The passage shows how different aspects of virtue connect. Patience is part intellectual virtue, part moral virtue and part physical virtue, as it is portrayed here. The humility which allows Leopold to lie down in the muck unselfconsciously is a moral virtue, but humble recognition of our own ignorance is also a key intellectual virtue, as Socrates so often reminds us (see also William Beebe’s description of the ideal naturalist quoted earlier). Humility also makes possible Leopold’s aesthetic appreciation of the grace of the yellow-leg, and in his recognition of the beauty of the yellow-leg’s natural “poetry,” we see the genesis of his recognition of its intrinsic value. The passage also shows that virtues can be put to diverse and complementary uses. The patience and persistence needed to explore the marsh are also needed to write a compelling account of the experience for his readers. Many revisions were made to this narrative which reads so effortlessly, just as many trips to the marsh were necessary for Leopold to see the grebes so closely and to appreciate all the rest of what he saw. Presumably patience and persistence were also needed to teach his classes at the university, raise his children, wrangle with politicians and bureaucrats, and do the many other things that Leopold did so well during the course of his life.
Each branch of natural history study demands its special abilities: the superior ear of the birdwatcher, the attention to minute detail of the entomologist, the courage of the herpetologist wading into swamps full of poisonous snakes. But some “field skills” are nearly ubiquitous. Perhaps the most important are patience, perseverance, thoroughness and attentiveness. The birdwatcher searching for that one rare gull on a pond among seven hundred common ones may have to watch for hours in bitter cold, patiently scanning the birds one by one. If his attention flags, he may pass right over the rarity. The same is true for the mushroom seeker or rock hound. Patience, persistence, thoroughness and continuous attentiveness, like muscles, can be developed over time. The heightened awareness they make possible is enjoyable in itself and opens up new worlds of knowledge. They make the world more interesting and allow us to enjoy it without demanding that it crudely entertain us.
Study nature to find your voice. One reason the natural history genre thrives today is the tremendous variety of voices it makes possible: the wild exactness of Annie Dillard, the calm thankfulness of Terry Tempest Williams, the scientific precision of Bernd Heinrich. But again, this is not just the province of professional writers or exceptional talents. No matter how dry or literal an amateur naturalist’s field notebook might be, sooner or later it begins to fill up with descriptions of her experience; also her theories and suppositions, her value judgments, her wild flights of fancy. She can push this further, if she wants to. Like describing nature itself, attempts to capture our own experience, interpret what we are seeing scientifically, clarify our value judgments or create new imaginative worlds, are endlessly fascinating. One gets better at them as one goes along.
Of course, naturalists’ activities themselves can go astray or fail to provide their full benefits. Rachel Carson warned that “it is possible to compile extensive lists of creatures seen and identified without ever once having caught a breathtaking glimpse of the wonder of life.”22 A concern to have the newest, fanciest gear has taken many a birdwatcher away from simplicity and frugality! As with hunting’s “sportsman’s code,” a “naturalist’s code” might help prevent these failures and perversions. Official birders’ codes of conduct typically include restraints on badgering wildlife and trespassing on private lands. They don’t yet condemn wasting money on unnecessary gear or driving hundreds of miles for a quick glimpse of a “life bird.” Perhaps they should. Birdwatchers know better than most the toll that excessive energy consumption takes on wildlife. By building temperance and restraint into their own codes of conduct they could further the values they believe in and act with greater integrity.
Anthropocentrism isn’t just a faulty value system, but also a faulty way of understanding the world. Modern science has shown this, displacing human beings from the center of the universe, opening up immense vistas of space and time, telling a story of life in which chance, not destiny, has raised an unusual primate to dominance for a short time on a tiny planet in one insignificant corner of the universe. We know this, of course. But our daily experience tends to contradict it, as we walk through landscapes of artifacts which reflect back our own purposes. Our natural self-centeredness and the places we live in conspire to keep us anchored in a foolish anthropocentrism.
Traditionally, wisdom is the crown of the virtues. John Kekes defines wisdom as “a form of understanding that unites a reflective attitude and practical concern,” aiming “to understand the fundamental nature of reality and its significance for living a good life.”27 Wisdom involves knowledge of what is most important in life, but mere knowledge is not wisdom, which includes living a life in accordance with this knowledge. Conceptions of wisdom vary, yet on most accounts wisdom involves placing ourselves in proper perspective, knowing our opportunities and limits, and appreciating the larger world we inhabit.
Natural history study helps us accomplish this. It’s quotidian joys-identifying a new flower, hearing the first returning spring warbler – teach us to appreciate the commonplace. At the same time, it widens our horizons and reveals the immense diversity of life. Perhaps most important studying nature helps us see ourselves in deep, evolutionary time in a world that does not revolve around us. In all these ways naturalizing defeats anthropocentrism – a key impediment to wisdom.
Of course, we can combine natural history study with gardening, hunting, owning pets, and other pursuits that keep us close to the earth. The more such activities, the better, in terms of a full, rich, characterbuilding relationship to nature. But natural history study provides training in another key environmental virtue that the others do not: leaving things alone. The sportsman’s code prohibits wasting meat from the animals killed, the organic gardener’s ethics proscribe unsustainable or wasteful practices. These are necessary lessons and these activities habituate them wonderfully. But gardening and hunting cannot fully teach restraint in our engagement with nature, for obvious reasons. The naturalist knows nature on its own terms. His goal is to see and understand animals and plants without disturbing, changing, taming, or otherwise constraining them. In an ever more crowded, manipulative, human-dominated world, restraint is an absolutely crucial environmental virtue. Without restraint, we lose wild nature, and environmentalism becomes just another movement to make the world a little safer for humanity. The best way to habituate this is to study and appreciate wild nature as is.
Nature study also heightens our perceptive abilities: we see, hear and smell more, and more keenly, because of them. In the cities, our senses tend to atrophy. The relentless commercial badgering of signs, and the general dullness and ugliness of city landscapes, push the urban walker into the safe cocoon of his mind and further out of his senses. Simply spending time out in pastoral or wild landscapes counteracts this tendency. Spend a day in the woods and you will begin to hear a bit more and enjoy what you are hearing: water rushing in the brook, the scolds and screams of a jay. But the naturalist takes this further, using her senses to identify what she is seeing and hearing and smelling, and developing their acuteness in the process. A casual walker may see a bush with green leaves, but the botanist will see one that is four feet tall, with simple alternating lance-shaped leaves with doublyserrated edges, hanging on flattened leafstalks with reddish leaf-buds at their base. Of course, some people have keener eyesight than others, but the amazing thing is that most people can significantly improve their senses by using them. Make a habit of close looking, and you will see more.