Monday, November 20, 2006

The naturalist

Although I taught science for most of my life, I wouldn't call myself a scientist. I am a naturalist. Naturalists differ from scientists in that they include in their purview the moral and esthetic universes. (Which is not to say that both morals and esthetics are not open to scientific investigation.)

Like most scientists, naturalists assume a material universe that exists independently of human observers, and we want to know that universe as reliably as we can. Which is why we take care to educate ourselves in the minutae of science.

But naturalists go beyond science in that we are interested in qualitative relationships between ourselves and the non-human universe. We explore ethics and esthetics through the medium of art, most commonly writing.

So how does a John Muir differ from an Anton Chekhov?

The naturalist has a foot in both science and art. It is rather like standing with a foot in each of two chariots that are hurtling across a rocky plain. No wonder the ground between science and art is so sparsely populated and so sparing of reward.

But someone has to be there, using our talents, such as they are, to hold together the two great creative energies of the human spirit.. We do it because we love, say, Muir's high Sierras as much as we love Chekhov's Olga, Masha and Irina.