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.


April said...

This is a thought-provoking article.
Seeing - I'm trying to see as Thoreau did and not overlook anything.
Caring - I've grown to cherish this wooded lot on which I have lived for 30 years.

matt goff said...

Thank you for your kind words.

I was going to put more in this comment, but I realized I had a lot more to say about the subject of being a naturalist (or an aspiring naturalist, as I consider myself), so I started a series of posts on being an aspiring naturalist

Natural Patriot said...

Great topic for discusion, Sally. On how imortant knowledge of natural history is, and especially in our modern increasingly electronic world, may I also recommend Richard Louv's wonderful book, Last Child in the Woods. I have reviewed it here.

Dave said...

In one of the last issues of Wild Earth magazine, the pioneering conservation biologist Reed Noss also had an impassionated brief for reviving the word "naturalist" to describe professional scientists and amateur "citizen scientists" alike. I'll have to try and dig that up for you. Actually, I think I probably blogged it at one time or another...

Dave said...

I quoted from another one of his Wild Earth essays here: The gatekeepers. But chec out the E.O. Wilson quote in the same post:
"The naturalist’s trance was adaptive: the glimpse of one small animal hidden in the grass could make the difference between eating and going hungry in the evening. And a sweet sense of horror, the shivery fascination with monsters and creeping forms that so delights us today even in the sterile hearts of the cities, could keep you alive until the next morning. Organisms are the natural stuff of metaphor and ritual. Although the evidence is far from all in, the brain appears to have kept all its old capacities, its channeled quickness. We stay alert and alive in the vanished forests of the world."

That last line makes me weep.

Dave said...

Okay, the essay I was thinking of 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."

SLW said...

Perfect, Dave, thanks! I'm going to elevate these into another post, but meanwhile, see also the Coues quote in the new post above this one.