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 toward these interrelated goals is the publication of The Way of Natural History, a multidisciplinary anthology featuring contributions from Robert Michael Pyle, Kathleen Dean Moore, Robert Aiken, Dave Foreman, and others.
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.
The first rule of Ladies Night Out is: You do talk about Ladies Night Out. The second rule is that sometime during the course of the evening, you share an… more »
Don’t be alarmed if you see a large group of people whacking each other with NERF bats in Maritime Heritage Park this weekend. Plus, you’ll want to remain calm if… more »
Some people write books that are designed to transport readers out of their everyday existence and into fantastical worlds. Other scribes, however, draw upon their own experiences to share larger… more »
The winter was awfully hard on your peach trees. The apple trees aren’t looking very good, either, and your entire grape arbor could use some help.
Blame it on the… more »
Most important events—Christmas, your birthday, National Pancake Day, etc.—just get a single notation on the calendar, and the allotment of time you spend celebrating them doesn’t typically exceed 24 hours.… more »
Invisible wires control the public mind, journalist and activist John Stauber tells us. And while the propaganda-for-hire industry is nominally interested in public policy issues, its primary function is to… more »