Tag Archives: nature study

“Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon” by John Hemming

“Naturalists in Paradise”


This highly enjoyable book was reviewed by another blogger (see link above), so I will limit my comments to the last chapter, where Hemming discusses the lives of the three explorers after their Amazon travels. In particular, he describes their books and other publications, some of which would be worth tracking down. The three scientists made amazing contributions to the advance of science. They also erred. “The greatest error made by…these observers…was to equate luxuriant tropical vegetation with rich soil.” Interesting! Many decades passed before the flaws in this logic were understood.

Hemming summarizes some of the work that the three explorers did outside the field of natural history. Most important were the observations they made pertaining to indigenous and isolated groups of people.

The three explorers knew and corresponded with most of the other great scientists of their time, including Charles Darwin.

Hemming, by the way, adds a few observations from his own contemporary travels in the countries visited. I appreciated this, though it would have interfered if he hadn’t been so restrained. I’m sure he has tales to tell!

This quotation from Richard Spruce clarifies the motivation of these scientists and expresses their passionate relationship to the natural world.

I look on plants as sentient beings, which live and enjoy their lives – which beautify the earth during life and after death may adorn my herbarium…(Even if they have no medicinal or commercial value to man) they are infinitely useful where God has placed them… They are at the least useful to and beautiful in themselves – surely the primary motive for every individual existence.

Emphasis added. Scientists are sometimes accused of cold detachment. This makes is clear that they may, in fact, pursue their work out of love.


“The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady” by Edith Holden.

Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977. 176 pages, plus species lists.

This book is a gem! It is a full color facsimile reproduction, notable for both artistry and scientific accuracy. Edith Holden was known in her lifetime as an illustrator of children’s books. Decades after she died in 1920, a relative showed her “diary” for the year 1906 (which was intended as a teaching tool) to a publisher, who released it in 1977. The book is a combination of field observations (she walked many miles!), the author’s favorite poems and sayings, and beautiful, detailed paintings of insects, birds and flowers.

A second book of Holden’s field notes (The Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady) was published in 1984.

I took a careful look at Holden’s entries for the month of May. The month begins with a detailed painting of a chaffinch’s nest with eggs, surrounded by hawthorn blossoms and wild hyacinths.

One of the mottoes listed is “Change not a clout till May be out”. I think this means “keep your winter cloak handy”. Good advice! On May 16, Holden reports cold north wind, thunder and HAIL. She went out none-the-less, and found a thrush’s egg that had been blown to the ground.

Holden includes poems by Wordsworth, Spenser, ap Gwillym and Ingelow among her May entries. There are numerous paintings.

This lovely book would make a fine gift for any nature lover, or a treat for when you want to savor poetry and art at the same time.

“Living at the End of Time” by John Hanson Mitchell

This memoir was published in 1990, a generation ago. Much of its appeal (for me) comes from the geographic setting – in Massachusetts, near the Boston beltway (aka Route 495). In this improbable spot, in the wake of a divorce, Mitchell built a rustic cabin on the land where his family and former wife lived.This book is an account of his first year in his relatively primitive, small (10’ by 16’) shack, which was located only half an hour from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau undertook to “live simply” in 1845.

Mitchell loves the natural world and studied Thoreau extensively, although (see blog post on Walden Warming, by Richard Primack dated June 23, 2014) he may not have realized how excellent a naturalist Thoreau was. (By now, he has probably met Primack and caught up with anything he missed. Massachusetts is fortunate in the quality of its writers.)

At the start of his sojourn, Mitchell also decided to spend time with journals he inherited from family members, most notably his father’s account of several years spent in Japan.

All this adds up to an unfocused but charming set of reflections. Mitchell’s rural retreat suffers impingement by the new headquarters of Digital, Inc. Land is developed, but he is still surrounded by an amazing amount of undisturbed nature. He also “senses” the impact of earlier occupants on the land.

Checking the usual sources, I learned that Mitchell has written extensively and also served the cause of conservation as an employee of Massachusetts Audubon. I look forward to sampling his other books, essays and blog posts.

The appreciation of nature which is not remote and exotic has more recently been carried forward by Lynanda Haupt in Crow Planet: Finding Our Place in the Zoopolis, a more urban offering which I wrote about on June 7, 2013. My next trip to Massachusetts will be enhanced by my exposure to John Hansen Mitchell’s Living at the End of Time.

Reading Nature

I haven’t blogged much lately. One reason is that I’m (slowly) enjoying The Path Between the Seas by David McCollough, about the Panama Canal.

My other reason is that I’ve had so many opportunities to be out of doors! My back yard, the campus where I work, the Forsythe Wildlife Refuge, other parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and, to top it off, Vermont! What a summer!

So I have been observing nature directly. It has been suggested that nature can be “read” like a text. So what have I been seeing/reading? A few observations… 

My experiences in nature are often linear. I walk on paths – one path at a time. I can’t walk on two paths – if I come to a fork, I must decide where to go next. I would describe myself as a “linear thinker”, so this linear experience of nature is comfortable for me. Sometimes, as at the Forsythe Refuge, I’m in a car. Again, linear. Again, for me, comfortable. 

My “reading” of nature is often technologically enhanced. Who would watch birds without binoculars? I also use them to look at insects or the bark of trees. I haven’t used a microscope lately, but I remember fondly my 6th grade teacher, who showed us what was going on (live!) in a drop of pond water. Thank you, Mr. Costello!

And consider the almost universal adoption of cell phones and digital cameras! When we go bug hunting at night, a quick snapshot of some tiny, tiny insect can be blown up by a factor of ten, and the creature is promptly identified down to subspecies detail. If its identity is NOT clear, the picture is forwarded to a website for examination by experts. Learning has become easier.

Much of my “reading” of nature takes place in a social setting. Sitting around a “black” light waiting to see what insects will fly in is a pleasantly gregarious night time activity, kind of like a campfire. (Usually the setup consists of several lights and a white sheet, and there are variations that include “bait” to attract insects. The bait formulations often include alcohol or rotten fruit.) We chat and drink beer. Then suddenly a big moth or strange beetle arrives, and it’s all about science for a few minutes. Occasionally, an insect is collected for research, but most are admired, photographed and allowed to continue their business. This can go on for hours, until we get tired and goofy and try to communicate with the local owl population, imitating their calls. 

Another scientific/social way to “read” nature is to participate in a bioblitz, an event at which scientists get together to study the living organisms in a particular area. At a “full scale” bioblitz, there’s an effort to have complete coverage, a scientist for each category of organisms that might turn up, plants as well as animals. That is a big, complicated endeavor and it doesn’t happen very often. I think the last one I attended was in Connecticut in 2009. But I went to two small, insect oriented events this summer. See http://www.nps.gov/vafo/naturescience/bioblitz.htm The national park at Valley Forge was studied by scientists from Drexel University and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

What makes a bioblitz “social”? It’s the curiosity! At one bioblitz, the officials actually fired a starting gun to signal the beginning of the 24-hour event. The large team of invited experts scurried off. Not being a biologist, I lounged around the “headquarters” area, wondering what would happen. Twenty minutes later, the first scientist returned, with a big basket of mushrooms and funguses. But wait! In the gills of one mushroom was a tiny insect. It was carefully passed along to the correct specialist, and the day’s excitement began. No matter what you brought in, someone found it exciting! Slugs and leafhoppers generated as much interest as birds and cute, small mammals. 

Sometimes people ask if a studious approach to nature makes it less “mysterious” or less beautiful. Not to me! Nature is still full of surprises. The more you look, the more you see. Often I’m outdoors in the company of people who observe much more closely than I do. When I settle down to their meandering pace, I find out how much there is to look at. 

My best surprise in recent months was a migration of dragonflies. A river of dragonflies! Every few yards, another dragonfly, all traveling in the same direction. I don’t know how wide the river of dragonflies was, or how long it persisted, but I was thrilled to see this unexpected behavior.

Another fine surprise was a foot long snapping turtle crossing the sidewalk near the lake at Richard Stockton College (New Jersey). This snapper was black and wet and weedy, and had an attitude! Every part showing outside of its shell looked like pure muscle – legs, tail, neck… Instead of dragging along on it’s abdomen, this character came up on its legs and moved strode briskly. I kept out of its way, hastily taking a few pictures before it slid into the lake. 

I’m still reading books of course, but for now, I will read nature whenever I get the chance.

New environmental classic?

Crow Planet: Finding Our Place in the Zoopolis by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, 2009.

This book has two titles. The one I just entered above is from the title page that downloaded into my Kindle. But on Amazon, I see Crow Planet: Essential Lessons from the Urban Wilderness, and in fact that’s what shows up in the home page list of my Kindle. Wait, maybe the problem is the unlaut, the double dot that sometimes shows up in German. The second “o” in “Zoopolis” is supposed to have an umlaut, no doubt to let you know the word has four syllables, not three. Maybe Kindle text hasn’t got the umlaut? But I digress.

I do like the word “zoopolis” (however you choose to pronounce it). It refers to the city as a place occupied by both humans and other living things, generally including crows. Haupt considers crows a type of “indicator” bird. They thrive alongside humans better than most birds, so they become very numerous when other birds are unable to persist. In other words, too many crows are a sign of trouble.

Haupt makes the point that we can study “nature” even when we live in the city, starting with the study of crows and moving on to other birds, insects, invertebrates, and the mammals that live in cities. (I will never voluntarily study a rat.) Her advice on how to be a naturalist (#1 – study!) is sound whether you plan to explore urban nature or a national park. She made a personal decision to carry binoculars whenever she goes out in the city, just as she does in wilder places.

Haupt makes multiple references to Aldo Leopold, whose Sand County Almanac was first published in 1949, before the word “environment” came into common use. His comments on the ethics of how humans interact with their surroundings still ring true after 60 years.

Toward the end of her book, Haupt addresses the issue of fear. She’s afraid of what the future holds. So am I, sometimes, and so are some scientists I know personally and respect. But Haupt finds reasons for hope, despite the daunting prospects we all face.

A new classic? Maybe. In the meantime, a good book, because it reminds us that nature is here, not somewhere else where we can only hope to visit once in a while.