It's Only Natural!
Paddling with a Purpose
By Tamia Nelson
February 19, 2002
It takes little talent to see what lies under one's nose, a good
deal of it to know in which direction to point that organ.
W. H. Auden
Does a day spent paddling fill your head
with questions about all the plants and animals you've seen? Do you squat
to study scat on the portage trail? Do you follow tracks in the riverbank
mud? Are you always pointing your organ of perception in new directions,
just to see what you can see? If you answered "Yes" to any of these, then
you're already a naturalist. And if not? It's never too late to begin!
What's a "naturalist"? It's an old word, and it's taken many different
meanings over the centuries, but the sense that concerns us here is near
the root: a naturalist is simply someone who takes an interest in the
natural world. This needn't rule out curiosity about our fellow humans
and their works, of course. Like it or not, we're a part of nature too,
playing out the same scenes in our lives as a muskrator a mealybug,
come to thatand in the same order, from birth to death to
In the broadest meaning of the word, any paddler whose organ of
perception hasn't atrophied from disuse is already a naturalist. It's
hard not to be one, in fact. While it's possible to kayak in a swimming
pool, few of us would be happy to limit ourselves to such sterile
exercise for long. We enjoy the infinite variety of flowing water, and
the challenge of wind and wave. Even paddlers who do all their paddling
in flooded quarries or other "unnatural" places are constantly being
reminded that they're part of a larger, living world: a world of eagles
and owls, of algae and antelope, a world of storms and sunsets and stars.
Naturalist. It really does have an old-fashioned sound to it,
doesn't it? Imagine telling a roomful of casual acquaintances that you've
decided to become a naturalist. They'd probably laugh. Ours is a world of
specialists, after all. Anyone who's curious about the natural world is
expected to have a narrow focus of interestto concern herself only
with comets, say, or birds, or mushrooms. And ours is also a world of
professionals. If we're not being paid to do something, it's "just a
hobby," on a par with watching daytime television or collecting
Well, canoeists and kayakers are accustomed to going against the flow.
What is our sport if not an exercise in creative anachronism?
We're used to being out of step with the modern world. We like it that
way. And what's wrong with being an amateurwith doing something
simply for the love of it? Doing a thing for money doesn't necessarily
make it better, or more worthy of consideration. Sometimes love is more
This was certainly true for many of the naturalists of the nineteenth
century. Charles Darwin was an amateur, as were Alexander von Humboldt,
Henry David Thoreau, and Ernest Thompson Seton. The author of The
Origin of Species was a painfully shy country gentleman of
independent means. Humboldt, the "great traveller" whose explorations put
the Orinoco, Rio Negro, and the headwaters of the Amazon on the map, was
a career civil servant. Thoreau was a surveyor. And Seton was a
best-selling writer of children's books. Except for Humboldt, who worked
for a time as a mining engineer, none was ever a professional scientist.
Yet each left his mark on biology, geology, and anthropology.
TwoDarwin and Humboldtare numbered among the giants of the
modern age. The others achieved just as much in different ways. Thoreau
came as near as anyone has to capturing the spirit of the natural world
in prose, while Seton introduced millions of readers to the lives of
animals whose very existence had previously been unknown to them.
What's more, all of them did much of their exploring from the seat of
a canoe or other small boat. Thoreau paddled through Maine's Allegash
country in Joe Polis' "little canoe,
as closely packed as a market
basket." Seton took his canoe across Artillery Lake on the
Canadian Barrens. Humboldt launched a canopied dugout on the Orinoco. And
Darwin rowed upriver in a whaleboat on the Santa Cruz in Patagonia.
So there's nothing wrong with being an amateur naturalist. I've been
one since the age of three, when a flying squirrel landed unexpectedly at
my feet while I walked with my grandparents down a tree-lined street. The
squirrel seized an acorn from the ground and then scampered up a nearby
oak. I knew about squirrels. They ate nuts. And I knew about birds. They
flew. But now I'd seen a flying squirrel. Where, I wondered, did
it fit into the scheme of things? I asked my grandfather, and he
did his best to explain. It was the first of many such questions that I
asked him. (Happily, my grandfather was a patient man.) Observation.
Question. Explanation. Though more than twenty years passed before I
could give a name to my passion, my career as a naturalist was already
off to a good start.
LaterI was in my thirties at the timeI began to read some
of the classic accounts by early naturalists. I read the letters of
Gilbert White, the eighteenth century English clergyman whose Natural
History of Selborne, a model of disciplined observation and exact
description, is still consulted today. I sampled the essays of Jean Henri
Fabre, the nineteenth-century teacher who won recognition as "the
Insects' Homer" with his careful records of the violence and passion of
this largely hidden world. Then I came across the books of Hugh Miller, a
Scottish stone-mason turned geologist (and religious controversialist),
whose Cruise of the Betsy is both a field report and a stirring
tale of small-boat adventure. Soon I was forging happily ahead into the
twentieth century: H. M. Tomlinson, Henry Beston, Rachel Carson, Aldo
Leopold, Olaus Murie, Ann Zwinger
. It's been a never-ending journey
I'd begun to look about me and ask questions long before I started to
read, of course, and it was in looking and questioning that I learned to
see. A naturalist is really just someone who wants to get to know her
neighborhood. No more and no less. And after I bought my first canoe, my
neighborhood immediately expanded until it encompassed all the local
rivers and ponds. Soon I was on first-name terms with the mink who
followed my boat, loping effortlessly along the pebbly shore as I paddled
down the Battenkill, not to mention the beavers who built their lodges in
the pools and banks. I numbered mallards and muskrat among my
acquaintances, in addition to nervous teal and imperturbable snapping
And that was just the beginning. Time's river carried me along to
waters farther afield. My neighborhood now grew to encompass the homes of
manatee and anhinga, red-throated loon and beluga. My circle of
acquaintance grew accordingly, and I grasped the truth that so many
nineteenth-century naturalists had known: There's simply no better place
from which to explore the natural world than the seat of a small boat.
Canoes and kayaks are as much a part of the complete naturalist's tool
kit as her binoculars and notebook.
Why is this? It's not much of a mystery. Transition zones, the "edges"
where one habitat gives way to another, are particularly rich in species.
Biologists call these areas "ecotones," and they're often lively places,
frequented by members of at least two distinct biological communities.
Sometimes they're home to a third community, as well, one uniquely
adapted to the conditions of the transition zone itself. Riverbanks,
lakeshores, and seacoasts are all ecotones. Each is the meeting place of
two worldsthree worlds, really, if you include the world of the
air. And ecotones are dynamic. Something's always going on. Waves erode
banks. Trees topple into the water. Tides alternately flood and uncover
the land. An ecotone is a "happening" place, and the paddler always has a
Have I whetted your appetite for exploration? I hope so. During the
months to come, I hope you'll join me in discovering the secrets of the
places where three worlds meet. It's an adventure open to all paddlers,
beginner and expert alike. You don't need a degree in science, and you
don't need a government grant. You just need a healthy curiosity and an
organ of perception. That's all. It's simple. It's fun. And it's only
natural. Who could ask for anything more?
This is the first article in a series. The next will go
on-line on March 26th.
Copyright © 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights