Bernd Heinrich Oliver Rackham What Makes Naturalist

No one decides who gets to be a naturalist. There are no degrees or governing bodies. The term is distinctive, in that it describes an activity that is very demanding and absorptive, yet inclusive. A person is on the way to becoming a naturalist when he, for example, takes pictures of biological samples in the field and contributes them to an open population database like iNaturalist. And the “New Naturalist Library” series has for 75 years published detailed surveys by top scientists, who study the natural world, from climate and weather to butterflies. These scientists, specialized and rigorous as they are–they call themselves naturalists, too.

The plant biologist Oliver Rackham writes in the preface to his book Woodlands:

I was brought up on such classic New Naturalist books as London’s Natural History by R.S.R. Fitter, Mushrooms and Toadstools by John Ramsbottom and The Sea Shore by C.M. Yonge. In that tradition I deal mainly in observations that do not call for specialised equipment and that any well-motivated observer can make. In this field amateurs can still do things that professionals, locked into their own ethos and culture, find difficult. I hope to inspire young readers to lay down the basis for long-term observations to be repeated in future decades.

Rackham makes no attempt to wall off the naturalist’s calling from the ordinary public. Quite the opposite, he suggests that the amateur can do more than participate in naturalistic activities. The amateur can, in fact, contribute to an activity defined by “observation,” provided that he is willing to keep at it over the long term.0{#ffn1 .footnote}^

Today the ideal of the naturalist is often integrated with formal scientific expertise.0{#ffn2 .footnote}^ Getting out in nature takes time, and scientists are the ones with grants that pay the bills, university positions with flexible schedules, and a vocational expectation that includes going out into the field and looking around. Everyone else is of course not barred from study, but just being out in nature does not quite make one a naturalist. Then again, there are many field scientists doing their own specialized work, “locked into their own ethos and culture,” as Rackham puts it, who are not really engaged in naturalistic pursuits, either. So what makes a naturalist? Consider this description, by the biologist Bernd Heinrich, about the process of taking field notes:

After so many years of making observations, there is hardly a thing I encounter that does not connect me in one way or another to familiar ideas or observations. However, I am most interested in the seemingly anomalous. In taking field notes, the way to find these peculiarities is to keep track of many observations that may not appear at the time to be relevant at all. Similar to the way a subtle twist in a blade of grass may betray the presence of game, a single observation in my field notes may stand out against a backdrop of sentences standing in an ordered array. The way that I keep a journal now reflects the chaotic nature of this type of chase. I cannot afford the luxury of presorting data. I don’t walk around with a notebook. But I often carry a piece of folded paper in my shirt or pants pocket, along with a pencil stub. The information flow as I jog down our driveway and up our country road may be infinite, and I cannot stop every few feet and record everything. I simply remember most observations while I jog, though I may still record mundane things that catch my eye and that might be useful in identifying something in- teresting. At these times I’m not trying to solve a problem; instead, I’m open to signs of one.0{#ffn3 .footnote}^

Heinrich describes an observers’ routine that is honed by trained scientific curiosity. But the act of observing cannot only serve an existing scientific agenda. Field notes are not a record of what is important. They are a minimal record of what rises to the level of being noticeable, a translation of an “information flow” that is “infinite” into a set of recoverable mental traces. “I cannot afford the luxury of presorting data,” he writes. There is no template for the field observer. The naturalist only sees what he records, and field notes are the written, recoverable proof that he has not just seen, but noted too. All his training does not change their mundane character. Real expertise stands on a continuous, stubborn, unbored openness to detail.

A consequence of the naturalist’s unflappable commitment to actual observation is that she avoids two oscillating dangers of the modern relationship to nature. The naturalist is not a romantic who ascribes soft spiritual forces to the not-human, who needs to sustain the illusion of a wild or untouched nature to value it. And the naturalist is not really a scientific materialist, either, who seeks to dissect natural processes in terms of physical laws, models and forces. Another feature of naturalistic observation is that while it requires a total commitment to detail, there is also a holistic quality to it, a tendency for the mass of detail to start out as a collection of incongruous parts but end as a system.

Consider the last book by book by Oliver Rackham, The Ancient Woods of the Helford River, published after his death from a partially-finished manuscript. In one chapter he reviews individual patches of woods in a schematic sketch. Here is how he begins his description of the Calamansack Wood along the Helford:

A house was built in the wood in 1918. Much of the wood is mown in August on a two-year cycle. This favours bluebell at the expense of bramble. Two mowings kill holly, resulting in a characteristic empty bottom to the wood. This wood is on a steep south-east-facing slope with a plateau at the top; it is very exposed to the east, except in a deep narrow ravine down to Pill Cove. In the west are two houses of the 1930s, one of which is a period piece with its green pantile roof; their gardens have increased at the expense of the wood. A foot-holloway zigzags down to the pill, at the mouth of which is an elegant granite boathouse.0{#ffn4 .footnote}^

Rackham sees no problem with building his naturalistic account on a description of an old house. To see this wood is to begin with the outlines of human activity around which it has grown. Neither the human nor the wood has priority here. He will write of how they grow through one another.0{#ffn5 .footnote}^ Then, following his own advice, he steps back further in time:

The wood is clearly divided, and has been for at least two hundred years, into a coppice on the exposed slopes and a timberwood in the ravine. The coppice was last felled between 1820 and 1860, apart from an area c.1930 and a few small patches since. The timber trees appear to date from the 1770s. The ancient stools are up to 10 ft in diameter.

Calamansack Wood is a natural process that coexists with a human past. For Rackham it begins with the first mention in the record, and with the earliest signs of human activity:

Calamansack Wood is well recorded back to 1249, the longest certain documented history of any Helford River wood. With Merthen and Gweek, it is one of the earliest woods in England to be shown on a map. It has an ancient boundary bank and an internal earthwork corresponding to a sixteenth-century subdivision (see page 62, Fig. 4.1). There are at least three charcoal-hearths.

Finally, he ends by speculating on the name of the wood itself:

What did the name Calamansack mean? The 1249 form, Kylmoncote, makes no sense in Cornish and is evidently a misspelling. Kylmonsek occurs in 1308 and 1331, Kyllymansak in 1442, and in 1478 we meet a John Kyllymonsek. The first part of the word is probably kyl ‘corner’; monsek is a word of unknown meaning with the adjectival ending -ack. The place-name therefore means ‘Something-y Corner’. By 1442 the name had been reinterpreted as if it contained kelli, ‘grove’, perhaps because of the wood. The hamlets of Calamansack Wartha and Wollas were both in existence at least by 1365 and finally the Kyllymonsek family was named after them.

I make no claim that Rackham’s account of the Calamansack wood is a model for the naturalist’s approach to observational practice. A naturalist gets to invent, in some sense, an idiosyncratic genre of his own. Rackham’s model is an original synthesis of details which could have been put to other purposes. But its essence, as he wrote in the Preface to Woodlands, is being attentive to the factor of time, being willing to decompress the present as far as the details of the total environment (ecological, historical) will allow.

  1. [That Rackham calls upon people to observe nature “over the long term” brings up the related idea of natural history, and its connection to the naturalist tradition–a worthwhile question for later. ↩︎]{#fn1}
  2. [The entry for “naturalist” in the OED suggests one definition close to what I mean: “an amateur concerned more with observation than with experiment.” This sense appears to have arisen in the mid-19th century, in parallel with the professionalization of science. Cf. one OED example from Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, where he writes that “every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of a species.” ↩︎]{#fn2}
  3. [Bernd Heinrich, “Untangling the Bank,” in Field Notes on Science and Nature (33) ↩︎]{#fn3}
  4. [The following passages are taken from Chapter 7 in Helford Woods, “Individual Woods,” pp. 107-110. ↩︎]{#fn4}
  5. [In the Forward to Woodlands, he confesses that “I write as a now rather old-fashioned botanist, concerned with woodland as an ecosystem with a life of its own, in which human agency is one among many environmental factors. In this book trees are themselves wildlife, rather than merely a habitat for wildlife.” ↩︎]{#fn5}


Bernd Heinrich, “Untangling the Bank.” In Field Notes on Science and Nature, ed. Michael Canfield. Harvard, 2011

Oliver Rackham, Woodlands. New Naturalist Library (100). Collins, 2010.

Oliver Rackham, The Ancient Woods of The Helford River. Little Toller Books, 2019.


Who Gets Local Control?

James Scott writes convincingly about the tendency of large institutions, like states and private enterprises, to pursue their own interests by abstracting away the complexity of the actual world:

The necessarily simple abstractions of large bureaucratic institutions, as we have seen, can never adequately represent the actual complexity of natural or social processes. The categories that they employ are too coarse, too static, and too stylized to do justice to the world that they purport to describe.0{#ffn1 .footnote}^

According to Scott, any organization that works on a large scale, across different populations or a wide geographic area, will find systematic ways to work on its own terms. This could be people, natural resources, land–it doesn’t matter. The point is that large organizations work with the tools they have available: standardization, which is achieved through quantification and measurement, and control over the environment that makes up the local system. Large organizations pay very close attention to all these variables so that they can exclude or pay a lot less attention to everything else on the ground.

Scott argues that no state has ever come into existence through asking all its people what they need and want. Instead, it brings people under its control, who already have purposes, goals, and ideas of their own , and treats them according to what it thinks they need to do and be. In the past, this meant making them grow crops or serve in a military. Today, these same states might get people ready for compulsory schooling, provide employment, and supervise their health and wellness. Some aspects of these programs may be beneficial, but still, the state only offers the benefits that it has the tools to administer.0{#ffn2 .footnote}^

Most of Scott’s research focuses on how states use their power, but he does devote some attention to how private enterprise has reached a status similar to the state. I could not read Scott’s account of scientific forestry and agriculture without thinking of modern computing. Everything that has become digital over the last few decades has also become some combination of simpler, more abstract, and more amenable to what can be logged in a database (i.e., measured) and represented on a screen (e.g., images, videos). The face of a powerful, expansive-as-a-state private industry today surely has to be the company known Facebook–and “big tech” in general.

But the state persists. As a result every locality is now caught in multiple forms of abstracting, monolithic power, from federal and regional government, to globe-level tracking and surveillance, to the expansion of warehouse-based logistics and ever-more-concentrated factory farming.

Once multiple schemes of rationalization compete, interesting things happen. Scott writes that “today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization, whereas the state may in some instances be the defender of local difference and variety.“0{#ffn3 .footnote}^ I think of the recently passed French law to protect the sounds and smells of the countryside, or the policies many other countries have to protect distinctive regional cultures.

The average person lives under multiple centralizing forces, and this is a good thing–maybe one of the basic escapes from what would otherwise be an unbearable life dominated by a single authority. Most institutions of modern life acknowledge, in principle, that even they have limited powers, and that there are other legitimate spheres of action over which they ought to cede control. Scott notes, for instance, that the original justification for classical economic liberalism (i.e., “the free market”) was “not only that a free market protected property and created wealth but also that the economy was far too complex for it ever to be managed in detail by a hierarchical administration.“0{#ffn4 .footnote}^ According to this version of events, earlier states, which sought to control the use and allocation of resources, simply could not be as productive as those which ceded control over economic decision-making to local economic actors in the field. In an authentic free-market economy, local peoples achieve some independence because it is in the ultimate interests of the state to let individuals exercise their judgment.

Going further, it seems to me that the battle to achieve some level of local control is one of the most important and contentious issues in politics today, one that arguably cuts across both the developed and developing world.0{#ffn5 .footnote}^ To stick with my own country, much of the dysfunction in American politics can probably be explained by looking at what local control looks like to real people, who is allowed to achieve it, how much of daily life is conducted outside the view of distant authorities, and how local peoples think about the centralizing structures in their lives. Scott’s argument made me think harder about some tentative answers to each of these questions.

Two schools of thought in the U.S. about the reason for local control

I see two main flavors of argument used to justify local control in the U.S. The first is that a group needs local control because it is in the best interests of the country or wider society to do so. The second is that local control is a foundational good in itself.

To give an example of the first type, one of the highest collective goods in the US is the economy (i.e., “the market”). Favorable treatment of financial entities and liberal capital allocation are justified by the belief that they allow worthy smaller actors to receive investment that might later have broad national rewards. This can be seen in the “startup” model of US corporation. The startup is a business model in which ambitious, innovative small groups operate within a relaxed field, outside of existing corporate or other bureaucratic structures. Investor support relieves this group from the normal business pressures of breaking even, allowing them to take risks and pursue unconventional measures according to their own judgment about what is valuable. The eventual expectation is that the business will meet or exceed the normal standard of success (monetary profit). And the country will benefit by allowing this form of temporary local decision-making through increased economic competitiveness and greater wealth. It is no accident that the character of the free-spirited, eccentric, brilliant software engineer is tied to the paradigmatic modern startup, the software company, the field where creativity appears to promise greater profit, faster, than almost any other business ever.

Other justifications of the first type that come to mind include:

The second argument for local control, that it is an intrinsic good, can be seen in the American historical tradition of religious freedom, and the small religious sects that was the basis for many local communities in the early American republic. The idea remains in action today, whether through distinctive regional communities like the Amish or as an idea like the “Benedict Option.” The idea that religious peoples are a unique group whose interests are fundamentally different than the mainstream, secular United States, carries a lot of weight with Christian groups in the US today.

The American emphasis on individualism also represents the maximization of the principled argument for local control. By this logic, if every locality is itself composed of individuals, each with their own slightly different positions and stakes within the locality, then the individual is the purest expression the most particular local interest. But there are more powerful reasons to reject the individual’s connection with localism which I will discuss below.

Arguments made on behalf of local populations are often nationalized in the U.S.

In the Federalist Paper #51, James Madison writes that any nation will be composed of many interests, some more powerful than others–but most will still be in the minority. Therefore the best chance that any minority has to thrive is to seek out the umbrella protection of a strong centralized authority, i.e., the state. Madison’s assumptions may still be true, but he was perhaps not aggressive enough in imagining the relationship between central power and the minority. It is one thing for a minority seek out the protection of central authority on the grounds of neutral principle, but why should the minority limit its ambition, when it can influence the decision-making processes of that authority, or even take it over? The capture of state and federal decision-making power by “special interests,” whether through lobbying or elected officials with ulterior motives, betrays a situation where specific local interests seek to permanently tilt government power in their direction. Perhaps this is an inherent tension in a democratic republic, where the citizens elected to government are supposed to act on behalf of “the people” in general, but of course also come from a locality of their own, with interests of their own from both before and after their time in government.

One interpretation the American “Culture Wars” is that they are an attempt to elevate local social mores to centralized structures of authority (the legislature, the courts). The issue goes in the reverse direction, too. It might equally be the case that national and regional authorities have taken more interest in social issues that were formerly left untouched by the state.

Even in an age of large bureaucracy, the number of truly centralized powers is small

There are only so many nation-states, and likewise, only an elite few private industries that can exert state-like monolithic power.

Therefore most groups–even many powerful ones–are in a position to claim a local standpoint for their interests. Large corporations, for example, do not necessarily acknowledge their control over immense funds, employees, capital, or resources. Instead, corporations present themselves as representatives of one local interest which faces threats from all the others, from equivalent industries in other nations, and from state policies that might disfavor them relative to other groups. In this way, even entities with a global reach appear to be narrow actors with very limited goals and aims. The special interests of any given group become, in effect, its locality.

New powers often get their start by serving state power; over time they compete with it

A member of the New York Times editorial board wrote a few weeks back about tech companies that seek to take on the powers of governments. He was thinking of Amazon’s purported nationwide contest over the location of its second headquarters, or Facebook’s new “Supreme Court” that reviews controversial policies like Donald Trump’s ban. Those are high-profile examples which go to a more general point: centralization as a process of power consolidation is never moving in just one direction, and it is never finished. New players are always possible, and new forms of control threaten ones that are already established. And there is no difference in principle between the state and other abstracting powers. We are now seeing an accelerating force, “information technology,” that consolidates information across national borders, creating new fault lines along the old human networks. The internet, which originally began as a research project by the state, now promises to be an abstracting, centralizing force to rival it.

This was not inevitable. The beginnings of the internet represented a new potential for centralization, because it required people to accept standard protocols for how information was received and transmitted across the network. But how the network would be used (i.e., what would be shared across it, who would profit from it) and what would be done with the information that resulted (i.e., who would store it and why) was still undecided. The internet was mostly unprofitable in its first decade of existence, because those who sought to control it had not successfully answered any of those questions. There was not yet a drive to centralize because it was not clear what the players on the internet would be centralizing for. Once the business models to profit from information technology became obvious, the character of the entire internet changed dramatically within a few years, toward a centralized model with identifiable goals: aggregation of viewership (advertising revenue), bulk collection of data flows (surveillance) and standardized entry points to the network (“platforms”).

The example of the internet shows that the landscape of centralized power changes dramatically when a new power arrives to consolidate local difference. Usually this is associated with technological innovation, but the innovation cannot be for its own sake. When technology contributes to a problem capable of being measured or achieved (e.g., profit), then centralization achieves the human urgency to push for realization.

Central authority gives individuals the power to understand its inner workings, because it must train some of them as administrators of the system

I wrote above that, at least in liberal societies that have a strong tradition of individualism, individuals might be considered their own form of hyper-“locality.”

An alternative explanation is that strong individualism is actually an abstracting development that makes a good companion to centralized authority. At the foundational of a modern, contract-based, mass society is a type of individual who is stripped of stubborn cultural dialects and local loyalties. The contemporary version of the abstract individual is the administrative mind, ambitious to seek advantage within systems that reward indifference to the past, pragmatism, loyalty and an abandonment of substantive rationality.

On the other hand, even the person who has been thoroughly socialized into centralized state power still retains her agency. Everyone comes from somewhere, and few people live such a deracinated life that they are not in a position to observe local effects–the effects of centralization–on the ground. Some of the most powerful modern testaments to centralized power were created by people who got their start acting on behalf of the state, putting them in a position to observe and understand it. Orwell was an administrator to British colonial rule in India before he became a writer about totalitarianism. In a different time and place, the NSA contractor Edward Snowden was just one mundane administrator of a new scheme to organize information–until he started to look around.

From the Preface to The Free World, by Harvard Professor of English Louis Menand, about U.S. culture during the Cold War:

“Cultures get transformed not deliberately or programmatically but by the unpredictable effects of social, political, and technological change, and by random acts of cross-pollination. Ars longa is the ancient proverb, but actually, art making is short-term. It is a response to changes in the immediate environment and the consequence of serendipitous street-level interactions.“0{#ffn6 .footnote}^

  1. [James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State, 262 ↩︎]{#fn1}
  2. [Among his case studies, Scott uses the beginning of wide-scale agriculture in the so-called “fertile crescent,” where he makes the case that hunter-gatherers, who were deeply skilled at securing a wide variety of foods, had to be captured and coerced into growing monocrop grains. He also writes about the beginnings of modern “scientific forestry” in Europe, where state authorities took apart complete forest ecosystems, systems on which many people depended, so that they could consolidated, inventoried, culled and re-cultivated into regular stands of “natural resources.” ↩︎]{#fn2}
  3. [Scott, Seeing Like a State, 8 ↩︎]{#fn3}
  4. [Scott, State, 102 ↩︎]{#fn4}
  5. [For example, Facebook pursues different strategies for growth in the United States and India, but it is very active–and very interested–in both. ↩︎]{#fn5}
  6. [Menand, The Free World. Preface. (Epub version). ↩︎]{#fn6}


The Birder and the Naturalist on Identification

I started looking at the birds more during the pandemic. So did a lot of other people. Most field guides about birds are written for one purpose: to identify them. Birding is easy to distill to its basics: you look at a bird, you figure out the name that somebody else gave it, and you keep lists of what you’ve seen.

But it would be deflationary to leave it there, that birding is about mere bird identification. It doesn’t account for why there are so many people who are very serious about identifying birds in particular. Sure, almost every branch of nature has people who take an interest in it.0{#ffn1 .footnote}^ But I know of no other outdoor nature activity centered on identification that generates anywhere near the same excitement as birding.

One of the most thoughtful teachers of birding I’ve found in print is Ken Kaufman. His Field Guide to Advanced Birding is a good place to start figuring out what birding is really about.0{#ffn2 .footnote}^ The “advanced” part of the title is somewhat misleading. The book is not really trying to define a bar for experts so much as give a more systematic account of the practices of modern birding, organized by case studies on, say, a specific feature (e.g., “Plumages, Molt and Wear”), a habitat type (e.g., “Learning to Identify Seabirds”), or a genus (“The Empidonax Flycatchers”). Kaufman writes in the introduction about his experience in the field teaching beginners to bird:

One revelation was the importance of understanding. It was clear that birders could memorize dozens of field marks and song descriptions and still misidentify birds, simply because they didn’t really understand what they were seeing and hearing. (5, original emphasis)

Kaufman’s description of the beginner’s pattern-matching approach shows the problem with the birding-as-identification idea. One issue is that the beginner trying to select matches against an example is often wrong, because the appearance of any bird makes for an unreliable guide to species.0{#ffn3 .footnote}^ “Look closely at the members of the flock,” Kaufman writes, “and you’ll find that no two are exactly alike.“0{#ffn4 .footnote}^ But the beginner is also focused on making the ID, to exclusion, or detriment, of what Kaufman calls “understanding.” I imagine someone learning about new birds who becomes so focused on the minute details of a bird’s features that they remove the bird, imaginatively, from its surroundings, bringing it into a sterile laboratory of the mind.

What the beginner lacks is all of the birder’s background knowledge that contributes to making the ID. It’s knowledge that can come in handy for the purposes of the birding, even if it was gathered from relaxed and general observation, from the naturalist’s wider experience with the landscape and seasons, or from intuition without a clear source. Consider what Kaufman says later on, about habitat:

When an experienced birder glimpses a bird and names it instantly, it’s probable that the bird’s habitat (and its location within the habitat) contributed to the speedy identification. Often this happens at a completely subconscious level, and if asked, the birder might have to think about it for a minute to be able to describe what he or she noticed about habitat clues. But especially when we’re in familiar territory, clues of this type provide a major part of our initial impressions of birds.

It can be hard to tease out the habitat aspect because it is so intertwined with other clues. For example, if we’re out in midwinter in the midwest, going past a hedgerow through open weedy fields, and a little flock of small slim birds flushes from low in the bushes and flies low along the hedgerow, we might quickly call them American Tree Sparrows. In this case, the time of year, the size and shape of the birds, and the fact that they’re in a small flock are all contributing to our impression of what they are.0{#ffn5 .footnote}^

Understanding is the knowledge of a bird’s world that goes beyond what you need to make the ID. Yes, it can help you make the ID faster, with less visual information, in sub-optimal conditions, or even without witnessing a specimen firsthand. Yet the strict definition of birding, which takes identification as its calling card and payoff for the activity, is always in exchange with the naturalist’s more open-ended prerogative to understand. The traditional birder makes lists, while the naturalist appreciates, filing away knowledge that might be systematic, but is without any immediate plans for application. One does not get better at being a naturalist in the same way that one does a birder. Naturalists used to take physical specimens, but even if they are more likely to take pictures and make drawings today and leave the specimens in nature, they still collect for its own sake.

Think of it this way. On the average winter day in temperate North America, even a beginning birder can quickly come to identify everything they see–so what do they do then? You can go out and keep making more IDs, counting numbers of birds by day and month, visiting different sites, and generally practicing different variations on the activity of identifying birds. Or you can work a little less hard, and just think about the birds that are already in front of you at a given point in time. What is a bird foraging for? How long does it spend in one spot? Where does it go next? What do its movements mean, and what are its patterns? All of these questions arise if for no other reason than as an effect of the productive boredom caused by disinterested curiosity. Many of these questions have been studied and, in some cases, answered by ornithologists and adjacent scientists. These problems, in total, make up a body of knowledge that both precedes the ID–because it creates the intuition that makes the ID possible–and follows it, deepening it. Understanding is what happens after you know what a bird is, but still keep looking.

Understanding is really another word for an interest in nature that surrounds the structured, formalized rituals of birding. The birder who seeks to understand what she is seeing has, whether by accident or love of birds, gone beyond the boundaries of the activity. You can make lists of what you have identified, but the same cannot be said of everything you have seen. Everyone has seen more than they realize. Another contrast with the naturalist: the naturalist always accumulates more detail than he or she is able to synthesize in a given moment. She is full of latent knowledge, which is waiting to be made active when she is, say, called upon to give a name to a bird.

The birder and the naturalist are useful complements to one another. But those who take part in an activity with well-established codes, like birding, will always have an easier time finding companions, forming associations, and creating recognition for themselves. The naturalist is probably more likely to be a loner, because of the poorly-defined edges of the activity. He also stands in a more-or-less subordinate relationship to modern science: what is appreciation of nature, next to the scientist’s capacity to direct and control it?

But where do the activities of naturalists tend to lead, other than to accumulating a store of potential knowledge for other pursuits? One distinctive realization’s of the naturalist’s calling might be the nature writer, who organizes his response to nature into an interpretive flow: personal, aspiring to a temporary significance, without the permanence of a cooperative, ongoing endeavor like birders who swap lists and go out in the field together.

One example: I enjoyed Helen McDonald’s recent essay collection, Vesper Flights. In the title essay she writes about swifts, which have been known to drift for hours on thermal currents that carry them thousands of feet high, into the clouds, where they have been observed by airplanes. These are called “vesper flights,” because swifts make the ascent at both dawn and dusk, timing them like the prayer services held in the Catholic tradition. McDonald eventually comes to understand the activity analogically, like moving outside the boundary of ordinary life:

Swifts aren’t always crossing the atmospheric boundary layer at dizzying heights; most of the time they are living below it in thick and complicated air. That’s where they feed and mate and bathe and drink and are. But to find out about the important things that will affect their lives, they must go higher to survey the wider scene, and there to communicate with others about the larger forces impinging on their realm. So I’m starting to think of swifts differently now, not as angels or aliens, but as perfectly instructive creatures. Not all of us need to make that climb, just as many swifts eschew their vesper flights because they are occupied with eggs and young–but as a community, surely, some of us are required, by dint of flourishing life and the well-being of us all, to look clearly at the things that are so easily obscured by the everyday.0{#ffn6 .footnote}^

Where the naturalist excels is in the ability to repurpose her experience, to understand it in unlimited new contexts. McDonald arrives at her own conclusions. She can only describe her reasoning and ask us to agree with her. But because she did not undertake her activity for any particular reason in the first place, there is no necessary end to her observations. She has no list to keep, only an ongoing response to allow. Long before this essay, McDonald learned to identify the swift in flight, but I am convinced that she continues to watch them, gathering impressions, for reasons she does not yet know.

  1. [See, for examples, societies built on the appreciation of ferns and moss. ↩︎]{#fn1}
  2. [In addition to the Field Guide to Advanced Birding, I can also recommend Kaufman’s A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration, which tells the story of his decision to make a home on the southern boundary of Lake Erie, which he helped put on the map as a world-class point for observing bird migration, and now (thanks in substantial part to Kaufman) the site of one of the world’s great birding festivals. ↩︎]{#fn2}
  3. [A related criticism worth exploring: as computers have gained great skill at pattern-matching over the last two decades (e.g., so-called “machine vision,” used in some of the most popular birding apps), the reduction of birding to the recognition of visual patterns becomes even less appealing. ↩︎]{#fn3}
  4. [Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 132 ↩︎]{#fn4}
  5. [Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 93 ↩︎]{#fn5}
  6. [McDonald, Vesper Flights, 144 ↩︎]{#fn6}


Ken Kaufman, Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding. Houghton Mifflin, 2011.

Helen MacDonald, Vesper Flights. Grove Press, 2020. :::