Words

Falling in Love with the World

Thomas Fleischner works to revitalize natural history

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Fleischner lived in Bellingham from 1979-1988, attending Western Washington University for his Master of 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.

Cascadia Weekly: 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.

CW: 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.

CW: What are the roots of this tradition?

TF: Natural history is the oldest continuous human endeavor. 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. Still, I’m ultimately optimistic. Humans are wired to do natural history—it’s literally what we evolved to do: pay attention.

CW: There are a lot of new technological ways to access and appreciate nature today. Why do we still need to to get outdoors?

TF: These new technologies are wonderful, and provide all sorts of new channels into observing nature. 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 the beetle’s carapace glistens in the sun. Those are the experiences that create the opportunity for falling in love with the world.

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