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.

1 comment:

Dave said...

Of course, Martha Maxwell was in the Colorado Rockies as early as 1860. There's a selection of her writing in American Women Afield: Writings by Pioneering Women Naturalists, edited by Marcia Bonta. (Yes, that was a shameless plug!)