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.

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