The Naturalist Spirit

Does any vocation have a more open and welcoming door than natural history? To be a naturalist, you don’t need a high school diploma or a university degree; there is neither an age barrier nor a physical fitness test. Plenty of societies exist for fostering interest, but membership is optional because it is okay to belong to your own club of one. It helps to have keen senses and a memory for identifying species, but curiosity and passion about nature are the defining characters of a naturalist. No higher qualifications are required.

“There’s a bunch of naturalists,” someone exclaims at the sight of one straining through binoculars for a bird or flipping through a field guide to identify a plant or butterfly. But they can be recognized in countless other ways and places too. Some volunteer for conservation work, some express their love of nature through art or photography, some compose essays or poetry to celebrate it, while others choose the simple joy of a country walk. Everyone is welcome at nature’s table.

It’s a mystery why this passion germinates in some people but not in everyone. Nature casts its spell over the human psyche at every age, but in childhood it is often nurtured by parents, friends and teachers, and nourished by visits to wildlife parks and the spectacle of museum dioramas. Summer camps may bring it to full bloom in adolescence, but what next? There are jobs for naturalists as conservation officers and rangers, but for most of us it is a lifelong hobby, and there’s the rub.

In an age that prizes academic qualifications and technical know-how, natural history is often regarded as little more than a casual pastime. It deserves greater honor. All the early naturalists were amateurs, but many of them plowed personal wealth into their endeavors, and sometimes took great risks. Naturalists like Alfred Wallace was famous for trotting around the globe describing, collecting, and illustrating specimens; others like Charles Darwin never ventured further than his home turf after disembarking from the Beagle, yet he laid the foundations of modern biology and geology. Some of the greatest minds in history starting with Aristotle were naturalists, and the scientific disciplines most closely-related to natural history today—ecology and evolution—are intellectually rigorous.  Aristotle has been called the first naturalist and the first biologist, but are those labels interchangeable? Not exactly.

Naturalist was coined around 1587 whereas the closely-linked words, biologist and scientist, were Victorian inventions. This vintage word is sometimes muddled with metaphysical naturalist (someone who holds a materialistic philosophy), or with naturist (nudist) when someone goofs in a spelling bee!

There is more confusion because of the broad dictionary definition: “the study of living and non-living things, and of how plants and animals are adapted to their environment.” A list of American naturalists expanded the meaning even wider by including the astronomer Carl Sagan, perhaps because he speculated about “little green men” in other worlds! So much diffusion of meaning usually diminishes the value of a word, but I argue the opposite.

The contributions of amateurs to ecology, geology, and astronomy are more important now than ever before. Unlike heroes in fashionable biomedicine who have deep pockets for research and can win Nobel Prizes, amateur naturalists go uncelebrated as they step forward for voluntary conservation work with the satisfaction of “making things good” as their only reward. Last month, our local chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalist program celebrated the graduation of 23 new members. There are 28 other chapters in the State and similar programs nationwide that are growing rapidly. It is quite inspiring to watch these naturalists quietly giving their time and sharing expertise as they survey wildlife, improve habitats, and monitor weather patterns. These unpaid services help to improve the biological quality of nature parks and waterways and make huge contributions to knowledge in an era of environmental stress.

Virginia Tech Naturalists
Virginia Master Naturalist program celebrates its tenth anniversary in 2015

Amateur naturalists and professional biologists look like natural twins to outsiders because they have so much in common. But like twins, they occasionally fall out. The Romantic Poets who idealized nature were early critics of science before the Industrial Age got underway and before the storms over animal vivisection and so much more to come.

Wordsworth_Tables Turned

Naturalists who regard their role as defenders of the planet can turn scornfully on developments that threaten biodiversity, spread pollution, and release genetically modified organisms. Activists have launched hundreds of environmental organizations—the Ocean Conservancy, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, Sierra Club, and the R.S.P.B. to name a few. Those who straddle as biologists by profession and naturalists by vocation feel uncomfortably dissected, like chimeras with two talking heads. This is not a clash between sentimental naturalism and hard-headed science, but about values and attitudes. Care, respect, even love, characterize the naturalist, whereas honesty, patience and caution are watchwords for the professional biologist.

Wordsworth’s poetry contains faint echoes of pagan deference to nature, but it also nods towards the New Age movement that emerged more recently. There have always been people for whom nature is spiritually refreshing, and some found joy in it when the rest of their world looked desperately bleak.

The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.”  Ann Frank writing from a secret annex, February 23, 1944

Since mainstream religions always claimed to be guardians of spirituality and morality leaders, I wonder where they were in the debate about care of the environment. They were stuck in medieval theology for a long time.

When Darwin enrolled in Cambridge University, his intention (at least his father’s) was to enter the priesthood where there were many parson-naturalists. The Church of England offered a comfortable living for gentlemen, and enough spare time to pursue nature studies. Charles’ circumstances changed so he could pursue his first love full-time, but what were the attitudes of his contemporaries who took up holy orders? They rarely used the pulpit to preach stewardship of the creation, nor would Charles had he donned a cassock and surplice because apocalyptic visions of environmental collapse would have sounded bizarre even to ardent naturalists before the 20th Century. The long struggle of civilization to tame wild nature and meet human needs and wants was not yet over. Nature was scary. Besides, both Saints Paul and Augustine had elevated the doctrine of Original Sin to the center of theology, and the whole environment was caught up in this theological “corruption.” Much less attention was paid to the God of Genesis I, who expressed joy in his creation which was “very good.”

So many years later when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) was published and a Green Movement was sprouting, there were young naturalists sitting in the same church pews who wondered if the church had at last a change of heart. It hadn’t. The clergy found so much more biblical exegesis for instructing us on the care of our fellow humans that it forgot to say anything about caring for the natural systems that support us. Perhaps the Commandment Thou shalt not steal comes closest to an environmental ethic, if it is construed as a call to responsibility for the sake of future generations.

Church of Scotland magazine
Young naturalists look out on a changing landscape – and to an uncertain future. From Life & Work 1989

As nature and church were dear, I found the clerical vacuity embarrassing and alienating. My frustration exploded in 1989 when I published “What on Earth does the Kirk think about Ecology?” in the Church of Scotland magazine Life and Work. Of course, a layman cannot stir up the church hierarchy, but there was a consolation when invitations to speak at the Women’s Guild meetings rolled in.

There has been dramatic greening of churches since those days, and thoughtful books from writers representing all the Abrahamic religions. This late flurry looks like a rearguard action to critics who suspect that churches are struggling to gain authority on a vital topic, but the new focus is nonetheless welcome. There is even a “Green Patriarch” heading the Orthodox Church, and an encyclical about climate change is anticipated from the Vatican where Pope Francis has already brought fresh attention to the subject.

The vocation of being a “protector”, however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live.” March 19, 2013.

Judging by action and behavior, most of the public is deaf to calls from governments, scientists and activists to live more carefully with nature. A Canadian environmental psychologist, Robert Gifford, calls our excuses the “Dragons of Inaction,” which include: “I’m only one, so my effort is a drop in a bucket/ Why should I bother when richer folk don’t/ I’m tired of the publicity/ I’m too busy in my job…” and twenty-seven other excuses where the pronoun “I” is dominating.

There is plenty of speculation about the future legacy of Pope Francis, but his call to be “protectors” of the earth could be the greatest. It is an appeal to people who have faith and others who have none, to those who are heads of state and industry and others who are powerless. Its scope is global because we face an uncertain future together, although the rich world still insulates itself from disasters that affect others, such as rising sea levels forcing emigration from oceanic islands, depletion of fishery stocks, crop failures, drought and desertification.

We have low expectations of progress or agreement between nations because of the drag of vested interests. When science, our best hope, fails to persuade or is befouled in politics what hope, what straws, are left? Perhaps only spiritual ones.

I hope the Pope will remind us of collective guilt for generations of aggressive handling of this wonderful heritage. If shaming is the first lesson, the second must be preaching the stewardship of care. He needs to inspire spiritual zeal that breaks through the old cynicism and the apologies of the Dragons of Inaction to a vision of a world order that is kinder to the environment, more just to the powerless, and considerate of human needs not only in his flock, but all.

The early church fathers had a Greek word, koinonia, which roughly translated means “communion.” They had in mind a fellowship of believers, but it is an apt expression for the “protectors” who Pope Francis is calling for.  There is something deeply spiritual in this idea. At the beginning of this post, I defined the word naturalist in a broad way, not restricting it to a clique of birders or voluntary conservationists, but embracing everyone who loves nature, even if they live their whole lives in the city. My definition includes the ladies I met in the Women’s Guild though they never strung binoculars round their necks, and Ann Frank who never hugged her chestnut tree. Everyone who cares about nature has the heart of a naturalist, because they share a passion for the earth.

Next Post: Pantry for Paleos

Virginia Nature Journal for March

Daffodils stanza 1

DaffodilsThe poem was inspired by thousands of wild daffodils blooming in woods around Ullswater in the Lake District of England in the spring of 1802. I imagine Wordsworth on horseback in a tightly-fitting frock coat, pantaloons and hessian boots, while his sister, Dorothy, rode side-saddle in a redingote and floppy hat. When he came to compose Daffodils two years later, he drew from her journal entry, though it was the remembrance that inspired a reviving experience:

Daffodils stanza 4

They are pretty lines that schoolchildren have read ever since they were published. We love them because daffodils herald the joyous season when nature is reborn.

Wandered lonely as a cloud continued

The yellow trumpets looked like a friendly crowd of people nodding and dancing as the pair rode past them on the lakeside path. In previous centuries, the woods and countryside almost everywhere were regarded as fearful places where highwaymen lurked and superstitious people believed goblins would trap an unwary traveler. But the poet was making a fresh and romantic connection with the spirit of nature, just as the cheerful days of spring follow the dark, northern winter. Wild plants, birds, and animals were not aliens after all, but fellow creatures that celebrate rebirth in their own ways, just as the Wordsworth family would at Eastertide in St. Oswald’s Church, a few steps from home in Grasmere.

The Wordsworths lived during the Little Ice Age which began after the Medieval period and lasted until about 1850. A diarist of the time wrote that just three years earlier, “No vegetation in the fields, nor blossoms upon the fruit trees, on the 7th May, 1799. The skins of upwards of 10,000 lambs, which perished in the spring, were sold in this town. The weather was cold and wet all through the year.”  The weather is particularly fickle in the Lake District, even by British standards, and then as now there was much variation from year-to-year: the years 1800 and 1802 were much warmer and drier. It’s hard to make sense of climate change from a few sample years, or predict what the next year will bring.

The month of March is a time when people living in the Northern Hemisphere look forward to the first blossoms on plants and trees. Unfortunately, the dates of blossoming have not been recorded as assiduously over the centuries as temperature (continuously logged in the UK from 1659), yet they are vital for monitoring whether seasons are changing and for anticipating impacts on agriculture. Phenology is the name of the science that records blooming and ripening times, and when animals migrate and start breeding. Think of cherry blossom in Washington DC and California poppies on the West Coast.

We mark this month on our calendar for planting in our veggie garden, or moving a coffee table outdoors or cleaning the barbecue grill. The natural world is no respecter of the calendar, but watches the auspicious cues of daylight and weather to make a more sophisticated calculus than an old farmer’s almanac. Project Budburst draws on this natural wisdom  by recruiting citizen scientists across the United States to collect “phenophase” records of when the first buds burst, flowers open, and fruit ripens in their locality. As the database swells, an impression is gained of nature’s “sensibilities.”

 

Weeping cherry, Williamsburg VA (April 4, 2015)
Weeping cherry, Williamsburg VA (April 4, 2015)

Spring burst upon us suddenly up and down the eastern seaboard after a cruel winter. Our weeping cherry tree blossomed today like an Easter bridal veil, a full ten days later than after the mild winter of 2010. Likewise, the daffodils that are often finished before Easter, are today still bright and cheerful with only a few trumpets curling in the sunshine.  Yet nature often fools us because bloom dates do not always conform to our perceptions of what the weather has been like or where climate is heading. As one of spring’s harbingers, daffodils will contribute to the unfolding of science, but will always provide “jocund company” for poetic hearts.

Next Post: Naturalists called to the wild side