Alexander von Humboldt’s Views of Nature is as much about how we view nature as it is about nature. That is, a certain way of seeing reveals deep truths about nature while being conditioned by nature. He was the most celebrated scientist of his day, but his scientific accounts were braided with observations of how the study of nature acts upon the observer. This reflexive way of seeing is reflected in the German title Ansichten der Natur. The editors explain that Ansichten is not a passive perspective, a view taken in from a fixed position. Rather, it is an active and evolving “onlooking:”
The onlooking is thus to be enacted as a way-of-seeing, not just scenery: Ansichten, in Humboldt’s hands, isn’t a view of nature-viewing suitable for consumer consumption, but rather an exercise in Bildung or self-education conducted under the impress of nature’s forces and beauties.”
Without the benefit of knowing German, I nonetheless have the sense that this interpretation is true. I have experienced this kind of “onlooking” as I understand it, and have watched it grow in others. I am fascinated by nature and people in nature, and often hang back to observe my colleagues during botanical surveys and workshops in the field. Over days and years I have watched them grow in expertise and awareness, becoming self-educated under nature’s canopy. The apprentice of nature learns to see with increasing clarity. Thoreau refers to this clarity as “seeing with the unworn sides of our eyes.” Humboldt came to this conclusion:
The influence of the physical world upon the moral, the mysterious interworking of the sensory and the extrasensory, bestows upon the study of Nature, when lifted to higher considerations, a charm that belongs to it alone, and that remains too little acknowledged.”
The naturalist begins to see with unworn eyes. We pay attention to mystery and are grasped by life beyond us. We walk a familiar path that is new with every step. As earth and sky change, so do we. The constellations of bright literary lights and brilliant minds help us chart our course, but we are born in the bush and raised on raw nutriment, unprocessed and unwritten. Books and programs, presentations and powerpoints, binders and lesson plans, and nice buildings with interpretive displays make poor substitutes. One becomes a naturalist in nature.
To learn about the Naturalist School at Hitchcock Nature Center, click here.
* Humboldt, Alexander von. Views of Nature, edited by Stephen T. Jackson and Laura Dassow Walls, translated by Mark W. Person. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.