Why Natural History Matters

I wrote the following essay to apply for the Arthur G. Rempel Scholarship in Natural History. Dr. Rempel was an emeritus professor of biology at Whitman College for 40 years and a founding member of the Blue Mountain Audubon Society. I’m honored to be the recipient of his scholarship, especially because the members of the Blue Mountain Audubon Society welcomed me to Walla Walla and became some of my first friends when I transferred to Whitman. (Remember the singing elk and brown skippers from the October Hawk Watch?) As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


Novice and seasoned birders scan for waterfowl on a trip I lead each semester for the Outdoor Program.
Photo credit: Margo Heffron.

It’s raining on the Science Building as I type. Earlier, the sky was blanketed by a layer of stratus which thickened and darkened and then started to sputter. The first droplets hit pavement as I googled the definition of “natural history,” unaware and distracted, but now I look up and see the cloud has evolved into nimbostratus, overflowing with precipitation. Smashed raindrops streak the window like strings of pearls, and Ankeny glows the color of hydrated chlorophyll. There, a crow swoops sideways over Maxey! Where’s she headed? Will she preen the moisture off her feathers from a perch in the gingko behind Anderson or the pine next to Cordiner? Does she have a nest? I want to run outside and smell the rain.

Crows mob a red-tailed hawk at Juanita Bay.

Tom Fleischner, author of Natural History and the Spiral of Offering, defines natural history as “a practice of intentional focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy.” These words remind me of a meeting I facilitated to discuss concerns about the future directions of an environmental club of which I was president. Leaders, members and officers all arrived with the same intention, to help our club be the best it could be, but tempers rose as our leader interrupted the members’ stories, corrected their factual errors, and spoke for more minutes than she listened. One club member stormed out; another broke down crying. After the meeting I considered what went wrong, and it all came down to listening. The same nouns that define natural history – attentiveness and receptivity, honesty and accuracy – are also the ingredients for a productive conversation. I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, natural history is a conversation between human and nature.

Photographing a grazing Nene at Kilauea Lighthouse, Kauai.
Photo credit: Russ Finley.

Outside, the rain has eased. The sky looks brighter to the south; I wonder if the sun is in that part of the sky. Two droplets coalesce on the pane and slither down under the guidance of gravity. The chestnut’s leaves look new and small, a lighter shade of green than I’m used to.

Margo focuses on a sparrow near Bennington Lake.

Natural history matters because it is an attempt at honest listening. Experiments, despite the insights they provide, cannot match the honesty of pure observation. A hypothesis is limited by the imagination of the researcher, and it reduces the likelihood of stumbling onto a truth we didn’t even think to suspect. Natural history is exploration without hypotheses. It requires vulnerability, because we risk discovering something we weren’t looking for, and humility, because we cannot be proven right. It challenges us to stop talking, guessing, analyzing, presenting, submitting, performing… for long enough to stand still. Watch. Listen. In doing so, we broaden our understanding of what exists.

Is it a plant or fungus on this path to Mount Rainier? Hard to tell.
Photo credit: Amelia Bishop.

Natural history often involves undirected recording of observations, and these records have proven essential to progress in biology. The sketches that filled Darwin’s journals fueled his insight into natural selection. My own photographs of blue-morph green frogs and Gal├ípagos penguins, taken to capture moments of unexpected beauty, became useful when submitted to monitoring projects. Last year, as I investigated the tide-pools of Carkeek Beach, I stumbled upon the diseased sea stars that would become my research subjects, and a note I scribbled on my dive slate about a sea turtle’s tumor led to a presentation on fibropapillomatosis. None of these discoveries, large or small, would have been possible without venturing into the forest or under the waves with no goal but an honest and accurate perception of our surroundings.

Diving Leon Dormido off San Cristobal Island, Galapagos, Ecuador.
Photo credit: Joselo Ballesteros.

A passing green turtle, Chelonia mydas.

Conservation, like biology, depends on natural history. My descendants will inherit a world shaped by the interactions of billions of generations of archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes who came before. One organism, Homo sapiens, exerts influence over most of those interactions. Natural history gives us the best chance of unraveling what makes nature tick and what she requires to thrive. No Petri dish microcosm experiment will tell us what the Olympic Rain Forest needs to be whole; no ecosystem services spreadsheet will calculate the value of an intact prairie.

Exploring the Hoh Rain Forest with a group of out-of-town NOAA interns.

Sam explores the Mineral Creek Falls on the Hoh River Trail.

Turn over mossy logs under the falls and you may find... a salamander!
Perhaps the endemic Olympic torrent salamander, Rhyacotriton olympicus?

But what if conservation comes up short? I’m not alone in my prediction that over the next century, species will go extinct, ecosystems will fragment, and biodiversity will plummet at the hands of my own kind. Has natural history failed?

When I’m tempted to despair over the sixth mass extinction, the natural historian in me takes a step back from judgement and desire to simply observe. Invasive species become migrants, extinctions become open niches setting the stage for the next great diversification event… the Post-Anthropocene Explosion? Each day of our lives is a conversation with nature, and we learn only when we keep quiet for long enough to listen. The most wonderful conversations never go in the direction I expect.

I was not expecting to see bison on my way home from college!
Photo credit: Janine Walker or Paige Soper.

It’s not raining any more. A hundred tiny insects of various kinds are stuck dead in a cobweb plastered to the upper left corner of the window pane. I notice a Douglas fir’s branches tipped with orange buds, and there seems to be a slight breeze through the needles. I wonder how it sounds?

A spring peeper moment.