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 Sitkanature.org, 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.