Becoming a Naturalist, part 4

The spring session of the Naturalist School begins April 2nd. Click here to learn more.

Curious Theophrastus

Of the many qualities that make a naturalist, curiosity is primary. That theme emerged from our recent “How to Grow a Naturalist  Colloquium and Vigorous Hike.” The other common quality is a wanderlust that may not take us to faraway lands, but always makes us desire wild places. By our reckoning, a naturalist is one who wanders, full of passion and curiosity, in places that speak of a world without industrial ambition. And we therefore wander, compelled by a desire to know for the sake of knowing and to look for the sake of seeing, in places that make us feel more wild and more originally human.


Our lusty wandering has no particular reason or practical goal, but our observations might prove useful. Among my favorite writers is Niko Tinbergen, author of Curious Naturalists, who writes: “… the endeavor to satisfy our curiosity about phenomena that intrigue us can, in totally unforeseen ways, acquire hard practical significance.” Perhaps one of the best examples of a curious naturalist is Theophrastus, who lived in the 4th-century B.C. and was a student Plato and Aristotle. In his surviving works, De Historia Plantarum (Enquiry into Plants) and De Causis Plantarum (On the Causes of Plants), we have perhaps the earliest documentation of one who studied nature closely for no practical purpose. Much older plant lists and descriptions from ancient Mesopotamia and China have survived, but these were concerned with medicinal plants.

c 1523

De Historia Plantarum, c.1523 edition

While Theophrastus was also interested in the practical uses of plants, his fascination with biodiversity was fed by wild and exotic specimens brought by travelers, most notably Alexander the Great. According to British historian and self-described naturalist John Wright, Theophrastus  “is the undisputed father of botany”  and  “a great scientist in a world that had not seen scientists before” and  “the first ecologist, noting the effects of soil type and climate on growth and species distribution.” His distinction and contribution comes from his observations of nature close to home on the island of Lesbos. “This was a modest man, who took the time to listen to others who knew the natural world and to study it, with care, himself. Perhaps this is his greatest gift.”
This “greatest gift” makes Theophrastus surprisingly fun to read. Enquiry into Plants has the feel of natural history and reads more like a naturalist’s notebook than the seminal work of philosophy it later came to be. In the section titled “Of the trees and plants special to particular districts and positions,” we find a patient naturalist making thoughtful observations of native trees:
Now all grow fairer and more vigorous in their proper positions, for wild, no less than cultivated trees, some love wet and marshy ground, as black poplar willow, and in general those that grow by rivers; some love exposed and sunny positions, some prefer a shady place.
Theophrastus  continues through that chapter making a methodical record of the trees of Lesbos and the surrounding region with special attention to habitats, niches, and plant communities. He compares these to trees in Egypt and Asia Minor and to more distant specimens brought by travelers. Even with exotic references, he writes from personal experience that conveys an intimacy with his local biotic communities. To a post-modern American naturalist, this ancient philosopher of Lesbos seems oddly familiar. He writes like one of us.
Lesbos was the home of the poet Sappho and is better known for love than ecology.  The contributions of this island to science and culture are profound, and have their source in the wild wanderings of young Greeks in love with nature. Theophrastus embodied the curiosity and nature-lust that all naturalists share, a way of being in nature that will heal the earth in unforeseen ways. Curiosity grows and good science is done when naturalists follow their wildest desires.