Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Country of Naturalists

Well, here we are in yet another election year full of vitriolic demarcations of right from left, seemingly with little overlap. Once again, the looming dangers of global warming, failing ecosystems, and our overall unsustainabilty are lost amidst the rhetorical din of jobs and economy (as if these were somehow distinct from the aforementioned perils). Meanwhile, the chasm between humans and nature deepens.

Watching the national debates unfold, I find little to be positive about. One exception worth underlining, however, is the very fact that such divergent views can co-occur. Most of us live as if there’s only one worldview—ours. But anyone doubting the existence of deeply contrary perspectives need only look at the current Republican-Democrat divide in the United States. And that’s within a single country.

As readers of this blog will be aware, my central concern is how we are to go about connecting humanity with nature, with the assumption that we cannot achieve anything approaching sustainability without a mindset that embeds us inside nature. Living in an indoor culture obsessed with the techno-gadgetry of computers, smartphones, and e-tablets, the notion of embedding humans within nature might seem an impossible dream. But such a mindset is not nearly as alien as it might first appear.

Take America, for example.

Traditionally, the indigenous peoples of this continent, and every other, were expert naturalists who formed deep bonds with their local places. Today, native peoples continue to speak of this close attachment, even co-identity, with their homelands [1]. In the words of Luther Standing Bear, an Oglala Sioux:

"The American Indian is of the soil, whether it be the region of forests, plains, pueblos, or mesas. He fits into the landscape, for the hand that fashioned the continent also fashioned the man for his surroundings. He once grew as naturally as the wild sunflowers, he belongs just as the buffalo belonged..."

Marlowe Sam, an Okanagan Indian, put it simply [2], “As Okanagan people, we are from the land; we are part of it.” Best we can tell, this kind of nature-centric worldview has dominated the human mind for most of our 200,000-year tenure.

European colonists in North America, although bearing a conqueror mindset, found that they too had to be students of nature to survive in the New World. In the bloody wake of indigenous decimation, new generations of naturalists set out to rediscover North America’s wonders. The 19th Century in particular witnessed an explosion of fascination in natural history. Nuttal, Bartram, Clark, Agassiz and others steeped in the Linnaean tradition collected and classified legions of North American species. Birds, beetles, butterflies, seashells, and wildflowers were favorite targets, but Cope and Marsh expanded the scope to include fossils, competing to see who could recover the greatest number of ancient species from the western territories.

As difficult as it is to imagine today, even the Whitehouse was occupied by a series of naturalists. Early in the 19th Century, Presidents Washington and Jefferson were both ardent naturalists. Jefferson even had a prehistoric giant ground sloth named in his honor. A century later, Theodore Roosevelt proudly brandished the naturalist label, translating his lifelong fascination with the outdoors into conservation of wilderness areas.

In the 1870s and 1880s, nature fever overtook the general public, resulting in hundreds of small natural history associations from coast to coast. Membership in these societies surged as people relocated from countryside to towns and cities. This public passion for nature translated into the construction of natural history museums, both here and overseas, to house the growing collections and put them on public display. The Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco are all products of this period. By the close of the 1900s, most Americans could describe themselves as naturalists [3].

The nature craze continued early in the 20th Century with more clubs, more museums, and more learning. Indeed an education was considered incomplete if one lacked a general knowledge of local plants and animals. The chief guide for outdoor adventuring became Anna Botsford Comstock’s 1911 Handbook of Nature Study [4]. The Old and New Testaments may have held sway on Sundays, but Comstock’s Handbook revealed the wonders of God’s creations the remaining days of the week. With abundant illustrations and vivid descriptions linking animals to habitats, she introduced a generation of school children to fireflies, toads, dandelions, clouds, rocks, and robins. Comstock’s firm belief was that experiential education in nature should form the bedrock of education. And, while certainly not all reached adulthood as naturalists, the practice of natural history was highly valued, both as an amateur pastime and a professional vocation.

Following WWII, nature study took an abrupt and precipitous decline. Amongst the contributing factors was the mounting exodus from countryside to cityscape, further separating people from nature, as well as the reinvention of biology as a strictly empirical science focused on genes and molecules rather than whole organisms [5]. Field observations, the bread and butter of natural historians, were replaced by replicable experiments carried out in sterile laboratories. By the 1960s, natural history had become a quaint hobby for amateurs. With landmark exceptions such as Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, “naturalist” was no longer a label adopted by most self-respecting biologists.

Nevertheless, there’s still plenty of reason for hope. For example, you may be surprised to learn that annual attendance at North American nature institutions—museums, botanical gardens, aquariums, zoos, and science centers—exceeds that of professional sporting events. And plenty of people still flock to beaches and parks on weekends, as well as to natural wonders on vacation. It’s been only two generations, well within the lifetime of my mountain-and-forest-loving mother, since the bulk of people in this country shared a significant link with nature. Viewed in this way, our present mode of thinking can be considered a recent aberration set against a lengthy history of uniting people with their local environs. Connectedness with nature lays dormant within us, waiting to be reawakened. We’re closer than you might think to rebuilding a country of naturalists. But to get there, we’ll need to reverse current trends, getting people (and especially children) back outside experiencing and learning about local nature.

1.    Nelson, M. K. (ed.). 2008. Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future. Bear & Company, Rochester; Abram, D. 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous. Vintage Books, New York.
2.   Sam, M. 2008. Ethics from the land: Traditional protocols and the maintenance of peace. Pp. 39-41 in M. K. Nelson (ed.), Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future. Bear & Company, Rochester.
3.   Cain, V. 2012. Professor Carter’s Collection. Common-Place, 12(2): 1-20. (http://www.common-place.org/vol-12/no-02/cain/)
4.   Comstock, A. B. 1911. Handbook of Nature Study. Comstock Publishing, New York.
5.    Pyle, R. M. 2001. The Rise and Fall of Natural History. Orion Magazine, 20(4):16-23.

Image Credits
All images from National Geographic: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/