Natural history is an inquiry into the secrets of an animal's life. By that I mean not only how an animal lives as an individual but also how it relates to other individuals of its own kind, to other kinds of animals, and to its environment as a whole.
One of the early natural historians was Vernon Bailey, who in 1936 published The Mammals And Life Zones Of Oregon, the first comprehensive work on mammals in the State. From 1962, when I entered graduate school at Oregon State University, until I left active research in 1987, I spent many years following Bailey's footsteps around the state as I, too, studied the mammals of Oregon. Although I had more sophisticated tools at my disposal than did Bailey, and therefore learned things beyond his knowledge, I did not in any way improve on the quality of his work. To this day, I hold in awe the dedication, accuracy, integrity, and insight of Vernon Bailey's fieldwork.
Natural history, in my experience, seems to have been carried out primarily by two kinds of people—gentlemen in the true sense of the word (such as Kenneth L. Gordon, the professor in charge of my graduate work; Murray L. Johnson and Frank M. Beer, both mentors whom I loved dearly; A. Brazier Howell; Tracy I. Storer; and Walter P. Taylor) and those who were lovable characters (such as Bill Hamilton Jr. or "Wild Bill," as he was affectionately known, and Robert M. Storm—the only one of my mentors still living). Sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet Vernon Bailey. I should very much have liked to.
It was with a real sense of loss that I watched the era of natural history draw swiftly to a close in the late 1960s and 1970s, an era that lent itself to a softer personal touch into our relationship with Nature. I say this because the natural history that I knew was truly a science of forest, meadow, and fen, of mountain, desert, and sea, where I and others lived for weeks at a time out in the elements with the creatures we studied. It was a science of mutual relationships in a slower, gentler, quieter period in human history, when there was ample time to reflect on a sunrise, a drifting cloud, a passing thought, when the human world was not so intensely competitive and incessantly harried as it is today.
In the days gone by, natural history was a study of, and a union with, the cycles of life in a time when the focus was on our sense of place within the holism, connectivity, ecological excellence, and unsurpassed beauty of life's manifestations. Natural history was a discipline that drew men with a gift of inquiry, patience, and synthesis rarely found in today's competitive world. I was drawn to natural history because it honored the biophysical principles with which Nature is endowed—the inviolate principles that gave meaning and depth to my life as I wandered the ancient forest; followed the clear, cold, unimpeded streams and rivers; and explored the pristine mountains of my youth.
It was there, high in the wild mountains that I heard the love song of the waterfall, the wind and pines giving voice to their serenade of life. And it was there, high above the valleys and their human inhabitants, that I first encountered the jagged peaks and rugged cliffs that form the timeless keyboard of the winds. Moreover, I was, on more than one occasion, enveloped in a mountain winter, when the snow was piled high enough to bring forth the eternal and depthless silence from which all sound comes and into which all sound once again disappears. As well, it was in a mountain winter that I had my first experience with animals devoid of fear for my person, such wee, feathered creatures as mountain chickadees, which landed on my arm and ate from my hand.
Such were the things that not only gave meaning to my life but also have sustained me through the maturing of my years. Each instilled within my soul the timeless beauty of heartfelt relationships, the kind that transcend in every aspect the ability of language to enlighten.
The men who taught me the scientific discipline of natural history—whether through the stainless quality of their writing before my time or their gentle hand of personal guidance as I strove to emulate the excellence of their tutelage—lived in a time before the technological fragmentation of focus and thought. Then came the competitive pressures of the day, pressures to quantify everything without regard to relationships that would address the qualitative questions of "why is this relationship important and how? "
Today, the globalization of competition in virtually everything has relegated "natural history" to a "quaint time," which is quietly receding into history as part of the passing scene in humanity's frantic struggle for control of that which is not part of the human domain to control—Nature.
It's in the spirit of natural history, as I knew it, that I pen this brief remembrance as a tribute not only to the era of science I loved so much but also to the men who helped shape that era and who, as gentleman and character alike, shared it with me—a priceless gift for which I shall always be profoundly grateful.
Dedicated to John Whitaker, my friend and colleague through many adventures in natural history.
©chris maser 2006. All rights reserved.