Being a naturalist is something that I’ve been thinking about personally and academically for a while now. Now when I say naturalist, images such as this painting of John James Audubon may come to mind. Being a 19th century naturalist was one of collecting and cataloguing, attempting to create order out of the perceived chaos of the natural world. While this work did manage to order the natural world in a particular way, it was undertaken in places like North America by Europeans without regard for value of local knowledge. In this way, it was an extension of the colonial act of “settling” an empty land. As we can now acknowledge, North America was anything but empty.
Significantly, scientific knowledge left the practice of natural history behind as the official way of coming to know the more-than-human. And, if we look at Audubon with his rifle — his instrument of collection — perhaps that fine. Because when I speak of being a naturalist, I am not interested in reproducing this violent, romantic and gendered way of coming to know the more-than-human. But I do think that our personal, intimate and material understanding of our lives is impoverished. And I think that a certain practice of natural history can offer opportunities to discover the networks of material relations that we have between the many actors implicated in our lives. Today, being a naturalist means attempting to broach the divide between human and non-human.
Barry Lopez echoes this (or I echo Barry Lopez) in a 2001 article published in the autumn issue of Orion magazine. In short (and I encourage you to read the whole thing because he is saying many things), he sees naturalists who are attentive to the mystery of nature (and I acknowledge that this does have a bit of a romantic ring to it, so I would say attentive to the more-than-human and in firm grasp of the limitations of what and how we know ), as a new kind of political actor.
And this is key. Naturalists from every era, whether stated explicitly or not, have always acted politically in this world. In the case of 19th century white men coming to the new world, it was a particular kind of politics that they were rendering — it did not deviate much from the larger cultural script of ordering and expansion. Today, however, naturalists have the opportunity to enact a kind of politics that does deviate from the larger cultural script. As witnesses with understanding fostered by skills of observation and reflection, they can say meaningful things about our cultural relationship to the natural world. Words and actions that rough up the flat perspectives and shallow moral obligations that currently are the status quo. This is the naturalist re-cast.