With science advancing at its present rate and specialties becoming more and more narrow, what has become of the amateur naturalist? Actually, there has been quite a new resurgence and a new need for them.
The volunteer environmental movement has led to volunteers not only lending their muscle power but also their knowledge and their observational power. The Nature Conservancy has organized a lot of this work, but forest preserve districts, state parks, state departments of natural resources – a lot of organizations – have put volunteers to work. They cut or remove non-native, aggressive species, and they make way for the natural, native biodiversity. They use their knowledge and observational powers also when they participate in Christmas bird counts, frog/butterfly/bird/& dragonfly surveys. They help, and they learn from other (more experienced) volunteers while they help.
Recently, the Christmas bird counts have led the Audubon Society to issue a warning about the decline of many of our more common bird species in the Midwest. So keeping an eye on things can actually have a significant impact on what people do and how they respond.
Perhaps, there could be more. To stand in front of native flowers and non-native flowers and determine what is pollinating each species would be a good exercise and would tell us more about the insects that inhabit our nature preserves. High school ecology clubs could be part of this.
In order to learn the plants and insects, I have been known to take the sketchbook out on the trail with me. It’s a great way to get to know what’s out there. It forces you to look and see. But there’s no one right way to go out there and learn. Each one of us would do it a little differently. That’s why we need more of us. It takes more of us to “cover the territory.” Each one of us has slightly different interests.
In the Bible I see at least two “amateur naturalists.” One was Adam. As God brought to Adam the animals, Adam named them. This is a mysterious passage, but it seems that God was fellowshipping with the man, comparing his creational thoughts with the words the man used to describe. Ever since Linnaeus in the 1700’s, the job of naming new animals or plants has been a coveted right of the discoverer.
Another Biblical naturalist was possibly Solomon. It says in I Kings, chapter 4, verses 32-34, “He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even to the hyssop that grows on the wall; he spoke also of animals and birds and creeping things and fish. Men came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.” The wisdom of Solomon is well celebrated in the Bible, but here it specifically includes his knowledge of nature.
Of course, the Bible is filled with interesting metaphors based on a knowledge of nature. But we should be cautious and not see in this any pre-scientific claims. People in the Bible observed nature in the same way a poet observes nature – enough to be insightful and accurate – but not scientifically. (1)
At one time amateur science could lead to a professional calling – and it still can. Darwin, for instance, collected curious objects, shells, etc., before he took his round the world voyage on the Beagle. As Edward O. Wilson, a current naturalist and science writer, said on BookTV a few weeks ago – young people should be allowed to explore nature on their own. If they do, they may find a professional calling in their future or maybe just a call to do something in their own neck of the woods that will turn out to be most useful.
(1) See The Christian View of Science and Scripture, by Bernard Ramm (1954). I’ve only read the opening chapters, but this is what he says.
To volunteer anywhere, try the Nature Conservancy, at http://www.nature.org/.