1. I find your choice of Audubon as an examplar of a naturalist whose praxis focuses on “collecting and cataloguing, attempting to create order out of the perceived chaos of the natural world” “without regard for value of local knowledge” a bit perplexing. A naturalist of that stripe would not have included passages like this in his species descriptions:

    “As soon as the little King-bird has raised its brood, and when its courage is no loner put in requisition for the defence of its young or its mate, the Red-tailed Hawk visits the farm-houses, to pay his regards to the poultry. This is done without much precaution, for, while sailing over the yard where the chickens, the ducklings, and the young turkeys are, the Hawk plunges upon any one of them, and sweeps it off to the nearest wood. When impelled by continued hunger, he now and then manages to elude the vigilance of the Martins, Swallows and King-birds, and watching for a good opportunity, falls upon and seizes an old fowl, the dying screams of which are heard by the farmer at the plough, who swears vengeance against the robber. He remembers that he has observed the Hawk’s nest in the woods, and full of anger at the recollection of the depredations which the plunderer has already committed, and at the anticipation of its many visits during the winter, leaves his work and his horses, strides to his house, and with an axe and a rifle in his hands proceeds towards the tree, where the hopes of the Red-tailed Hawk are snugly nestled among the tall branches. The farmer arrives, eyes the gigantic tree, thinks for a moment of the labour which will be required for felling it, but resolves that he shall not be overreached by a Hawk. He throws aside his hat, rolls up his sleeves, and applies himself to the work. His brawny arms give such an impulse to the axe, that at every stroke large chips are seen to fall off on all sides. The poor mother-bird, well aware of the result, sails sorrowfully over and around. She would fain beg for mercy towards her young. She alights on the edge of the nest, and would urge her offspring to take flight. But the farmer has watched her motions. The axe is left sticking in the core of the tree, his rifle is raised to his shoulder in an instant, and the next moment the whizzing ball has pierced the heart of the Red-tailed Hawk, which falls unheeded to the earth. The farmer renews his work, and now changes sides. A whole hour has been spent in the application of ceaseless blows. He begins to look upwards, to judge which way the giant of the forest will fall, and having ascertained this, he redoubles his blows. The huge oak begins to tremble. Were it permitted to speak, it might ask why it should suffer for the deeds of another; but it is now seen slowly to incline, and soon after with an awful rustling produced by all its broad arms, its branches, twigs and leaves, passing like lightning through the air, the noble tree falls to the earth, and almost causes it to shake. The work of revenge is now accomplished: the farmer seizes the younglings, and carries them home, to be tormented by his children, until death terminates their brief career.”

    (From the Red-tailed hawk’s bird biography, link pasted in web site field.)

    Elsewhere in his writings (especially the journals of his trips to Labrador and up the Missouri River) he demonstrates an extensive reliance on the knowledge of first nations and colonists alike. The role of the ornithologist in those texts (and the bird and mammal biographies that emerged from them) becomes one of synthesis, scepticism, verification, and codification, with local knowledge and prior scientific authorities being interrogated with equal rigor. After all, neither is infallible.

    I’m not disputing that the kind of approach that you discuss existed at that time, just nineteenth-century naturalists were particularly monolithic in their approach. If anything, the scientific literature of the 20th century strikes me as closer to the worldview you’re describing, even though it existed in parallel to (and often overlapped with) a growing discourse of enthusiasm and conservationism.

    • Ah, fair enough Jack. There is a certain wide intellectual brush that I’m painting with here. It’s the same brush that gets pulled out to claim that natural history is of no relevance due to its colonial roots. Clearly you would, as I tried here, disagree with that notion.

      This RTH narrative is interesting but the subtext is still such that there is some divide, between the human and the non-human, not to be broached. Shotgun ornithology, Scott Weidensaul’s term, ruled the day. Audubon was one to shoot birds arrange them and then paint these arrangements. His folios — more lifelike than any before — were the products of a world-view where knowledge about the world was collected and presented in a certain official ways. Birds of America was published in the UK. So, any official knowledge about birds was this hybrid of dead birds and first-hand observations in place. For all of that, though, Audubon gained incredible knowledge in ecological context. His life histories are teeming with detail. It wasn’t just limited to birds and it wasn’t reductionistic.

      I hope it does not sound like I think all 19th century naturalists were barbaric. But I also don’t want to ignore the way that some of that knowledge was collected: it was violent, it was within a European world-view and it didn’t fundamentally change the way the natural world was thought of. And, as far as the official way of creating knowledge, it was left behind in the atomization of the sciences. It lost its power.

      Which is where I try and re-insert a non-reductionistic, ecologically-contextual way of knowing the world. And where, knowing its historical context, past practice and potential faults, natural history and naturalists still offer an opportunity to think and practice different ways of knowing the more-than-human. Ways of knowing, with a worst-case scientific world-view square in my sights, that reanimate the world.

      So, was I being monolithic in the description of 19th C naturalists? Yes, certainly. I wanted to acknowledge the problems that I have with this practice so that I can say, “Yes, colonialism and violence is a concern and part of natural history’s historical context.” But as you point out, this wasn’t all the practice was about. Local knowledge was valued and perhaps I understated that.

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