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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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 muskrat—or a mealybug, come to that—and in the same order, from birth to death to dissolution.

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 interest—to 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 postcards.

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 amateur—with 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 than enough.

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. Two—Darwin and Humboldt—are 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.

Later—I was in my thirties at the time—I 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 of discovery.

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 turtles.

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 worlds—three 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 front-row seat.

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 reserved.

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