Thomas Lowe Fleischner’s The Way of Natural History
Reviewed by Andrew C. Gottlieb
Thomas Lowe Fleischner has delivered a gem of a little book in this collection of 21 essays and one poem. It’s a slim, well-designed book, even a pleasure to look at, and the cover photo — a pond, a pathway of large, worn stones, leading from the bottom of the photo to the top, the stones partially submerged in the algae-covered water and leading to land — much in the way of a peaceful Zen garden, suggests the focus of much of the content: mindful walking, contemplation of the wild and its inhabitants, the long generous path that nature and natural history offers when one’s eyes and mind are open.
I once asked a poet friend, a woman who’s a naturalist by day-job, how she got to be that way. In the sense of, I’d like to be a naturalist, too, and she simply said, with only the slightest wry humor, I think you just go outside and look at stuff.
So how did Natural History come to seem so complicated? Or dry and boring, the idea of dusty log books, text books, scientists sitting in the woods or in boring laboratories staring at plant cells through microscopes? Maybe it’s the word History. We don’t call it Natural Science but Natural History. In the engineering wing, we say Computer Science, but in the field, staring at a grasshopper or a hummingbird or a weasel, we call it Natural History.
Strange. The title Naturalist seems much more alive, and that’s what this book is filled with: essays by authors with varying backgrounds—ecologists, professors, poets, activists, biologists, conservationists, even a musician—all of whom are naturalists in the true sense of the word. And that’s what their writing addresses: what is natural history? What does it mean to be a Naturalist? And why is this more crucial now than ever before?
What makes this book a pleasure to read is that it’s not simply a collection of pieces telling stories about experiences in the woods. The coyote I saw. The forest I visited. These writers take it a step further, linking the natural world to important elements of humanity, to what we gain or lose — patience, peacefulness, connection, relatedness — via the process. I looked forward to reading Jane Hirshfield’s essay: but her’s is the poem that opens the collection. “The Supple Deer” sets the stage. Jane watches a deer leap between the pales of a tall fence. Her jealously is the focal point of the poem—not of the deer, but of the fence. “To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me.”
This is the experience of the world the naturalist is lucky to get. To be surrounded by the natural world, to feel submersed in a pool of awe, to feel joy, to gain understanding of something larger than us. Fleischner’s own introductory essay links Natural History to Buddhism and meditation, setting the stage for the revelation that meditation and the practice of a naturalist are kin. “Natural history is a practice of intentional, focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy,” he tells us. “Our attention is precious, and what we choose to focus it on has enormous consequences.” What Fleischner’s getting at is that natural history is not just valuable but crucial. The more our society becomes urban-dense, over-populated, economically-strained and technology-focused, the less we can see the wild around us. Fleischner’s book is about the third or fourth book I’ve read in the last six months or so discussing students and their disassociation with nature. Fleischner cites Richard Louv’s term “nature deficit disorder” and recalls Thich Nhat Hanh’s point that we “become the bad television programs that we watch.” We are what we watch.
These writers watch the wild. John Tallmedge’s piece of memoir takes a historical look at how he became a naturalist, someone his daughter claims is “crazy about nature.” He cites Darwin, Muir, Thoreau, Robinson Jeffers. It’s a good essay early in the collection putting natural history in context of its development, its forefathers. Robert McFarlane takes a fascinating overnight hike into the frigid winter cold in England’s Cumbrian mountains. At the end of the cold, solitary trip, we see that the “…sun was now full in the eastern sky, and in the west was the ghost of the moon, so that they lay opposed to each other above the white mountains: the sun burning orange, the moon its cold copy.” McFarlane too reminds us that “we have begun a turning away from a felt relationship with the natural world.”
Yet natural history doesn’t have to happen in the woods but can be found in one’s backyard. Charles Goodrich takes us to his garden to see aphids, mantises, ladybugs. Goodrich echoes other writers in showing that natural history can teach us the relatedness of all beings, understanding our link to the ecology of our world. Laura Sewall deepens this, in her essay showing how and what we watch determines our understanding of the world and the way we live. “Unless we commonly perceive the interdependent reality within which we are all embedded, we will never get ourselves out of the ecological mess we are in,” she says. Our attention leads to pattern recognition in the world, the realization of interdependence.
What these writers are pointing to are the patterns and relatedness underlying all things; for example, a predator-prey relationship: if we remove all the wolves, the deer over-populate and eat and make extinct certain kinds of flora. Kathleen Dean Moore makes us aware of bears in Alaska, her ability to live safely but warily among them. Cristina Eisenberg takes us close to wolves and her study of their effect on their territory in Glacier National Park.
Three of these essays derive from the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, and the Long Term Ecological Research project happening there co-led by the previously-mentioned writers, Charles Goodrich and Kathleen Dean Moore. A project bringing writers to the woods to log their observations, the scope is 200 years, and observation is the key element. Alison Hawthorne Deming and Scott Russell Sanders show us northern spotted owls, rotting logs, shelf fungi, Douglas firs, all while they contemplate the place and consequences of humans in the world.
As with any collection, there are stronger and weaker pieces. Paul Dayton’s essay feels more unfocused, and is lazy with the words ‘as’ and ‘eventually,’ overused here as attempted indicators of time or simultaneity. This is a weakness of grammatical structure and variety, though, not one of his understanding of the worlds of ecology or natural history. Richard Thompson’s piece feels randomly added-in, the simplest in terms of message or contribution.
There is both a real intelligence and peacefulness to this collection. It brings together concrete visions and stories from the natural world by a variety of ecological leaders, while examining the reasoning behind the critical nature of the process of what we call Natural History. It will make a reader want to get up and go for a hike or simply sit and look at some aspect of the natural world. For those who continue reading, delaying their hike, the essays will explain and deepen an understanding of why the process of natural history not only feels so good, but is important to our lives as humans in the world. As R. Edward Grumbine writes, “Natural history is a supreme antidote to abstraction; what we choose to pay attention to makes all the difference in the world.”
Andrew C. Gottlieb is the reviews editor for Terrain.org. His work can be found online, in many print journals, and in his poetry chapbook, Halflives, (New Michigan Press.) Find him at www.andrewcgottlieb.com.