Being a naturalist is the world’s oldest profession. Early humans lived in deep kinship with the natural world. To become a naturalist is to become who we are. But the naturalist tradition in the western world holds at the center a paradox: nature is our true home but is also a deep mystery; it is at once who we are and wholly other. Being at home in nature for post-modern humans requires becoming less alienated from nature while recovering an ancient sense of mystery. To enter the natural world is to at once cross a threshold into the familiar and into the unfamiliar. Here’s poet Mary Oliver:
Through these woods I have walked thousands of times. For many years I have felt more at home here than anywhere else, including my own house. Stepping out into the world, into the grass, onto the path, was always a kind of relief. I was not escaping anything. I was returning to the arena of delight. I was stepping across some border. I don’t mean just that the world changed on the other side of the border, but that I did too.
One hears the echoes of Ralph Waldo Emerson here, and for good reason. Mary Oliver says of Emerson, “I think of him whenever I set to work on something worthy.” We can plainly see her roots in Emerson’s second-series essay “Nature:”
At the gates of the forest, the surpised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first steps he takes into these precincts…. The tempered light of the woods is like perpetual morning, and is stimulating and heroic. The anciently-reported spells of these places creep in on us. The stems of pines and oaks gleam like iron on the excited eye. The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles.
For those of us who want to grow as naturalists and to grow naturalists, the path is Möbius-like – a closed loop of infinite variety that simultaneously takes us home and away. Nature becomes more unknown as it becomes known. In this Emersonian tradition, Barry Lopez writes:
A modern naturalist, then, is no longer someone who goes no further than a stamp collector, mastering nomenclature and field marks. She or he knows a local flora and fauna as pieces of an inscrutable mystery, increasingly deep, a unity of organisms Western culture has been trying to elevate itself above since at least Mesopotamian times.
And Lopez offers this advice: “pay attention to mystery.”
How do we cultivate that attentiveness and help other adults to do the same? Is there a practical methodology? Is there a rubric of mystery, a school of nature?
We invite you to join us to explore these questions and to learn about our new naturalist education initiative in partnership with Pottawattamie County Conservation. On Thursday, February 25th we are convening How to Grow a Naturalist: a colloquium and vigorous hike at Hitchcock Nature Center. Click here for more information.