Acting Like a Naturalist

by Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation

on March 12, 2017

 My dog Miles isn’t the only one who can barely wait for his walk on these beautiful spring mornings we’ve been having. Me, too. However, when it’s gray and cold outside –or rainy, like it is this morning – and I’m more reluctant to get going, I think of Miles as my personal trainer . . . my boot camp coach.

He follows me around the bedroom as I put on my outdoor walking clothes in the pre-dawn darkness. He sits by my feet and stares at me while I lace up my running shoes, with an expression on his face that seems to say, “Hurry up!” He starts to whine when I bundle up in my jacket, hat, and gloves, as if to say, “Come on!”

If it weren’t for Miles’s insistence, I might not venture out on those cold, drab mornings for a walk around our neighborhood. However, on spring mornings like we’ve had this week, his stalking and whining aren’t necessary. We’re both eager to get going, and our neighborhood adventure always seems to end too soon.

Along the way, I drink in the bright blue sky and the pink and red and white blossoms while Miles sniffs the grass, the shrubs and everything else. I count these moments among the best in my life.

In our reading this morning, Harvard biologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author E.O. Wilson says that, within every human being, resides an instinct to be in contact with the natural world. We may live in big cities or spend lots of time in office buildings or other indoor environments, but there is still an ancient urge inside of us to connect to flora and fauna.

We plant flowers and vegetables. We visit botanical gardens and parks. We hunt, fish, bird. We go to the zoo. We have pets. Wilson says we can’t help it – it’s in our DNA.

This may be true, but what’s also in our DNA is that ancient instinct to enhance our security . . .  to protect ourselves from real and imagined harm. And, as we might observe, that urge often puts us at odds with the needs of our beautiful, generous and fragile planet.

I thought about these opposing urges when I read Dana’s Story Wisdom for today.

And, I thought about it when I read a story this past week about another village who is digging way too much dirt, too – only this village is real. It’s located in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, a lush, watery coastal strip of India. And its people are digging not clay, but sand. They are digging sand to make concrete in order to build high-rise apartments.

They are building so many apartments – as well as highways, bridges, skyscrapers, metros and dams – and they are mining so much sand that the rivers are starting to dry up.1)Rollo Romig, “How to Steal a River,” New York Times Magazine, March 5, 2017.

Where the sand once acted as an aquifer, regulating the river’s flow, water now whooshes away as quickly as the rain falls. There is no longer sand in the riverbeds or along its shores to hold the water, so there is no water.2)Ibid.

The sand industry in Kerala is regulated by the government, but that doesn’t stop developers and others from mining it illegally. “The Sand Mafia” are what these thieves are called by the locals.3)Ibid.  They are stealing Kerala’s sands and – by doing so – eroding not only this region’s rivers, but also its connection to its richly diverse natural environment.

Of course, we don’t have to look as far as southwestern India to see the effects of being numb to our natural urge to bond with the natural world. It is all around us.

To get us back in sync with what we might call our nobler nature, E.O. Wilson advises that we cultivate our inner naturalist, starting with our children. To encourage exploration, says Wilson, is to give children the gift of appreciation for our planet that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

I imagine that, like perhaps most things involving children and some adults, the best way to impress upon them the importance of something is to lead by example . . . which calls for awakening our own inner naturalists. In other words, E.O. Wilson’s suggestion that we think of a child as a hunter-gather might be one I might adopt for myself.

If I were to intentionally get in touch with my inner naturalist, what might I start doing differently?

Well, yesterday I began my transformation. I retrieved my binoculars out of Gail’s car – which I usually reserve for our trips out of town – and I put them in my purse. I realized as I was reflecting on this topic that I’ve limited my inner naturalist to part-time status – she only comes out when I go for walks with Miles, when Gail & I go to Asheville, or when we make an excursion to a local, state or national park.

Why not act like a naturalist all the time, with my binoculars at hand to capture Nature’s glorious show up close?

My grandmother almost always had a pair of field glasses slung around her neck like a clunky necklace. From her apartment window or her sister’s front porch at the farm, she mostly zoomed in on native birds or on the antics of squirrels and chipmunks. But she was so thrilled by it all . . . by every little thing! It’s humbling now for me to think back on how her childlike wonder was in the fore almost all of the time.

She was a loyal subscriber to National Geographic. And, she never missed joining us on our annual family fall car trip along Skyline Drive in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.

On one of my last excursions with her, Grandma joined my mother, sisters and me for a trip to Ocean City, a popular beach town in Maryland. We set up a striped folding chair right where the sea met the shore. There Grandma sat, for hours, slathered with sunscreen, her binoculars slung around her neck (of course), a large hat shading her head, her pant legs rolled up, and her bare feet in the water up to her ankles.

The waves rolled in, people splashed about, and the seagulls floated on the wind above. And she just sat in her folding chair, taking it all in and not saying a word.

She declared on our drive home that night that it was the best beach trip of her life.

If I take E.O. Wilson’s description of a naturalist to heart, it means pursuing experiences in the natural world not just for pleasure, but also to acquire knowledge. His argument is that the more we learn about our biodiverse planet, the more we will want to do what we can to preserve it.

Whether or not we believe we have the scientific mind to truly claim the title of naturalist is beside the point. What Wilson wants is to cultivate a generation of men and women whose passion for the natural world has ignited their innate curiosity and appetite for learning.

Wilson calls them “citizen scientists.” He believes citizen scientists have an important role in helping identify an estimated 10 million undiscovered species and adding this data to the permanent records utilized by researchers in ecology, conservation biology and other specialized fields.

Wilson says that this kind of collaboration between professional and lay researchers has begun to spread around the world. One of the most intense such initiatives exists in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is located in the oldest and one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. I researched this initiative online and found Discover Life in America, a mostly volunteer organization whose mission is to find and document organisms that are new to the park or new to science.

Since 1998, volunteers working for Discover Life in America have discovered 970 species of flora and fauna that are new to science and 9,140 species that are new to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That is an incredible effort! Once again, I am reminded that our small efforts to do something good can make a big difference.

Perhaps like me, you’ve not thought of yourself as naturalist or citizen scientist. But perhaps it’s time that we did. In January, at the start of this year’s sermon series on E.O. Wilson’s book The Creation, I thought I might mostly learn about the importance of conserving biodiversity. Now, at the end of our sermon series, I find myself wondering what more I can do . . . what my next step might be.

As I continue with my daily walks with Miles and my frequent visits to the mountains of Western North Carolina – with my binoculars now close at hand – I’m confident that the answers will come.


As he has done throughout his book The Creation, in the final chapter Wilson addresses his closing remarks to an imaginary Baptist pastor.

He writes:

Pastor, I am grateful for your attention. You and I are both humanists in the broadest sense: human welfare is at the center of our thought.

But the difference between humanism based on religion and humanism based on science radiates through philosophy and the very meaning we assign ourselves as a species. They affect the way we authenticate our ethics, our patriotism, our social structure, our personal dignity.

What are we to do? [Wilson asks. He answers:] Forget the differences, I say. Meet on common ground. That might not be as difficult as it seems at first. We are products of a civilization that rose from both religion and the science-based Enlightenment. We would gladly serve on the same jury, fight the same wars, sanctify human life with the same intensity. And surely we also share a love of the Creation.4)E.O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY: 2006), 167 – 168.

In short, I believe Wilson is inviting us to make what unites us about the natural world our starting place for discussions on what we can do to protect it.

Regardless of our philosophies or politics, if we can agree that the earth is stunning, generous, and needs our care, then perhaps we have a more hopeful and mutual path to its conservation than we previously imagined. Perhaps our inner naturalist, guided by an ancient instinct to connect intimately with our sacred planet, will help us find even more common ground and a shared sense of holy purpose.

My hope is that we can and we will. May it be so. Amen.

References   [ + ]

1. Rollo Romig, “How to Steal a River,” New York Times Magazine, March 5, 2017.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. E.O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY: 2006), 167 – 168.