Monday, July 24, 2006

Watching the world go by

My writing studio here in Kerry is earth-covered and tucked into the hill so as to make it as inconspicuous as possible in the landscape. We call it the hobbit-hole. But at the front it has a glorious window on the world. As I sit here each morning I never know what's going to appear. The always changing sky, of course, boiling in off the Atlantic. A heron cruising zeppelinlike across the middle distance, a wren in the bramble, two fat hooded crows prancing on the outside sill, a peacock butterfly beating against the glass. Perhaps a fox. The human drama too; the whole parish is spread before my eyes.

The naturalist John Burroughs wrote that the student of nature has an advantage over people who "gad up and down the world seeking novelty and excitement." The naturalist need only stay at home and watch the procession pass, he said. Well, he may have overstated the case. If I chose to stay at home I would never have seen a total eclipse of the Sun, for example, or those massed monarch butterflies in Mexico I wrote about recently, or, for that matter, the view out his window. But still, we know what Burroughs meant. Even a modest training in natural history makes any square meter of the Earth's surface endlessly interesting.

Robert Lewis Stevenson said something similar about general education: The difference between an educated person and an uneducated person is that if one has a hour to kill waiting for a train at a remote country station, the educated person will find a hundred things to engage her interest, whereas the uneducated person will be bored silly.