I’ve spent this winter paying attention. I’m learning the names of the birds in the bamboo grove behind my office, where the spotted salamanders hide, where the white-tail deer scrape the ground, where the oyster mushrooms grow. I grew up in almost-urban New Jersey, and my “natural literacy” began and ended with cardinal, blue jay, oak, maple, salamander, frog, snake, fish. It wasn’t until I discovered a love for natural history in college that I began to realize the value in learning the names of my neighbors.
natural literacy: n. knowledge of the natural world, the names of its inhabitants, and their ecology
I’ve also spent this winter up to my neck in telemetry data, constructing a database from scratch, trying to analyze millions of detections from hundreds of tagged fish in the Alabama River. I became intensely focused on the task, spending all of my time at work crunching numbers. Then I felt myself getting tunnel vision, and I began to worry that I might be forgetting about the “big picture”. So I went outside. I spent a few hours a week watching hooded mergansers at the fisheries station ponds, trying to commune with my neighbors and think about something besides fish. But I felt naked without my fishing rod. What is the point of spending time at the water without a rod and reel? What is the point of paying attention to things that aren’t fish?
Although many fish biologists enjoy fishing, hunting, birding, herping, and foraging in their free time, I think we could still benefit from some thought about why we do these things, and how these activities benefit us as scientists. Do you need to know all the members of the slimy salamander species complex to be a good fish biologist? Probably not. But, could you be a better one if you did? I think so.
I think that engaging with natural history – learning the identity and phenology of your neighbors by reading about their stories, and studying their lives alongside your own can give anyone a sense of rootedness. Perhaps quantitative ecologists need it the most, but I’m sure many of you reading this have felt a lack of rootedness before. I think that in our small scientific worlds, we get bogged down in becoming experts in very specific, and sometimes technical things. For example, I’m a PhD student trying to become an expert in the movement and behavior of migratory fishes. Is anyone going to ask me to identify the call of a Carolina wren at my dissertation defense? Highly unlikely. But, I think that studying more than just what we wish we were experts in can make us better able to contextualize our work, give us stronger connections to our peers, and maybe even strengthen our own sense of fulfillment.
I acknowledge that I wouldn’t be having these thoughts were it not for my privilege. Many people do not have the luxury of time to spend outside learning about natural history. Historically, Naturalism has been the hobby of aristocrats (many prominent naturalists were from very rich families), but natural literacy doesn’t always come from luxury. Like the farmer who knows when the gadwalls will land in his pond, or the trapper who knows where to find the mink trails, many who make their living off the land have a natural literacy that might not even be attainable even with the most steadfast scientific work ethic. Perhaps all it takes is to pay attention. I think we could all benefit from some outdoor meditation on why we spend so many hours sifting through millions of data points, looking for answers to questions which at their root are really about natural history.
Do you think that natural literacy is an important trait of a fisheries biologist? At what stage of our education should we learn it? Or is natural history just a hobby, take it or leave it?