Vireo Unnamed

yellowthroated vireo

Yellow-throated vireo (Vireo flavifrons) at Hitchcock Nature Center. (Photo by Nick Salick.)

Becoming a Naturalist, part 8

I open my notebook on a log under a singing vireo. My writing workshop assignment finds me casting about for ideas, and vireo seems to be working on an assignment of his own. He sounds like he is trying out a few phrases before deciding on a theme. But I have to admit that I am projecting my own indecision and lack of inspiration onto him. There is nothing tentative or improvised in his song; he sings a territorial melody written in deep time. The only one looking for ideas in this clearing is me.

My unfinished task does not prevent me from looking him up in my bird book, and I welcome the diversion. The breeding range of Vireo flavifrons, the yellow-throated vireo, reaches the western limit in our woods and we’re glad to have them. His name, assigned by the followers of Linnaeus, is found on our nature center’s comprehensive species list. But Vireo flavifrons was here long  long before Homo sapiens and that name belongs to us, not to him.

Scientific names are useful. Our naturalist school learns and teaches taxonomy, identification, and measuring; these are tools of conservation ecology. They help us diagnose the damage humans have reeked and devise mitigations and protections of what remains. But becoming a naturalist requires the work of consilience as well. Like Humboldt and Thoreau, we embrace both science and creativity and carry in our knapsacks field guides and books of poetry. We want to equip our students to identify a wide swath of taxa and to write a brilliant essay.

We hike among innumerable muses, the old muses of art, mythology, and metaphysics and muses much older, taking the form of frogs and ferns, cicadas and sacred trees. We give some of our muses names from the ancient Greco-roman world, names like wood satyr and dryad’s saddle. Nymphs emerge from the ponds as winged dragons. Ovid’s ancient sprite Smilax becomes our greenbrier and Ambrosia, food of the gods, becomes our ragweed. Taxonomy is made of mythology and we walk, arm in arm, with Theophrastus on one side and Sappho on the other.


A muse takes the form of a pondhawk at HNC. Pursue these and other muses at The Naturalist School.  See late summer schedule here.  (Photo by Robert Smith.)

Thoreau embraced ancient greek mythology for its service to wildness and argued that these are not the stories of gods but of natural history. When he was accused of being a pantheist he embraced that intended insult. He was denied admission into a an esteemed  academic society because, as he believed, he was a mystic. While he was devoted to scientific nomenclature, he was mindful of its limits. He spent the weight of his days and writing on what we now call citizen science, making phenological charts and records and taking pride in his skills as a botanist. But he also warned that these endeavors could hinder the pursuit of wild nature. His journal entry for February 18th,1860 advises:

We can never begin to see anything as it is so long as we remember the scientific term which always our ignorance has imposed on it. Natural objects and phenomena are forever wild and unnamed by us.

Like Thoreau, the naturalists I listen to are followers of science and poetry. Consilience of science and art, inquiry and creativity, method and mystery is critical if we are to address the alienation of humans from nature. To be a naturalist, it seems, is to build a firmament of objectivity and creativity only to break through this crust to realities beyond. Data points and poems and paintings are transformed into doors. In Earth House Hold, environmental activist and beat poet Gary Snyder writes:

The voice of inspiration as an “other” has long been known in the West as The Muse. Widely speaking, the muse is anything other that touches you and moves you. Be it a mountain range, a band of people, the morning star, or a diesel generator. Break through the ego-barrier.

Thoreau sought and spoke for nature beyond human-generated barriers. In our day, Mary Oliver, Barry Lopez, Gary Snyder, and others who are followers of science and makers of art, seek and defend mystery. In Winter Hours, Mary Oliver writes:

When I write about nature directly… I mean landscapes in which we are reinforced in our sense of the world as mystery, a mystery that entails other privileges besides our own  –  and also, therefore, a hierarchy of right and wrong behaviors pertaining to that mystery, diminishing it or defending it.

The vireo is still singing. His territorial warning is meant for other males of his species, but it is somehow intended for me as well, or so I imagine. He defends the boundary of mystery, an ancient boundary of his own kind, against those who would diminish rather than defend. Perhaps I can find my way in and take up a position beside him. I close my notebook. My assignment will wait and the vireo shall remain undocumented.