Are You a Naturalist?

One of Haupt's recurring themes in Crow Planet is the concept of a naturalist. She thinks becoming a naturalist is important not only to the individual himself, but to society as a whole.

Over the past decade I have thought and written a fair bit about the role of the naturalist — the importance of the naturalist’s attitude both for oneself and for the conservation of earthly life. I believe strongly that effective and lasting conservation efforts are based in an everyday awareness of our continuity with the more-than-human world, an awareness that is cultivated through study and observation. Still, bringing this sensibility to my daily urban life has posed an unexpectedly steep challenge. My images of what is and what is not nature, what is and what is not worthy of the kind of attunement that characterizes the naturalist's way of seeing, are more deeply ingrained than I even guessed. I quickly discovered that just declaring myself to be an aspiring urban naturalist was not enough. I didn’t believe myself.

I’ve never thought of naturalists in this way. When I think of naturalists I think of professionals, experts, whose ideas guide the rest of us who care about the environment, not ordinary people who pay particular attention to their neighborhood environment.

However, when Haupt offers her definition of a naturalist,

To my mind, a contemporary naturalist is a person who studies deeply, richly, seriously, and over a respectable swath of time, the life and ecology of a chosen place or places. Naturalist is a liberal arts title, and it might involve philosophy, literature, art, and an expansive sense of spirit as much as it does science. This is absolutely not to say that we ought to lapse into some murky New Age condition in which we become one with nature at the level of the heart and avoid the “cold” academics of science. Not at all. Rather, the amateur naturalist is in the wonderful position of being both scientifically informed and unencumbered by the restrictive parameters of traditional scientific reporting (statistical significance, aversion to anecdote, and so on). As naturalists, we can fill our notebooks with anything that the breadth of nature can dream up and give us. Anything true. Anything that we are present and attentive enough to witness. In the modern urban setting, the naturalist's way suggests an antidote to the over influence of specialization upon our everyday lives. Today we leave our health to doctors, our food to agribusiness, and our knowledge of the biological realm to information received from scientists. Such specialization, writes author Michael Pollan, “obscures lines of connection — and responsibility.” The foundational knowledge unearthed by modern naturalists is simultaneously freeing, consoling, and revolutionary. So often it is the amateur naturalists in a community who spearhead grassroots projects to protect local, wild places and their denizens. We can take responsibility for our own biological education, and the earth-sustaining work it entails need not wait for anointing from either academia or politicians.

it seems that many of the birders I see regularly and bloggers who I link to could be called “naturalists.” I’m not sure that I do, but is certainly something I aspire to. The best birders I know have observed in the same areas for years and “own” those areas. Most are actively involved in environmental actions.

Most birders may actively push environmental issues, but they will tell you they bird for the sheer joy of it. Haupt cites E.O. Wilson’s argument that connecting with our ecosystem puts us more in touch with ourselves:

We are human in good part because of the way we affiliate with other organisms. They are the matrix in which the human mind originated and is permanently rooted, and they offer the challenge and freedom innately sought. To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammeled world will he regained. - E. O. WILSON

E. O. Wilson has written extensively of biophilia - the innate human tendency to know and love the natural, wild earth, and the further sense that this knowing is part of our health, our imagination, and our intelligence. In the habit of writing down our observations, however messily, sketchily, or dreamily, we unearth and indulge this love.

Birding and photographing nature has certainly enriched my life, reviving a sense of wonder that I’d at least partly lost since childhood. It has also rekindled my love of art.

Though I’ll admit that I spend a lot of money on photographic equipment, Haupt rightly points out that being a birder doesn’t require much more than a desire to pay attention to the birds you see:

Long before laptops, the philosopher ]ean-]acques Rousseau claimed, “The more ingenious and accurate our instruments, the more unsusceptible and inexpert become our organs: by assembling a heap of machinery about us, We find afterwards none in ourselves.” This commodification of watching is a falsehood, and a terrible loss. The plain, subversive, radical truth is that we do not need to go shopping in order to watch birds. In its pure simplicity, observation of nature may be the most countercultural thing an ecologically minded person can do.

Though I’m seldom satisfied until I can capture a good shot of a particular species I’ve sighted, unlike most birders I don’t use binoculars or scopes. I’m not even particularly interested in looking through someone’s scope to see a rare species. It’s only after I’ve spotted a bird with my own eyes that I worry about getting a shot of them. And as I’ve pointed out many times, more often than not the real thrill of the day goes unrecorded because it happened so fast that I couldn’t photograph it, and, for the moment, at least, I’m thrilled by that moment, even though I can’t share it with you.

Before I started birding myself I quite often met an elderly woman with binoculars and a back pack wandering through Point Defiance Park. Known by many as “The Bird Lady,” she used her annual bus pass to come to the park nearly 365 days a year and spent most of the daylight hours walking the trails observing birds and animals. I was fascinated by her knowledge and her tales of the park. I doubt any “expert” understood the park’s ecosystem as well as she did. She certainly didn’t let her limited income limit her birding. She never pursued the “rare birds” that many birders seem devoted to, but I suspect that the depth of her knowledge about the park exceeded the width of many birding experts.

I suspect birders are often stereotyped as sweet little old ladies who lovingly fill bird feeders daily. My experience has been that birders are closer to Haupt’s view of the role of naturalists:

How nice it would be to just watch warblers and make little yellow watercolors of them in our notebooks. But I believe strongly that the modern naturalist's calling includes an element of activism. Naturalists are witnesses to the wild, and necessary bridges between ecological and political ways of knowing. When Rachel Carson began work on Silent Spring in the late 1950s, she was already the acclaimed author of three books on the sea. Her beloved friend Dorothy Freeman objected to the new “poison” book, believing the subject matter was too negative and dark. In a letter to Freeman, Carson wrote, “You do know, I think, how deeply I believe in the importance of what I am doing. Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent." As we work to know the life that surrounds us, we stand in a lineage of naturalists-past, present, and even future. We join the “cloud of witnesses” who refuse to let the more-than-human world pass unnoticed.

Though it’s a lot more popular than often given credit for, birding is definitely a counterculture activity. Most birders I know donate to environmental groups and are subversive in their attempts to protect the environment, even if it may cost a few jobs to do so.

2 thoughts on “Are You a Naturalist?

  1. This puts me in mind of the “gentleman naturalists” of Charles Darwin’s day. The legions of amateur naturalists who were responsible for vastly expanding the catalog of plants and animals known to science during that period.

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