Falling in Love with the World: Thomas Fleischner works to revitatize natural history

Thomas Fleischner, co-founder of North Cascades Institute, will read from The Way of Natural History at Village Books on July 8 at 4 pm. Info at www.ncascades.org/events.
Thomas Fleischner is a man on a mission. An environmental studies professor at Prescott College in Arizona, cofounder of the North Cascades Institute and founding president of the Natural History Network, Fleischner has worked in the trenches of conservation biology, environmental education and ecological literacy for decades. His latest effort towards these interrelated goals is the publication of The Way of Natural History, a multidisciplinary anthology featuring contributions from Jane Hirshfield, Robert Michael Pyle, Kathleen Dean Moore, Robert Aiken, Dave Foreman, Scott Russell Sanders and others.
Fleischner lived in Bellingham from 1979-1988, attending WWU for his Master’s in Biology degree, working as an Interpretive Naturalist and Backcountry Ranger for North Cascades National Park and serving as co-director for North Cascades Institute. I had the opportunity to talk with him while he is back in town, readying for his July 8 presentation at Village Books.
Christian Martin: How do you define natural history as it pertains to your new book?
Thomas Fleischner: For some years now, I’ve defined natural history as “the practice of intentional, focused attentiveness to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy.” Simply put, it’s the practice of paying attention.
In this book, I gathered together a variety of voices—poets, artists, musicians, philosophers, scientists and others—to hear how this practice of paying attention to the wider world has served their work and play. Natural history is a fundamental human trait—and need. Their stories show how many different ways this can be manifested.
CM: So, natural history involves a way of seeing the world?
TF: In my mind, natural history is a verb, not a noun—it’s the practice of attending, not just the body of knowledge that accrues from the observations. I’ve come to refer to natural history as the practice of falling in love with the world.
Natural history at its best involves integration between sciences, arts and humanities. It’s at the center of a liberal approach to education: we pay attention to the world around us and respond in a variety of ways—through a painting, a poem, an essay or a scientific monograph.
CM: What are the roots of this tradition?

TF: Natural history is the oldest continuous human endeavor—there’s never been people on this planet without the practice of natural history. But – and this is what concerns me—there’s never been a time in the history of the world when natural history was practiced less than it is today.
It’s important to recognize that natural history is more than just science, more than just a body of facts, more than dinosaurs and other dead animals. Natural history comes from the Latin “Historia Naturalis,” which literally means “the story of nature.” At any moment, in any given place, there’s an infinite number of stories of nature unfolding. We make choices about which ones we pay attention to—or if we pay attention at all. And that’s crucial: too many people simply don’t pay attention to Others in the world. As a species, as a contemporary culture, we’re greatly diminished by this.
CM: How is natural history related to the idea of “Citizen Science”?
TF: Citizen Science is a wonderful trend toward involving amateurs into the collation of important data. First, remember that “amateur” literally means “one who loves”—so we should never underestimate the importance of amateurs!
In many important cases, having the thousands of eyes and ears of citizen scientists makes a huge difference—for example, in reporting changes in flowering times as we experience climate change, or the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. The Bird Count is a classic example of this: for over a century, all sorts of people have counted birds in a structured way. It’s the longest term, uninterrupted data set for any group of organisms ever, and it has shown major changes in bird distribution throughout the continent. Wonderful stuff.
All of these citizen observations are natural history. Of course, because natural history involves more than just science, the citizen science movement doesn’t necessarily include the arts and humanities as much as it could. I’ve been part of discussions that suggest we might try reframing Citizen Scientists as Citizen Naturalists. Then, we might encourage the writing of haiku along with the tabulation of bird numbers!
CM: From your vantage point, what do you think the future of natural history is?
TF: I’m ultimately optimistic. Humans are wired to do natural history—it’s literally what we evolved to do: pay attention. So it’s a matter of rediscovering who we are—not of trying to make ourselves into something we’ve never been.
I’ve been part of a national movement to help revitalize natural history, and it’s been really exciting and encouraging. The Natural History Network – which includes many members here in the Cascadia bioregion – was established for this purpose, and has received a super enthusiastic response.
CM: There are a lot of new ways to access and appreciate nature today without having to go outside. One can watch nesting birds from hi-def webcams, fly over national parks and mountain ranges via Google Earth, peruse stunning nature photography, listen to bird calls on our iPhones. Are these valuable outlets for our biophilia? Why do we still need to go through the hassles to get outdoors?
TF: These new technologies are wonderful, and provide all sorts of new channels into observing nature. I’m all for them. There’s lots of examples of ways they’ve helped us understand the world. These technologies are also really important in that they can provide an entry point for young people, brought up in this electronic world, to pay attention to what’s around them.
But it’s key that it doesn’t stop there. It’s vital that they take the next step and get out there and get muddy and watch what that bird is really doing, or how luminescent that butterfly’s wings really are, or how the beetle’s carapace glistens in the sun. Those are the experiences that create the opportunity for falling in love with the world.
Listen to Tom discussing other aspects of natural history in the Natural History Project at http://naturalhistoriesproject.org/conversations.
Photo by Benj Drummond.


  1. Jack McLeod

    Love this statement: “it’s literally what we evolved to do: pay attention. So it’s a matter of rediscovering who we are—not of trying to make ourselves into something we’ve never been.” Pieces of this interview and essays in Tom’s new book (which I discovered because of NCI promoting the July 8 presentation) provide fodder for working with my high school students in the Fall. Keep up the good work.

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