Learning to Feel at Home
Posted by Richard Conniff on June 21, 2011
This week I’m at a conference at the North Cascades Institute, in northern Washington, about making natural history matter in the modern world. The sponsoring organization is the Natural History Network, and I’ve been struck by a few of things I’ve heard people say today.
My favorite, from Tom Fleischner, who teaches environmental studies at Prescott College in Arizona: “Natural history is the process of falling in love with the world. That’s a very powerful thing. So much of environmental work tends to be based on fear rather than love.”
We were talking about the ways we come to know the natural history of places, and Amanda Barney, a fisheries biologist from the University of Washingon, uttered this thought: “People learn more about where they go than where they’re from.” I have a hunch that this sentence resonated with me because I have spent so much of my life traveling to write about remote places. There was a time when I felt as if I could find my way from Galway to Dublin blind, almost by muscle memory. But I didn’t recognize half the street names in my home town. And though I can talk in detail about rhinos in southern Africa or piranhas in Venezuela, I can’t identify all that many species in my own backyard. In his journal, Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “It takes a man of genius to travel in his own country, in his native village; to make any progress between his door and his gate.” (Journal, 6 August 1851)
In the same vein, Reed Noss of the University of Central Florida later said: “You have to know your place–the flora, the fauna, the watershed, the history of where you live, so you feel at home.”
Carlos Martinez del Rio of the University of Wyoming put roughly the same thought in more personal terms. He uses isotopes to trace how an animal (himself included) has lived and he said: “I am 85 percent Wyoming. I’ve analyzed my hair, fingernails, and skin, and I come from the land that I love.”
One other thought: It’s remarkable how much poetry comes up in the conversation of people who are scientists by profession. It reminds me of the quote from E.O. Wilson: “The ideal scientist thinks like a poet but works like a bookkeeper.” The setting here is amenable to poetry. I went for a walk this morning by a still lake with forested mountains leaping sharply up from the opposite shore, and beyond them, taller mountains veined with snow, and with soft clouds wrapped like scarves around their peaks.