I want to look like a turkey. Don’t misread me. I want to look like one, not look like a turkey. The eyesight of wild turkeys is superior to every other inhabitant of eastern forests with the exception of raptors and vultures, and probably three times as acute as a human hunter with 20/20 vision.
Little details that don’t get our attention matter to turkeys. They notice a trivial silhouette that might betray the ears of a lurking coyote, or the metallic ring pointing out of shrubbery 100 yards away that could be a shotgun barrel. They might even notice an unfamiliar blue flash on a hunter’s camouflaged jacket who didn’t realize that detergent containing optical brighteners leaves fluorescent traces that are noticed by quarry with sharp eyes at the blue end of the spectrum.
But when I look peep through a window to watch a gang of turkeys feeding at our sanctuary area it’s not only their visual supremacy I admire but how acutely they take in their surroundings, as of course they must. If we were a prey species we would not last long in the woods, having lost or forgotten the craft of “looking out.” When I saunter along a trail I have less than half a mind on my surroundings, being either engaged in conversation with another hiker or lost in private thoughts. If this is true of a naturalist I guess it must be general. What do I miss on a hike—a rare bird or butterfly, a glistening stone or weird mushroom, a trail of beaten grass or an intriguing dollop of scat? How much richer the experience if I looked harder, saw more, mentally engaged my surroundings; how many more critters and stories could I bring home if I saw the signs? My eyes focus on the next footfalls and anything beyond a few yards is a forgotten blur. I might notice more if I were a blind man accustomed to using sharp ears.
This lack of attention is even more wretched in town than in the woods. Some writers break from their desk to have a smoke: I go out for a walk to mentally work through a tricky paragraph or overcome writer’s block. Without a dog guiding me on a leash I might bump into a post from somnolently gazing at my feet pacing the sidewalk. There is an element of courtesy in this dream-walking because I can’t be accused of looking nosily in the windows of houses or at people on their porches. But I wonder how much interesting stuff I miss by not looking out, stuff that might feed a writer’s fancy, and there was never a better opportunity for spying on eccentricity than when I walked to work along First Avenue in NYC where so many strange birds make their nest.
This musing threw me back to memories of when I was a Boy Scout. The scouting motto is Be Prepared, but there is another—Look Wide. Even after all these years it is hard to keep a lookout, requiring a disciplined act of concentration like keeping a stiff back instead of slouching like many other tall people.
The founder of the scouting movement Lord Robert Baden-Powell wrote: “Look wide, and even when you think you are looking wide—look wider still.” Our favorite scout activity was the Wide Game in which half the troop was sent into the woods as hiders while the rest waited fifteen minutes to go after them as seekers. It honed our powers of observation, skills that Baden-Powell brought home as a colonial army officer from the Matabele and Boer Wars. They are not so much valued today except by hunters and search-and-rescue squads, and society might be approaching a nadir as we focus on smartphones and tablets, seldom casting aside to everyone and everything around. We look narrow.
I suspect professional artists look differently. I never looked as carefully at objects than when I dabbled in painting. In a Norwegian study tiny cameras were used to track eye movements in trained artists to compare with a group of non-artists (Perception 2007; 36:91-100). They were asked to look at a scene or a picture and then look again more intently to remember it. The non-artists quickly focused on the chief features—a house, a person, an animal—and their attention didn’t wander far for long. The eyes of artists, however, tracked back and forth, up and down, scanning the entire field and following the shapes, forms, and colors. Their look was not strongly focused on the main subject, and they remembered details better. They look wide.
We expect artists to be better observers of nature, but I was surprised when I read that minor visual disabilities are more common among art students. Stranger still, Rembrandt’s self-portraits seem to depict a man with cross eyes (strabismus), which would have impaired his depth perception. Perhaps I now understand why I was taught in art classes to close one eye when drafting a picture. It helps pay attention to the details of the subject as well as frame a picture with two-dimensions from three.
That brings me round to wild turkeys. They are strabismotic because their eyes are on the sides of their head, and they gain a penetrating impression of their surroundings by constantly rotating their heads through 360 degrees. Turkeys teach me to look, but I stop at rubbernecking.
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.
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.
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 “verygood.”
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.
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.
If you guessed Jean Blewett wrote this poem for Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day you are right. But the first line is also a good fit to New Zealand’s green islands.
Before Maoris and Europeans arrived in the past thousand years, the two islands were covered with lush vegetation up to the tree line on the highest mountains. Like the deep, fertile soils of the American Mid-West, New Zealand was too valuable to be left to nature. After the trees were felled, the rich volcanic sod created prime grazing land, and I have never seen a higher density of contented cattle and sheep. Virgin forest survives in the north only in tiny patches and on mountainous outcrops that discouraged farming and logging. But one of those gems remains 30 minutes from Hamilton.
Called Maungatautari, it was owned by a Maori Queen whose opposition to land sale was respected after her death in 1927. But by then the patch was no longer primeval forest land; it had become invaded through stealth or deliberate introduction by non-native plants and varmints—goats, deer, possums, stoats, rats, mice, feral cats and dogs. New Zealand never had a native mammal because it separated from the southern supercontinent (Gondwana) 85 million years ago, before they evolved. With few predators, the country was a haven for birds, and many of them lost the power of flight. The giant moas disappeared rapidly into Maori cooking pots, and four-footed beasts hunted down the rest or robbed their nests. A few refugees hung on in remote offshore islands.
Then some unsung hero of conservation had the bold idea of creating an ‘island’ sanctuary for native species on the mainland. It inspired a community-driven project to encircle Maungatautari with a fence deep enough to discourage burrowers, strong enough to keep out marauders, and tall enough to deter climbers, including possums reaching a ‘live’ wire at the top. The fence encloses 3,400 hectares (over 8,000 acres) and stretches for 47 km (30 miles). Completed in 2004, it was paid for by public subscription and grants and is maintained by a bevy of volunteers working the equivalent of 37 full-time staff.
They probably had many discouraging moments and encountered plenty of doubters, as there always will be with pioneering endeavors, but their efforts are already paying off. Foreign predators and pests have been completely eliminated from within the enclosure, except for mice. The numbers of native vertebrate species have increased four-fold through a reintroduction program. There are kokopu (native fish), kaka (parrot), takahe (endangered species of rail), hihi (stichbird), karariki (parakeet), tieke (saddleback). The tuatara (the world’s oldest lizard) and the weta (the largest insect) are there. The Maungatautari forest sanctuary is an experiment in recreating a natural forest, a laboratory for education, and an inspiring example of a community achievement.
When you leave farmland behind to enter the sanctuary through double gates the forest gathers around you. The vegetation is luxuriant and the high canopy shields your skin from damaging ultra-violet rays pouring down through the ozone hole at that latitude. Boles of giant rimu trees are crowded with lianas ascending to the crown as thick as a man’s arm. Giant tree ferns look like relics from the Carboniferous Period (they are), creating spectacular patterns against the blueness at breaks in the canopy. Only the sound of trickling streams or the raucous call of a parrot breaks the silence of this natural cathedral.
But come at night and you will hear more—shy creatures going about their business. The brown kiwis are whistling a happy tune again after a century of absence. A warden who trained his dog to find nests discovered they had already started breeding again in 2007. The first chick was named Huatahi, meaning ‘first of the new fruits.’
The next time I visit the sanctuary I hope to hear the flightless kakapo which has been on the verge of extinction. I am told its nocturnal call will make my hair stand on end as I wait for the iconic bird in the darkness of that amazing forest. How appropriate that the kakapo is a symbol for conservation in New Zealand and Sirocco, an abandoned chick raised by hand, has over 30,000 likes on his Facebook page. He is a green parrot for a green movement on a green isle.