to a young naturalist

I was on a collecting trip to Banks Island in the Canadian arctic in 2011. We were there for 17 days with no internet, no electricity, no generator and 24 hours of sunlight. Not a problem at all — we brought a pile of books. I took a photo of our little library one day (well, one part of the library; all the field guides were scattered among our backpacks). I was looking back through those photos recently and realized that it was more than a snapshot of part of our day to day routine up there at our camp at Green Cabin; it was a nice little microcosm of General Life Advice to the Young Academic Naturalist.

The Green Cabin Public Library

The Green Cabin Public Library

The subject matter of this stack of books is, well, all over the place, but I’ll argue that they all contain a useful lesson for those contemplating a life as a naturalist in the world of modern science (and no, I do not think those two things are incompatible!)

A Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic (Evelyn C. Pielou). It’s a field guide. But not just to species. To ice, and clouds, and the sea, and the seasons. Lesson: Hopefully a really obvious lesson: know your organisms, know the organisms they interact with, and know the place they’re in. Knowledge of place gives you more than just a sense of familiarity; it gives you a context for everything you study.

Arctic Dreams (Barry Lopez). A sense of place doesn’t develop just in a scientific context. Places, even remote ones, have history. And history matters. Lopez explores the Canadian arctic from the perspective of a historian, a naturalist, a philosopher. Lesson: The place you’re in is bigger than data. That place, like you, has a past that made it the way it is, and a future that will be shaped by the present. It’s hard to separate science from a broader view of the world. So don’t try. Also, it’s especially easy to see the bigger picture when you’re sitting in the middle of the stark, harsh places of the world — tundra, desert, ocean, rock

What I Learned at Bug Camp (Sarah Rabkin). This little book starts out with a writer realizing that she is about to kill and pin a lot of bugs. But it spirals out from there into a series of reflections on how we interact with nature and how nature affects and changes us. It’s a look at linkages between science and art, between fact and spirit. It’s a look at connections across many levels, from the very small to the very big. Lesson:  Your interactions with nature, even fleeting ones, will affect you, change you, inspire you. Let them.

A Sand County Almanac (Aldo Leopold). One man’s thoughts on the passing seasons of a small piece of land in the flat middle of a big country. And his thoughts about our relationship with the land, wherever we stand. One of a small handful of books that launched the modern environmental movement. Lesson: As a scientist who strives to understand a piece of the world, do more than simply document those patterns. Be an advocate. Be an educator. Be an ambassador. Be a leader. If not us, then who?

On the Road (Jack Kerouac). An iconic piece of modern American literature. A series of road trips by architects of the Beat Generation. A celebration of swimming against the tide of society. Lesson: Get out there. Go places you’ve never gone. See new things. Oh, and if you are intent on being a naturalist in the world of modern science, there are people who will, inevitably, see you as a questionable character. Revel in that.

Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck). Another iconic American book. One of many famous novels by a famous novelist. But Steinbeck was also a naturalist and a marine biologist by way of his connection with his good friend Ed Ricketts. John and Ed’s Log from the Sea of Cortez is a travelogue, an adventure story, a philosophical treatise, an introduction to marine biology, and one of the 101 natural history books you should read before you die. Lesson: Don’t be afraid to write about science with the words of a novelist, the rhythm of a poet, the imagery of an artist.

The Anarchist’s Tool Chest (Christopher Schwarz). Schwarz is a woodworker and author who sees much more than just wood and metal in his tool chest. This book is not so much about anarchy as it is about hand tools for working with wood. It’s about forging a connection with objects you make, and with the things you use to make them.  Lesson: Don’t be a scientist 24 hours a day. Get yourself a hobby. Work with your hands as well as your mind.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee). Fieldwork consists of long hours of tedium interrupted by brief bouts of discovery, excitement, companionship, and joy. Up on the tundra we spent long hours cleaning and sorting samples of insects from Malaise traps. On one gray, drizzly morning near the end of the trip we sat hunched in the cabin going through a sludgy soup of flies and wasps. Ivanka, our guide, sat in a lawn chair in the middle of the cabin and read the first few chapters of this book aloud, giving unique voices to each character, while we picked out wet flies with forceps. Ivanka’s reading transformed the rainy tedium into a meditation. We were a little sad when we finished the sample and had to get started on preparing lunch. To this day, looking at this book transports me back to that morning. Lesson: The work of a naturalist doing science often involves long hours of sitting in cold rain, or lying on your belly in dirt, or feeding mosquitoes, or sorting samples, or entering data. Even the boring, but necessary, parts of the work of science can become a joy if you find little tricks to help pass the time.

About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Science Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to to a young naturalist

  1. CommNatural says:

    This is such a wonderful combo of a book list and naturalist/ecologist life lessons! I work as a science/sustainability communication consultant, collaborating with researchers and nonprofits to communicate about research projects, scientists in action, and why it all matters. Your blog post is a fine lyrical example of how to put a face on science. Thank you! P.S. If you’re ever looking for a collaborator, feel free to look me up:

    Bethann G. Merkle

  2. CommNatural says:

    Hi Terry, here’s a follow-up. Would you be okay with me quoting your lessons in a post on my blog? I’d like to reference them as fine examples of life lessons that apply to anyone seeking a richly productive and meaningful life working in the sciences, natural history, and environmental fields.


  3. Pingback: 7 life lessons that will help make your science matter | B. G. Merkle Communications Consulting

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