A Naturalist’s Legacy of Caring

by Ann Zwinger

We leave a legacy whether we want to or not. That realization kicked me in the shins as I watched numerous boxes being lugged up from a silverfish-haunted, spider-ridden, cricket-cornered basement to be delivered to the pristine environment of the library at The Colorado College where I occasionally teach and continually do research. The sunlight of a perfectly lovely Colorado morning warmed my head and shoulders, but mixed feelings chilled my thoughts as I watched myself go out the door: manuscripts of books written and published, as well as those that never saw the light of day; multitudinous essays and copious illustrations; endless correspondence with editors, publishers, and scientists; speeches ad nauseum; reviews, good, bad and indifferent; myriads of note cards, laboriously hand-written or tediously typed. In other words, all the dross of a quarter century of writing.

The boxes may have held only batches of typing paper adorned with ink and bound together by enfeebled rubber bands. Yet inside them lay whatever legacy I’d engineered, hidden in the aspen grove in the Colorado Rockies which inspired my first book, or recorded in hours of botanizing and drawing the exquisite plants of alpine meadows. Here lay soul-soothing sandbars of the Green River; my anxious search for water in the dry canyons of southeastern Utah; nostalgic family years exploring the Cape Region of Baja California; desert hours and field notes; and the wonders of six years working in the Grand Canyon. Within those stacks of paper lay the places I have been and the ways I have been there. They contain all the assignments to faraway places with strange sounding names: the Juan Fernandez Islands of Chile (a.k.a. the Robinson Crusoe Islands), the Tasmanian Sea of New Zealand, the Yangtze River of China — all the exotic locations that became home for a little while because I am a naturalist, and recording home is what I do.

Watching the stream of boxes forced me to muse about what I am passing on to posterity, and whether posterity would judge I’d spent my time well. A string of sentient thoughts did NOT bubble through my mind easily that bright morning, for I normally avoid such soul-searching, life-threatening queries with the same repugnance I’d show to having a dinner of well-ripened road kill. But in time and in spite of myself, thoughts have come. If I had it to do all over again, would I do other than I have done? An emphatic NO. If I knew then what I know now, would I have written any other métier? Mercy, no. For I can think of no other profession that could make me vault out of bed in the morning, bring me the satisfactions of learning and the challenges of craft, as natural history writing. I think that being a naturalist heals all wounds, cures asthma, celebrates life, improves vision, heals hangnails, and effectively prevents boredom in all forms.

Any legacy I might leave has been engendered by this profession. I believe that love of the natural world is something one can pass on: more than anything I hope to leave trails by which every person can find a binding relationship to the natural world, through all the ways of caring open to us as humans. My caring comes in all shapes and sizes, an array of different colors, an alphabetical grab-bag that begins with caring about the disciplines that make up natural history writing: accuracy, curiosity, observational skills. My caring begins with solicitude for free-flowing rivers and meadow larks, for banana slugs and swimming crabs and constellations, for collared lizards and lupines and leopards, for all the things that make up this rich, complex, tumbling, swirling, spinning natural world. My hope is that everyone develops their own grocery list of items, their own lexicon of natural largess.

A huge moral imperative resides in the idea of legacy, for I assume that we wish to pass on good things and our passion for them. Maybe creating a legacy is simply practicing a way of living and doing things, getting on with one’s life, recognizing eventually that there are some things we believe in (like accuracy), and some we don’t (like sloppy research). We unconsciously live our legacies: do as I DO, not as I say. For a writer, what you read is what you get. Between the lines is the message. You leave a legacy whether you want to or not.

Why is reverence for the holy grail of accuracy one of the things I care about passing on? Accuracy certainly isn’t on my list of glamorous, high-flying ideals, garlanded with elegantly flowing phrases. As a matter of fact, it can be rather dull. I admit to an insufferably pedantic frame of mind — I’ve even been accused of italicizing periods and commas.

But accuracy is at the heart of what I do. It runs through natural history writing like a vein of quartz through granite. I think “natural history” on the book cover promises that the information contained therein is accurate to the best of the writer’s ability. Fair enough. Accuracy is a legacy of someone who cares enough to honor the details. I learned devotion to precision from all the impeccable professors — art historical and scientific — who, over the years, have been careful in the research they’ve done.

Accuracy begins with one of the most joyful parts of natural history writing: field work. Being there, on the spot, cold, wet, tired, and hungry, provides a firsthand liaison with place that you can achieve in no other way. Adventures which lead into discourse about the chaotic curio cabinet of the natural world are the backbone of natural history writing. Natural history without firsthand field notes would be dull indeed, for they endow this lineage of writing with one of its greatest strengths: its radiant sense of involvement.

In the field, accuracy grows from careful observation and the process of dealing with multiple unknowns — answering the question, “What on earth is that?” And, what’s it doing? And if so, why so, and if not, why not? Over time, one builds one’s own vocabulary of place. One comes to recognize animal, vegetable and mineral groups, and all the in-betweens. To some, that must sound about as exciting as watching pudding set.

Not to this taxonomic groupie. I like knowing correct names — of family, friends, students, plants and animals and rock formations. It’s only common courtesy. Besides, the endowing of names is such a wonderfully human task, not to say necessity. A name is a handshake with a mushroom or a pine cone or a stormcloud or a river. Many common names are delightful: day’s eye that became daisy, dogbane, feverfew, sunflower — words that point up a visual or medicinal quality we no longer know them for, but that transport the richness of historical heritage. But there are lots of “sunflowers” and “goldenrods,” and sometimes to be sure you have the one and only, a scientific name is an imperative. Helianthus annuus talks about sun and flower that come up every year from seed. Sometimes accuracy is a matter of life and death: what could happen if you didn’t know the difference between Amanita muscaria and Agaricus arvensis?

To learn a sunflower, or a fungus, beyond its name, I draw it. An excursion among the stamens of a catkin, a tiptoe with pencil across the dainty gills of a mushroom, can teach me much and cheer me more. Drawing is the greatest learning tool I possess; it etches a plant or a scene into my mind in ways that words cannot — in the present, in retrospect. In nesting curves and characteristic edges, I limn a well-observed object in a way that commits it to mind; that careful tracking of form is a basis for memory. If you’ve drawn a wolf spider, you have indelibly filed in memory that slender body and long legs stretched fore and aft. If you’ve drawn a mariposa lily, you’ve found the color spot and its furry edges and a life-style built on threes. There’s great psychological enforcement in drawing a creature as well as naming it and writing about it. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just a simple recognition of notching in an aspen leaf, the scaled pattern in a moth wing, the pleats in a flax seedpod. Try it, you’ll like it.

When I teach “writing the natural history essay,” I urge students to make postage-stamp sketches in the margin of their journals and give them lots of hints for developing their own shorthand. One needs to think of drawing as a learning process, not as creating a “work of art” that is going to sell, during one’s lifetime of course, for an astronomical price. I’m inured to the wail, “I can’t draw!” Probably true. People who would never aspire to sit down at the piano and rattle off a Chopin Étude expect to sit down and dash off a skilled drawing that “looks like” the object of their attention. Balderdash. Why we have accumulated these misconceptions about drawing I don’t know. Such beliefs belong with old wives’ tales, mandrake roots and buttercups under the chin. Anyone CAN draw by looking at the world as something you want to learn about.As we look at the world with this kind of curiosity, it becomes home. I often go as the hired gun naturalist on river trips. At the start, I ask if any passenger can name ten plants, ten insects, ten animals, and five geological formations along the river. Usually no one can. So we make it an aim of the trip to learn those things as we travel, because so doing makes this place, this new here and now, become home, and makes each passenger a member of a new community. At the end of the trip we make a communal list. I love seeing the enthusiastic participation of curious and involved people connecting to their new habitat. It’s a wonderful game with felicitous results.

Of course I have an ulterior motive. I hope that their enthusiasm carries over into their main home setting, and that the pleasures of knowing who and what’s around them will lead to learning more about the close-by world in which they live. Without a speaking awareness of native plants, of the formations that frame the walls of our world, without a nodding acquaintance with the six- and eight-legged wobblers and creepers, how can we know “home?” And if we don’t know home, how can we care for where we live?

Appreciation and knowledge of the natural world go together; awareness of place equates with love of home. I care very much whose leaf turns red when, what spider casts her shining thread, what butterfly lays its eggs so its caterpillar awakens to a meal. If we are unaware of the great horned owl’s call, where the leopard frogs jump, whether bobcats prowl nearby, and what’s around the bend of a river, we are left without respect.

Caring for home has to come slowly to sink in deeply. It is a process that begins in childhood, as Rachel Carson so wisely knew and expressed in her phrase, “a sense of wonder.” Knowledge commanded for the moment is like learning a foreign language in a total immersion course: you learn it quickly and forget it the same. Language appears most effectively retained when it’s learned through long repetition and listening and absorbing. And so is natural history. If I, as a writer, can get you to look at something you’ve not noticed before, you may become curious. If you become curious, you may ask some questions. In nature, almost every answer comes with it’s own baggage of a dozen more questions. Asking questions becomes a way of life. By answering questions, gradually you’ll come to know something about your flora and fauna — the language of your home. That flower or that hummingbird or that hillside or that stream becomes yours in the only way it can, through knowledge. And if it’s yours, you’ll never destroy it.

The only trouble with that point of view is that it’s an impracticably slow way to change a world. I don’t have the political savvy and smarts of the environmental writer who wants and needs results, and who oftentimes leaves me depressed about the mess we’ve made of things. I am not interested in being discouraged about the future. I want to leave a legacy of hope and optimism and great faith in the resiliency of the natural world, from the pin-point lichen that sets its rhizome on a rock in the woods, to the sun that will indeed rise in the east tomorrow morning, and the morning after, and the morning after that.

My generation has been accused of mucking up the environment, but it’s also a generation that has made massive changes in thinking and attitude and understanding; we have made many worthwhile and imaginative attempts to preserve and to educate. Those of us who are parents and teachers have tried to pass on these efforts. After Beyond the Aspen Grove was published, I received many letters from people who recalled their parents taking them by the hand into the out-of-doors and showing them the great, big, wide wonderful world. I had never realized until then how much that secure hand and patient voice creates in us Rachel Carson’s sense of wonder. We leave a legacy as we receive a legacy: hand in hand with someone we love or admire.

But for better or for worse, legacies are the old horse-and-water routine: they can only be passed on to those who are ready and willing to receive them. Legacies are two-way conversations: one to dial the number, the other to pick up the receiver. I cannot imagine that my love of wild flowers could be passed on easily to someone who is not already predisposed to notice and enjoy colors and patterns and fragrances.

Unfortunately, naturalists and conservationists generally enthuse to each other. I would like to leave a legacy of love of the natural world to those who have not yet discovered it, that huge grab bag of humanity that doesn’t have any understanding of what’s going on “out there.” Convincing people whose idea of roughing it is having the hot tub two degrees too hot, or who have no idea of the connection between caterpillar and butterfly (or may have never seen a butterfly), or who’ve never walked a beach or wished on a star, takes time, patience, great ingenuity, and unfailing humor.

When I was working on a book about deserts ten or so years ago, I searched out some dunes I’d particularly wanted to see. Imagine my dismay to come around a turn in the road, to see ahead the dunes reclining in all their elegance, and to hear the snarl of a dozen dune buggies. Later, I chatted with one of the women who had been up there on the ridge line spraying sand. When I asked her what was so wonderful about that, she replied with awe in her voice, “When I get up there I can see forever. The only way I can do that is this dune buggy that carries me there. I come out here every chance I get.”

Our chat made me realize that there are different ways of loving places. I wished I could have had a couple hours of her life because she already loved the dunes, and all it would take would be some empathy, some respect for her point of view, to welcome her into a different way of seeing what dunes are all about — one which might charm and change an old thinking pattern. I wanted to introduce her to the marvels of what you see when on foot, loan her my hand lens to show that dune sand grains are different from any other kind of sand grain, invite her to discover the dune’s angle of repose and explain how precious it is to the dune — in other words, I wanted to take advantage of the power and efficacy of one-on-one communication, fired by my own conviction. But there was no time. And natural history takes time time time.

The legacy of observing may take time to sink in, but the rewards are far beyond expectations. One who is aware that there is always something going on will never be bored. No matter what your profession — lawyer, doctor, merchant, chief — if you look carefully at the natural world, it will always hold flashes of interest: a fly whose wings glisten iridescent in the sunshine, a bee that looks like an emerald in flight, a pad of moss tucked between the flagstones, a bird whose brilliant plumage delights the eye, a doughty tree seedling rising up through a tiny split in a boulder.

Selfishly, I write for the joys of field work, research, and writing. I&rsquove never consciously attempted to “leave a legacy.” It’s kind of like writing strictly for money: it taints the prose. We all leave legacies, whether we mean to or not, some positive, some negative. And what’s more, we all get the opportunity, at one time or another, to face up to what we are leaving behind, and you’re never too young or too old to do so.

I realize now that much of the legacy that was toted up my Colorado steps is weighty, bulky, awkward; I hope that its spirit is somewhat more graceful, a weightless wish that somehow the things I have loved can be passed on to someone else who will find the same or more joy in them, especially to people who have missed out on why an aspen leaf whispers or why a sand dune sings. As I contemplate one woman’s legacy, shaping the many facets of caring, like accuracy and curiosity, observation and home, and trying to encapsulate them into a tidy concept, is like trying to sew a button on oatmeal or hold an ocean in my cupped hand.

But it’s all I’ve got and I can only begin from there: let’s go find what’s a-bloom in the meadow, see if the Parnassian butterflies are nectaring on the stonecrop yet. Let’s slice open that gall and discover if the tiny wasp inside whose mother made this exquisite house has yet taken wing. Come, look at the dancing reflections of the water striders, here’s the first puckery wild raspberry of the season. In this place we live, that cradles us and gives us air and water, fire and ice, how can we all not — students, housewives, vagabonds, house painters, writers, rock-kickers, oboists, dreamers — leave a legacy of caring.

©1999 Ann Zwinger