#41 Around the Campfire; Natural History: the Ground Upon Which Conservation Rests
©2012 Dave Foreman
It is a few months later than I would have liked, but the next Rewilding Institute book, Take Back Conservation, is at last with Raven’s Eye Press in Durango. It will roll off the press in time for Yule gifts (hint, hint). In Take Back Conservation I weigh what is wrong with our wilderness and wildlife family today and lay out the steps to get us back on track. By the way, among our wrong-way steps are two from the last sentence: Too many of our leaders and even grassroots conservationists don’t see our network as a family anymore, and the conservation network to many is no longer first and foremost about the good of wilderness and wildlife. Among the steps for which I call in Take Back Conservation is bringing natural history back to the fore. What follows in this Campfire are two steps from the book about how to raise natural history again.
• Rebuild natural history as craft and science, and bring it back as the keystone of conservation.
I keep going back to Leopold’s insight about those who cannot live without wild things for how it grabs so well and thoroughly the inner being of wilderness and wildlife conservationists. It’s why I name those who shield wildlife and wilderness Cannots and wildlovers. Overall, we wildlovers want to know something about the wild things we hold so dear. We learn about wild things through the craft of natural history, either as folk naturalists or as scientific authorities. Once upon a time, most conservationists knew something about the birds, wild blossoms, trees, and such in their neck of the out-of-doors. Once upon a time, biology was mostly natural history—botany, ornithology, mammalogy, herpetology, ecology, and so on. Nowadays, many leaders and staffers of conservation clubs and teams are more knowledgeable about and enthralled with political things than wild things. Knowing political things is good, too, but their natural history skills and feeling of wonder in the big outside are often scant.
Nowadays, it seems most biologists are “lab rats” who seldom if ever go outside for their science. Even some conservation biologists are lightweights when it comes to natural history. Peter Kareiva, head scientist for The Nature Conservancy, says, “I’m not a biodiversity guy.” As for me, I feel naked without my binoculars. Once upon a time, college biology departments offered a slew of natural history courses and many were field courses. Among the most wanted college classes, even for nonbiology majors, were natural history field courses. To wit: the only elective Nancy took while working on her master’s degree in nursing at the University of Arizona was a field course on the natural history of the Sonoran Desert taught by the legendary Paul Martin. Natural history courses are fading from biology departments today, somewhat owing to how few biology faculty can teach such classes now.
Reed Noss, of the University of Central Florida and one of the world’s top conservation biologists (and unmatched in bringing conservation biology to the conservation network), believes that the root of what is wrong with conservation biology today is the fading of natural history. Tom Fleischner, of Prescott College in Arizona, worries about the overall loss of natural history and has started a campaign to build up natural history as the core of biology and as a love for conservationists. Bringing together a wide sweep of authors, he has edited a book, The Way of Natural History, whose chapters underline why natural history is so key. (You can buy this wonderful little book from The Rewilding Institute—see the order form at the end of this Campfire.)
Conservation clubs need to get on what I hope becomes a bandwagon to bring back natural history. All who work on wildlife and wilderness conservation should set goals for themselves to know scads of wild things in the lands where they work. The toughest, most dogged conservationists are those who love wild things and who know the wild things living in the wild neighborhoods they haunt—and shield.