There are two kinds of naturalists.
There are the big picture naturalists, the generalists, who see the way it all hangs together. These are the folks who worry about global warming, declining species diversity, and acid rain. These are the naturalists who concern themselves with river systems, oceans, and rain forests. And God bless 'em. What would we do without them? Without them the whole shebang would soon go to hell in a handbasket.
I sometimes wish I were a big picture naturalist. And because I'm not, I feel a shawl of guilt upon my shoulders. But I am what I am, a little picture naturalist. I revel in particulars. This ice-pink morning. This frost etching upon the glass. These tappings of the nuthatch. This blood-red drop of color which is the berry of the Canada mayflower against the snow.
I've written books about the big picture. "Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian" is the subtitle of one book. The picture doesn't get much bigger than that. But I could only write that book one step at a time. This village in the chalky South Downs of England. This flinty stone picked up in a chalky dale. This cluttered room where Darwin sat to ponder how the flinty stones came to be dispersed in the chalk.
I am of course interested in the big picture, but mostly as a context for particulars. In his chapter on Henri Fabre in Green Laurels, Donald Culross Peattie writes, "Any life is all life, and the line of attack of the naturalist begins at the front door -- or better still, the back door." He's talking about the little picture naturalist. The backdoor naturalist. The naturalist in search of "the epic commonplace."
The general is the tuned string. The particular is the finger against the fret.
(This post originally appeared in December 2007.)