The Prodigal Naturalist, Part One

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Sauntering naturalists. (Jack Phillips)

By Jack Phillips

I look at the sunshine and feel that there is no contracted order: there is divine chaos, and, in it, limitless hope and possibilities. —Richard Jefferies, The Absence of Design in Nature, 1885

A sunny July morning drew me into a cool ravine in Iowa’s Loess Hills. I had a job to do, at least my colleagues did. My taxonomic skills are easily eclipsed; botanizing fell squarely on the shoulders of those with sufficient expertise. I was no less happy to be confused under that verdant chaos of snakeroot, bloodroot, goosefoot, virgin’s bower, maiden’s hair, jack-in-the-pulpit, licorice, fleabane, tick trefoil, clearweed, bittersweet, honeysuckle, bedstraw, bell-flower, oxalis, oak, basswood, ironwood, walnut, bladdernut, coffee-tree, ash, and others too numerous to name or master. That morning is best described with the words of Richard Jefferies: “There is no enough in nature. It is one vast prodigality. It is a feast. There is no economy: it is all one immense extravagance.” That deep ravine was an immense, extravagant, prodigal feast.

In the midst of that prodigal feast there was important work to do. Preservation requires good data. Under the direction of natural resources specialist Chad Graeve, frequent botanical surveys support the stewardship plan for Hitchcock Nature Center. Without informed preservation practices, impoverished ecosystems would further degrade and vanish under aggressive agriculture and commercial horticulture. Throughout the Great Plains, remnant prairies and woodlands are presently being converted to cropland at unprecedented rates, and the introduction of exotic plants continues unabated. Cataloging species and monitoring plant communities is a vital component of stewardship, and my meager botanizing sometimes contributes. I am continually astonished (to borrow from Charles Darwin) at the “endless forms most beautiful” of the Loess Hills. After decades of surveys and the recording of many hundreds of organisms, the work has only just begun.

Our work is particularly important and urgent because the Loess Hills landform and its plant and animal communities are unique in the Great Plains and on planet Earth. It is a “treasure trove of biodiversity” and “a beautiful living warp and weft of ecological complexity,” according to Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha of Chicago-based Conservation Research Institute, authors of the stewardship plan. Central to that plan is a monitoring protocol that “consults the plants and animals under our care.” The successful implementation of the protocol requires taxonomic knowledge and analytic ability. It also requires authentic love. To this end, I have initiated a separate protocol to supplement our weekly botanical surveys. Free of clipboards and lists, we frequently gather to wander, to get lost, scratch our heads, and fall deeper in love with that place. Modeled after Thoreau’s essay Walking, we saunter with intention but without agenda.

Taxonomy and analysis are necessary but limited. There is something to be said for “useful ignorance, what we will call beautiful knowledge” as articulated by Thoreau. In his Walking essay, “My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is constant.” There is an odd sort of psychology at work here; the most desirable knowledge is produced by ignorant wandering. But it works for me. I’m not short on ignorance and would like to think I can be useful. Even if I some day in the distant future approach botanical mastery of the savannas, fens, and hollows I love, they will seem no less mysterious and lavish to me. The rich biodiversity of my familiar haunts leaves plenty of room for Jefferies’ prodigality and Thoreau’s beautiful ignorant knowledge.

Of course, my affection for Thoreau and his “useful ignorance” could be an excuse for lack of scientific rigor. I hope it goes without saying that in science there is plenty of room for love and that good scientific method requires a growing sense of mystery and a feeling of awe. It also goes without saying that love of nature grows with knowledge. After all, Thoreau and Jefferies were solid amateur naturalists as well as beautiful writers, having that in common with their contemporary, self-taught naturalist Charles Darwin. All three wrote in words that were more poetic than technical and are commonly anthologized as nature writers.

Thoreau himself had little praise for nature writers (though he is celebrated as the fountainhead of American nature-writing tradition), having found no poetry that expressed his “yearning for the wild” or literature that “contents me of that Nature with which even I am acquainted.” Thoreau made these remarks in his Walking lecture delivered in 1851, a few years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Thoreau received a copy and expressed appreciation for Darwin’s theory long before it gained wide acceptance, and I would like to think he was moved by Darwin’s prose as he was intrigued by his ideas. Like many readers, I am inspired by Darwin’s expansive and lavish closing words: “There is grandeur in this view of life… from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

Nature writing (or “natural history”) can reveal cultural attitudes toward nature, and the development of this literary tradition chronicles the history of these attitudes. The nineteenth century is commonly considered to be a golden age of nature writing in the English-speaking world. At this time a new and emerging educated class possessed the affluence and leisure to become amateur naturalists. The writing of this period often reflects a desire for a past pastoral and idyllic world, for a lost paradise that was embodied in the image of the country estates of the privileged class. Firmly embedded in this historical context, my three favorite authors of that period sharply challenged the reigning natural worldview of that day that saw nature as orderly, neatly, and divinely designed, and well-behaved, or at least ready to be tamed, controlled, and exploited. With Jefferies, Thoreau, Darwin, a contrasting view of nature emerges that is grandly endless, absent of design, hopefully chaotic, wildly passionate, often savage, and lavishly prodigal.

I heard the Sunday-school story of “The Prodigal Son” in my youth and for the longest time thought “prodigal” meant “wayward” or “wandering” or “run-away.” The young man in the story did wander off, but he also squandered his inheritance through lavish living. It was not until I missed that word on a vocabulary test that I learned that “prodigal” simply means “extravagant.” Like the boy in the story, good naturalists are wanderers, and many of our most profound ideas and discoveries have been born of long journeys into the unfamiliar. In wandering we find the lavishness of nature. In unfamiliar, undeveloped, and somewhat wild native places, nature reveals her extravagance and our feet carry us to atmospheres unknown.

Unlike the wealthy amateur naturalists of the nineteenth century, our task is not to pine for a lost and mythical Eden but to fight for the preservation and revitalization of aboriginal ecosystems like Iowa’s Loess Hills. The work of a naturalist, in my view, is to challenge the American public to look forward, not back. Turn off the nature documentaries, close the glossy coffee-table books, throw away the garden catalogs of exotic designer plants, and put the natural histories back on the shelf. Indulge your yearning for the wild and let it grow. Wander aimlessly in woods and prairies. Find the courage to fall in love with nature and to be confused. You can learn the names and the science in due time. The future of our native ecosystems—some wild and some less so—depends on good scientists and on prodigal naturalists.

Read Part Two

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