for a more rapid depth of understanding of those things that I observe outside.
I've often thought about my own fascination and where it could have arisen. Search as I can within the family history, I find no evidence of a deep attachment to Nature in my ancestors. Neither parent, neither sibling, has a similar level of enthusiasm. One (of 19 on one side; 4 on the other) in my generation of cousins seems to share the interest; only one I can think of in the following generation as well. Perhaps I just don't know my relatives well enough, but even if there were five times as many, it still seems a paltry level of interest.

As we contemplate Richard Louv's thesis, understanding how to generate—and support— that interest becomes paramount. Fred First is working on a book of ideas for "bridging the Nature gap" by sharing Nature with children, but what of the children who have intense interest but are alone in their pursuit? In these days of restricted environments and curtailed freedom, will they find their own way to Nature as we did?

Footnote in 2009: Fred's beautiful—and inspiring—book on connecting children with their natural surroundings, at last report, has failed to find a publisher! Do check out this amazing project at the link above.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The New Naturalists

It seems we can make almost as many discoveries in the natural blog world as in the natural world itself. I've been learning so much lately from the impressive writers and photographers out there that it's almost like being out exploring myself. Thanks to all of you.

Today, I'd like to mention a couple in particular, as there seems to be a new breed of naturalists lurking out there. We have a traditional group out observing and exploring and appreciating, and another group out actually cataloguing, compiling lists of all kinds of organisms that share their homespaces, an equally honorable and traditional occupation.

It's a good day, several days actually, to check in with Matt at Sitka Nature again. His winter walks of late are bringing him everything from pine grosbeaks and minks to hummingbirds and lichens, all captured in excellent photos.

Through Matt's blog, I just discovered Henry, who is busy recording everything that lives and moves in his Oxfordshire lawn. He's up to 59 species so far, and his eye for detail is compelling. Like J. Henri Fabre, he is caught up in traveling across one backyard and finding what there is to see.

Both these gentlemen are well worth checking out. Like most of us, they seem to be amateur, self-taught naturalists who rely on books, in part, because of, as Matt says, "a sad lack of personal natural history elders/mentors."

If, in your travels online, you run across anyone else who should be recognized here, please comment. This humble blog gets few hits, but it is well connected (thank you, all, for links) and may help other naturalists find each other. Also, for those who haven't discovered it yet, see the Nature Blog Network, an even better way for us to stay connected.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Childhood in Nature: A Collection

We often find, beneath the crunchy shell of an aspiring or accomplished naturalist, a kid who grew up "in the woods." That the woods of childhood are a mythic place of adventure and inspiration seems to be a given.

Dave writes about his secret places today at Via Negativa. With his cooperation, I'd like to start a collection of similar stories here. Fellow nature-lovers, please share your stories online and send me links— it'll be kind of an impromptu carnival for kids who grew up in nature. (Years ago I wrote a small essay, unseen by anyone. If I can find it, I'll post that too.) (Links open in a new window.)

For many, childhood experience may not have been in a literal woods, but whatever the environment that inspired imagination and discovery, we invite you to share it. Place is important to all of us. Where were you, and how did it shape your life?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Quit Your Books!?

Over-emphasis on books, rather than direct experience, was not supposed to be a feature of this discussion. It's probably the result of a temporary affliction that's given me an indoor focus of late and should be remedied before spring. In the meantime, perhaps it's worth exploring how the sensibilities of the child naturalist (if not thwarted) may develop into the ideas and lasting passions of the adult.

Emmett (Natural Patriot) reminds us of an admonition by the famous 19th century naturalist Louis Agassiz that we need to "Study nature, not books," and he and Agassiz are absolutely right. I think it was J. Henri Fabre who once said "I spent the summer traveling... I got halfway across my backyard," or words to that effect. An appropriate sentiment and aspiration for any naturalist.

The same sentiment about books, perhaps more familiar, comes from a patron poet of naturalists, William Wordsworth, exemplar of the Romantic tradition.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet;
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.
Romanticism was, in large part, a reaction to the Age of Reason that took hold and prevailed to give us the Science we know today. Rather than taking Nature's mechanisms apart by force to understand their workings, as Newton and other scientists preferred, we had only to listen to the wisdom of Her sweet music.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Attempting to reconcile Nature and Man, Romantic poets sought and saw in Nature not only understanding, but moral lessons relevant to the life of the individual and society.

Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
Ultimately, in the Romantic view, Nature would give up her secrets more willingly to intuition and respect, to those who watched and received. I suspect that's why many of us, on encountering the Romantic poets, felt we'd discovered kindred spirits. Reason still seeks to understand, but poetry, like Nature, leaps directly into our hearts.

Post title and quotes are from the poem The Tables Turned, by William Wordsworth, 1798. To explore further, see also Lines Written in Early Spring and The World is Too Much With Us.

Addendum: Perhaps I should have cited the poem's first line, "Up, up, my friend, and quit your books" to explain the post title and stimulate discussion. I read this as a reminder to check in with the original source, not a recommendation from me (or Wordsworth) to give up books entirely. Thanks, Matt, for your insightful comment on the dearth of mentors—let's take that up in a future post.

"Romantic" as related to this discussion

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Reading the Landscape

"Nature study," Dave reminds me in his comment on the previous post, once helped make us better informed about our surroundings. Certainly I lament its absence from school curricula these days, and recognize its value. E.O. Wilson credits early Scout training in his development as a naturalist, but perhaps there's more to this naturalist process than traditional nature lore, as important as that is.

Paul B. Sears called it to see the living landscape. It's pattern and wholeness and understanding, and knowing health from sickness. Well developed, we can hope it leads to appreciation, respect, and stewardship. Dave's post at Via Negativa today is a startling reminder that we, too many of us, are missing something. We have what Dave's guest writer aptly calls disconnect.

Some of my friends speak of pristine landscapes, right here in the occupied Front Range. How do we learn to understand enough to realize that this landscape, still so wondrous to me, is not pristine and has perhaps not been for hundreds or thousands of years? We live, as Aldo Leopold reminded us, in a world of wounds, but we don't see them. Here in Colorado, when the blue chicory and yellow sweet-clover bloom in profusion along our interstates, we call the Highway Department with compliments.

I know not to consider the Dalmatian toadflax on our hillsides my favorite Colorado wildflower, but I can't claim to understand the big picture after three decades here. Maybe after another lifetime of watching and caring. But guides, in the field or on the pages, may help: let me introduce you to a couple.

In his book, Reading the Forested Landscape, ecologist Tom Wessels explains how he developed his understanding of this important process:

[It was] plant ecologist Dr. John Marr... who took me into the ponderosa pine-covered foothills of Colorado's Front Range and asked me to explain why two contiguous forests were different in their composition. This process was repeated many times in my studies with Marr, and I quickly developed a new way of seeing landscapes—one that focused on their history. But Marr taught me more than the process of how to read forests. He was a rare ecologist who stressed the importance of having a strong emotional connection to landscapes alongside an analytical one. The very foundation of this book and my twenty years of teaching lies with John Marr.
Marr again, and teachers in general. (I should look up what the rest of his students are doing.) Wessels also mentions May Theilgaard Watts, who links (in another direction) back to Sears. It's an incredible network and an important journey to connection. A teacher or a book can help get our feet on the path, but in the end, I suspect it's practice that makes perfect understanding.

Marr, John W. 1961. Ecosystems of the East Slope of the Front Range in Colorado. University of Colorado Press, Boulder.

Sears, Paul B. 1962. The Biology of the Living Landscape, an Introduction to Ecology. London, U.K., George Allen & Unwin.

Watts, May Theilgaard. 1957. Reading the Landscape, An Adventure in Ecology. MacMillan Company, New York.

Wessels, Tom. 1997. Reading the Forested Landscape, A Natural History of New England. The Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vermont.

See also, relative to shifting baselines, Natural Patriot's post on the Nature of Natural.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

How Not to Learn about Nature

Yesterday a catalog for "Great Courses" came into my hands, and it was pretty good reading. I'm even tempted to invest in some of their audio courses or DVDs, to tackle something I missed in college, like comparative religions or a history of European art. This isn't a program that shies away from tough topics: I could even learn the "neurological origins of individuality," or perhaps "how to listen to and understand great music."

But then I started looking for anything about Nature as naturalists seem to think of it, and came up short. There is, in a course called The Joy of Science (one of fifty in the category Science and Mathematics), one lecture on "Ecosystems and the Law of Unintended Consequences." At the risk of stating the obvious, perhaps getting acquainted with Nature isn't something we get—or can ever get—from school or from such media-based self-improvement opportunities.

Why not? Why couldn't a gifted teacher take us on a walk through an unfamiliar landscape and help us understand and appreciate it? Couldn't something of that field trip experience be captured in a video or DVD?

Dr. John Marr, great Rocky Mountain ecologist at the University of Colorado, used to take his students on field trips. Driving up the canyon west of Boulder, he'd drop a student off every mile or two, asking them to explore the surroundings in which they found themselves. As he picked them up on the return trip, each student got to "show-and-tell" what he or she had figured out. The discussions that followed surely enlightened all.*

Perhaps there truly is no substitute for the personal experience and exploration of nature, but it seems like a knowledgeable introduction could help us get on the path.

* This story came to me from one of Dr. Marr's students, Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, who has made "bringing nature to life for kids" a major part of his own life, through Thorne Ecological Institute.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Naturalist as Observant Lover

Today's post is inspired by Dave from Via Negativa, who recalls an essay by conservation biologist Reed Noss that ties nicely to Dr. Coues' comment on the importance of observation in the previous post here.

Dave says: The essay is in the Fall/Winter 2001-2002 issue of Wild Earth (11, 3-4), Citizen Scientist or Amateur Naturalist? by Reed Noss. I find no trace of it on the web other than a mention in Reed Noss's CV. It's hard to select just one quote from it, but here's something from near the end:

Finally, what of the purely amateur naturalist—the field naturalist with no training or inclination in science? I submit that these folks remain an indispensible source of observational data, provided that their observations are accurate and carefully documented. ...

Even if the data he or she collects are never used, the amateur naturalist is a better citizen of the planet. After all, an amateur is someone who loves what they do (the word is derived from the Latin amator, which means lover). Especially when pursued from a Darwinian perspective, the practice of natural history inspires feelings of kinship with other living things, empathy for the different but equally respectable lives of other creatures. Love really is the best word to describe the feeling that naturalists have for Nature. Because of this love, the amateur naturalist, if called upon, will be there to defend Nature. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all scientists, some of whom have carried the ideal of dispassionate study too far.
Thanks, Dave, for digging out this quote. I met Dr. Noss briefly once and recall his respect for the observations of naturalists. He knows whereof he speaks: here's how Dr. Noss describes his own childhood and education:

I grew up with natural history as my greatest love; however, with the noteworthy exception of insect collections in the sixth and tenth grades, my formal scientific education prior to college was divorced from the natural world. Pickled specimens, dense textbooks, too much math, and uninspired teachers turned me off from biology. I’d just as soon skip school and hang out in the woods—which I did regularly.
This discussion dovetails perfectly with Richard Louv's insights into how we become naturalists and his push for more direct opportunities for children to experience nature.

We do not all need to become scientists, or even dedicated naturalists. But imagine how our lives would look if all children had (and could retain!) the personal experience of kinship with other living things.

The latter quote is from Reed Noss' contribution to Aldo Leopold and the Ecological Conscience by Richard L. Knight, Suzanne Riedel; Oxford University Press, 2002.

Monday, February 04, 2008

A Naturalist in the Rockies

Thoreau was 10 years dead and the fields and woods of Massachusetts just a bit more tame than those he had known. But here in the Rocky Mountains in the 1870s, the naturalist life was in full swing.

A friend has asked me to write some commentary or perspective on the Rev. Arthur Lakes in his role as a naturalist. It's an intriguing assignment and one that brings to mind the changes in the role of a naturalist, then and now.

Lakes is best known for dinosaur discoveries made in Morrison, Colorado, in 1877, but was also a geologist based at the Colorado School of Mines. His reputation as a naturalist arises from detailed observations he, like Thoreau, kept in years' worth of field journals and reported to the public in local newspapers. He wrote of alpine plants and small mammals, travels to remote parts of the state, the return of migratory waterfowl and other birds—and, of course, of the geologic features he saw on his travels.

But Lakes, like other naturalists of his day, was not above shooting something to determine its identity or make of it a specimen for his growing museum on campus. In the case of a badger encountered in South Park, he even used his geology hammer. (Tying the carcass to his mule, Jenny, earned him her stern rebuke later that day.)

Captain Elliott Coues, perhaps best remembered for his interest in birds, in 1876 collected extensively on an expedition for the Hayden Survey. He earned similar rebuke from a critic:

We want to know the social life and personal characteristics, so to speak, of the denizens of the Colorado Mountains and valleys. ...Let us have from Dr. Coues... more of the life of the birds of the Rocky Mountains, and less of their death.
To this, Coues readily agreed:

What we need most, in the present stage of the natural history of our country is good-trained observers, as distinguished from the mere collectors. ...A specimen is a fact, no doubt; but an original observation is also a fact, and a more valuable one.
The nature of the West was new then, and, by and large, nature still is new, especially to current generations who have grown up in more urban settings.

Lucky us—a wealth of insight is out there for us in "original observations" being made every day! We can sample some of them at the Nature Blog Network for a field trip around the world and across the spectrum of life.

Quotes on and by Coues are from A Naturalist in the Colorado Rockies, 1876, by Michael J. Brodhead, in The Colorado Magazine, Vol. LII, No. 3, summer 1975.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


One of our country's top scientists chose to call his autobiography simply Naturalist. He says "Most children have a bug period. I never grew out of mine." That may be the secret of being a naturalist. But perhaps the secret of being a scientist is that ability to focus, a "bug period" that never goes away.

We start out, I suspect, as observers and collectors. Many things in nature catch our eye, and we learn to see. But let Wilson describe it:
The mind with a search image is like a barracuda. The large predatory fish pays scant attention to the rocks, pilings, and vast array of organisms living among them. It waits instead for the glint of silver that betrays the twisting body of a smaller fish. ...

The human mind moving in a sea of detail is compelled like a questing animal to orient by a relatively few decisive configurations. There is an optimum number of such signals. ... Configurations with the greatest emotional impact are stored first and persist longer. Those that give the greatest pleasure are sought on later occasions. The process is strongest in children, and to some extent it programs the trajectory of their lives.

An excellent description of how we all often learn to see different things in nature; few of us can see everything. That's what makes it fun to go out with someone whose focus is on mushrooms, say, or geology. It opens your eyes to another world.

Beyond seeing, we move into caring. Wilson reports that "I rescued bits of Spanish moss that had fallen to the ground and replaced them on the low branches of the schoolyard oaks" in those early days in which, he says, "the course of my life had been set."

I suspect we all could report similar memories of childhood and youth, among the different animals and plants in whatever habitat we found ourselves. If we learn to appreciate one form of nature more than others, we may become specific kinds of naturalists, as birders or rockhounds. Failing that lesson, we may move into a life of perpetual distraction, or captivation, by whatever new thing crosses our path. I didn't have a "bug period" until grad school, when I moved to Arizona and was confronted with an amazing assortment of novel arthropods.

When I reopened this conversation, a natural history of naturalists perhaps, I confess I was thinking primarily of this kind of lifelong infatuation with the wild, general or specific. I'd momentarily forgotten the professional naturalist, those whose careers are often centered around sharing nature with children and others, another very important role.

But those who see—and often share—are important too. Today, consider checking out what Matt is doing over at, as "an aspiring naturalist learns his place." Beyond his inspiring blog from Alaska, he's also undertaken a huge effort, dare I say lifework?, to catalog 1,000 species from his chosen habitat. I, dilettante, am humbled by his dedication (not to mention his skills as a photographer).

Wilson, E.O. 1994. Naturalist. Island Press. 380 pp.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

In Search of a Verb

How is it we can describe, actively yet passionately, what we're doing when we're out there looking at and being with—and, yes, studying—the whole of creation? Cultivating a sense of place, surely, and trying to grasp the spirit of the whole, as well as the beings that live and move around us.

The need for a new word was suggested some time ago by one who inspires me whenever we get into the field together. I'm still hoping this blog can create a discussion of what we do "out there" and why it's so important to us! It's often more general than birding or botanizing, but it's definitely not hiking exactly either. Does the lack of an appropriate word make it less real to others, if not to us? If we can't explain it, how can we ask the world to leave room for this experience that engages us, because it's not just about what we enjoy, it's about making space for the wild and all who still try to survive there?

Naturalists have changed. No longer is the gun an essential tool; the camera has perhaps replaced it. Many of us don't call ourselves photographers, though we certainly capture our interests so whenever we can. There are still scientists who are true naturalists, but would most naturalists consider themselves scientists?

Why "Romantic"?

Romantics found this field of science [biology] a modern approach to the old pagan intuition that all nature is alive and pulsing with energy and spirit. No other single idea was more important to them. And at the very core of this Romantic view of nature was what later generations would come to call an ecological perspective: that is, a search for holistic or integrated perception, an emphasis on interdependence and relatedness in nature, and an intense desire to restore man to a place of intimate intercourse with the vast organism that constitutes the earth.

—Worster, Nature's Economy, p.82

But, even capitalized, "Romantic" may be too misunderstood a word to use these days; it's not about hearts and flowers. I'm open to other suggestions. In the past couple of years, this discussion has become more broad and more relevant than ever—the no child left inside, last child in the woods discussion points to the values we've always appreciated and practiced.

I haven't given up. It's a conversation worth having.