The Historic Naturalists

by Cathy Johnson

We are a people in love with the outdoors; a thousand different roads lead us beyond our doorstep and into enchantment. Our interest may have had its roots in a solitary childhood filled with wonder and imagination, as mine did, evolve as a result of Earth Day environmental concerns, or develop from a hobby-become-passion, like birding–but it is nonetheless an integral part of us, as individuals and as a nation. Our fascination has its roots woven deep into the fabric of this country’s beginnings, and we have much to learn from the historic naturalists. We have built on the foundation of their curiosity, their wonder, and there is no less to be curious about today.

The study of nature has intrigued observers of this continent for 500 years and more. To some, such tenure is a surprise, as though our generation invented the sciences of biology and botany–and the pleasure of a nature walk in spring. Instead, interest in the natural sciences is as intertwined with our history as the more familiar litany of wars or westward expansion. The records left by these men and women, their words and field sketches and paintings, comprise our body of knowledge about the natural history of this country as it once was. They give us a benchmark from which to compare the present.

The first explorers brought with them naturalist-artists to record their findings; such wonders would have to be seen to be believed. Finding a land crowded with new plants and animals, a possible source of dyes, spices, medicinals and other riches, Europeans played catch up to learn everything they could.

How exciting it must have been to discover the strange, colorful fish that swam the coastal waters of 1585, as did John White, the first governor of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Imagine what it must have been like to be Mark Catesby, studying and painting the wildlife of 1740 Carolina, more than half a century before John James Audubon began his landmark work of cataloging the birds and mammals of America. I have a marvelous book entitled Catesby’s Birds of Colonial America (Alan Feduccia, editor, Russell Peterson foreword) that brims with his paintings and notations, complemented by the text of the artist’s own book about his travels in the years 1731-1743. It’s time-travelogue, a fascinating bit of our natural history.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were commissioned by Thomas Jefferson, himself a confirmed student of the natural sciences, to do far more than find a route to the Pacific. They were charged with discovering and cataloging the resources of the new Louisiana Purchase–the plants, animals, minerals, and indigenous peoples found there. Even as late as 1804, we wondered if we might find mammoths and mastodons in the wild, mountainous regions. Their huge, fossilized bones had already been discovered–why not the creatures themselves? The plant collections, sketches and exhaustive notes kept by the men of the Expedition of Discovery still educate us today, 200 years later.

As early as the 18th century we find the beginnings of concern for conservation. The Swiss naturalist Peter Kalm, who visited this country in the mid-18th century, commented on the reckless use of resources by the colonists. Sixty years later, the naturalist John Bradbury made similar observations in the Missouri Territory. The balance has always been delicate.

Women also studied the natural sciences, or natural philosophy, as it was sometimes called. Maria Sibylla Merian left her adopted Holland at the age of 52 with her younger daughter, to study the insects and flowers of the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America; at the beginning of the 18th century such a venture was nearly unheard of. It was not only the fact that she was a woman that made her accomplishment so unusual. At that time, much natural history illustration was often more fancy than fact. Merian painted on the spot, and although there are errors in her work, they are far more accurate than most. They are also some of the most beautiful natural history illustrations ever seen.

Merian’s 1705 Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium yielded both great beauty and an important scientific discovery. She was the first to record the life cycle of insects, from egg through larvae and pupa to adult.

Jane Colden (1724-1766), daughter of Cadwallader Colden and acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin, John and William Bartram, and Peter Kalm, published the first illustrated flora of New York in 1749. Her drawings are quite accurate, if sometimes a bit crude, but her notes are exhaustive and her descriptive and observational skills impressive. Combined, they tell us a great deal about what plants grew in the locale as well as season and growing habit.

One of the best known of the early herbalists, John Gerard, occasionally included a seed or root in the beautifully realized drawings in his huge study of useful plants; Jane Colden cataloged the progression of literally dozens of plants in her Botanic Manuscript. Few modern field guides are so complete; she forshadowed the approach of the Peterson guides by 200 years.

Colden even discovered several new plant species; her observations were astute. Plant samples she had collected were sent to Carl Linneas, who formalized the system of naming plants, animals, and so forth with the Latin binomials by which we know them today; the system still bears his name. Perhaps because there was such a prodigious stream of samples from the New World, or because Linneas had already named a plant in honor of her father–or perhaps because she was a woman–there is no plant today named after Jane Colden.

Given the temper of their times, women’s involvement in natural history was often in the more socially acceptable study of plants as medicinals or dyestuffs. Most early women naturalists studied their nature “by way of the garden, the artist’s brush, and the writer’s pen,” writes Marcia Myers Bonta (Women in the Field; America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists.) Some went beyond this to agricultural studies in crop improvement. South Carolina history identifies at least three women so occupied: Martha Laurens Ramsey, Martha Daniel Logan, and Eliza Lucas Pinckney. Ramsey experimented with olives as a cash crop, Pinckney devised a profitable method of growing indigo, and Logan, who lived from 1702-1779, wrote the Gardener’s Kalendar, which became a standard gardening book in the Carolinas. All three followed their interests in nature to find a field of study both useful and unusual for their sex.

The study of plants continued to capture the imagination of many women in the 19th century. By 1822, New York botanist/geologist Amos Eaton said “I believe more than half the botanists of New England and New York are ladies.”

The more familiar names belong to the men who recorded our natural history, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find many women–sometimes daughters, sisters, wives or sweethearts of these men, sometimes not. Mary Townsend, sister of ornithologist John Kirk Townsend, wrote and illustrated Life in the Insect World in 1844. Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of James, penned a book of observations called Rural Hours. Though we hear far more about her father’s “Leatherstocking Tales,” Rural Hours received glowing reviews from William Cullen Bryant. It was mentioned in Henry David Thoreau’s journals four years before he published Walden, itself perhaps the best known naturalist’s journal in the world.

Lucy Say was the wife of naturalist/artist Thomas Say, who accompanied Stephen Long’s 1819 expedition to the West. In addition to her wifely duties, she illustrated not only some of her husband’s writings but Holbrook’s North American Herpetology as well. So much for the image of the delicate Victorian woman fainting away at the sight of a snake! As I sketch the small copperhead that visits my cabin’s clearing, I feel close to Lucy and her important work.

This clear-eyed considering is part of what we have to learn from the historic naturalists. Things we might have thought frightening, disgusting, or sinister become fascinating when we give them the respect they are due–when we pay attention. When we sit quietly and observe a spider going about its business we discover that not only does it have its place in the biosystem, which may have been intellectually if not emotionally obvious to us, but that it possesses its own aching beauty. I used to be terrified of spiders, with the ancient, unexamined fear of The Other. Once I began studying them, sketching them, my fear dissipated like dawn mist on the river.

The talented Maria Martin helped to illustrate some of Audubon’s prints, adding plants and insects. Graceanna Lewis (1821-1912) was trained in the natural sciences as were many Quaker women; she wrote and illustrated A Natural History of Birds in 1844. Mrs. William Starr Dana created the first popular field guide, How to Know the Wild Flowers before the turn of the century, and I grew up reading my grandmother’s tattered copies of Gene Stratton Porter’s nature novels, reveling in the magic of the natural world in those pages and wishing I could grow up to emulate her.

Part of my personal interest in these people is bedrock practical–the material culture of their work fascinates me. What did they use for colors? What kind of brushes did they have? What did they work on, and how did they preserve their sketches? But the broader appeal is what they recorded for us to find and marvel over–and protect.

Interest in the natural sciences burgeoned in the Victorian era and the early 20th century. Dozens of books were written on the subject; keeping a nature journal was a popular pastime, as it has become again today, thanks to people like Clare Walker Leslie and Hannah Hinchman. Collections of wild flowers, insects, birds’ nests, and so forth were common, and the mania for collecting may have driven some species to near-extinction. Coupled with the no-holds-barred hunting practices of the Victorians as they explored the West and drove back the native peoples, it’s a wonder there is a living thing yet to be seen.

There are many records of a single hunter killing several hundred birds in a day, photographs of great piles of wolves and coyotes and other predators killed for bounty, and bison shot for their hides and tongues–or merely for the “sport” of it, leaving the carcasses to rot. Today we are more cognizant of the relationships between predator and prey and the tenuous balance of nature. We try to protect what’s left and restore the balance where we can, and our studies take the form of photos and field sketches; hunting is now is regulated by law–much to the good of wildlife. And in places there are hints and whispers of what it might have been like when the historic naturalists were discovering this land centuries ago. It never fails to excite me when I come upon some marvel that I recognize from Kalm or Colden, Catesby or Audubon.

Other familiar names join the galaxy of great American naturalists at the approach of the 20th Century, and the concept of conservation began to temper the love of collecting–which was often no more than the taking of trophies. Again, we learned much from the historic naturalists, concepts that still shape our journey.

John Muir was the founder of the Sierra Club–and some might argue, of the modern conservation movement. He convinced Theodore Roosevelt to set aside land for the first national parks, his beloved Yosemite among them. Roosevelt was himself important to the conservationist movement, as was his friend, the naturalist John Burroughs.

At “Slabsides,” his tiny retreat near the Hudson River, Burroughs wrote an astounding number of natural history books. Considered a romantic by some, he nonetheless wrote “Nature is just, gives pound for pound, measure for measure, makes no exceptions, never tempers her decrees with mercy…And in the end, is not this best?” I think of Burroughs’ words whenever I encounter proof of nature’s laws. Our world is complex, not sweetly sentimental; it’s as lusty as life itself. The survival of the fittest is not just a catch phrase, it’s a description of the food chain where we occupy top billing, by blood if not by choice. There is no place for softness here. Sentimentality can blind us to the real needs of the world around us.

In this century the writings of Henry Beston, Edwin Way Teale, Ann Zwinger, Ed Abbey and Aldo Leopold (and many others) continue the tradition. The latter was considered by many to be the father of the modern conservation movement, taking up the standard of Muir, Roosevelt and Burroughs. Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac, outlined a land ethic we still follow today–or should if we expect to reverse the pattern of abuse and neglect that began with the first colonists and continued through the Dust Bowl of the thirties and the burgeoning use of chemicals to replace more labor intensive farming practices.. His death in 1948 cut short an assignment as United Nations advisor on conservation.

No mention of great American naturalists would be complete without Rachel Carson. When she rang the alarm on DDT in her book Silent Spring, we were well on the way to losing the lovely voices and bright colors of many of the birds that delight us today. Their disappearance would have been more than aesthetic. Like many species now on the endangered or threatened lists, these birds are indicator species. When they’re in trouble, we’re in trouble.

We’ve lost many pieces of the puzzle already, from the awkward, flightless dodo bird to the passenger pigeon. Scientists tell us that chorus frog populations are in steep decline, and the sounds of early spring are less vibrant, more subdued. Many invertebrates have given up and checked out, never to return; the plant world has been impacted even more. With recent discoveries of the healing properties of the Pacific yew and echinacea, among others, can we afford the loss?

The early naturalists celebrated the astounding variety and abundance of this New World. Today, naturalists write as often as not of what we’ve lost–or what we’re about to. It is important work, more urgent and more somber than the happy work of discovery.

But nature is resilient. With care and attention, it can regroup. Consider the songbirds, the bald eagle and the trumpeter swan, all taking a step back from the precipice of extinction. We are intelligent people; we love our wild things and recognize their value. And we will fight to preserve them–and the legacy of the historic naturalists–come what may.

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