Magazine article American Scientist

The Niche of a Naturalist

Magazine article American Scientist

The Niche of a Naturalist

Article excerpt

Ecologist Gary Paul Nabhan counts Robert Michael Pyle among those who "have followed in Thoreau's path to build ever-stronger bridges between ecology and literature." A lepidopterist as well as an acclaimed author, Pyle founded the Xerxes Society, which focuses on invertebrate conservation. In this passage, which is excerpted from an essay that was first published in Orion in 1982 and is reprinted in Through a Green Lens: Fifty Years of Writing for Nature, Pyle encourages readers to interact with the natural world and to broaden their idea of nature itself-a concept most Thoreauvian.

I grew up on the wrong side of town. From the looks of the neighborhood, one might not have thought so. For me, though, the distinction was not one of class. I was a young butterfly hunter, and the Front Range canyons to the west of Denver are the scene of a butterfly ball, all summer long. But I lived on the prairie side of town, and those canyons might as well have been in Tibet. How I envied a friend who lived in a foothills suburb. He had only to walk out his door to see green hairstreak butterflies on Green Mountain.

I had to take my Rockies when I could get them. Mountain excursions had to be fitted into my father's fishing trips or family drives. I drooled over the mountain ecology dioramas in the Denver Museum of Natural History and wistfully watched Mount Evans, which loomed ever so far away across the city. Unable to visit the mountains at will, I regarded myself as truly remote from nature.

After a few summers of such frustration, I discovered that the prairie ditches and leftover patches of grassland near my home offered their own attractions. Olympia marble wings, goatweed emperors, and chocolate, eye-spotted, wood nymphs dwelt there, along with other plains butterflies. The nearby Highline Canal infected me with a prairie mystique that I have carried with me ever since. In later teen years when mountain trips became more practical, I would even worry, while in the mountains, about what I was missing back home on the plains.

These early experiences taught me a lesson I have always valued: Remoteness from nature is mostly a state of mind. Of course, some conditions do isolate people from wildlife and natural landscapes. But I believe that almost anyone can get close to nature, given the will, and that everyone will benefit from doing so.

Distance can seem to represent an obstacle, but, as I have shown, separation from major wild areas need not prevent us from communing with nature close to home. It is often just a matter of subtle versus more spectacular rewards. Virtually all kinds of landscapes, urban as well as rural or wild, constitute habitats for some kinds of wildlife. Urban wildlife is becoming a major topic of study and interpretation in many cities, and the townscape is being appreciated for what it is: a complex, if highly disturbed, ecosystem.

Some of my most memorable nature rambles have taken place in cities. No park is so manicured as to be without interest, and every urban waterfront holds adventure for the naturalist. Rafts of western grebes and rhinoceros auklēts bob among the ships in Seattle's harbor. All Puget Sound is in the waves that lap against the wharves. Canoeing among the docks reveals an astonishing array of marine creatures that defy the pollution and abrasion of the busy port. …

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