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

About Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in human and animal reproduction & embryology. Academic career spanned from Cambridge and Edinburgh to McGill and Cornell's Weill Medical College in Manhattan where he was Professor & Research Director. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America, he retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and to recover from 'nature deficit disorder'
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2 Responses to The Naturalist Spirit

  1. jennykrapez says:

    Thank you Roger. The ‘Dragons of Inaction’ is especially true. How often do peope shrug and claim that the huge industries/India/China/whatever use more energy or water or create more air/water/ground pollution, and hence any small effort they themselves might make would have a negligible effect. In Australia we are watching the Great Barrier Reef decline at an alarming rate, our Prime Minister still cares more for selling and transporting coal to developing nations than for protecting our environment, and far too many people, even some biologist colleagues of mine, just don’t seem to care…

  2. fleetpen says:

    Good stuff! Lots to chew on. My own personal dragons of inaction are quite vocal! I thought you might be interested in the United Methodist Church’s social principles statements related to the natural world: http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/the-natural-world

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