Sunday, January 04, 2009

Return to Warden's Grove

I'll begin the new blogging year by recommending Return to Warden's Grove: Science, Desire, and the Lives of Sparrows by Christopher Normant. His book is one of the finest examples of nature writing I've come across in years. For three summers Normant worked out of a cabin in the Canadian Arctic while conducting research on Harris's Sparrows near the Thelon River. His eloquent writing style made it easy and enjoyable to read the detailing of his labor intensive research and a pleasure to ponder his personal meditations on science and nature – I was spellbound throughout. Because I have an affinity for sparrows (especially the zonotrichia), parts of the book made me feel as though I was receiving words from a kindred spirit. As someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time observing and photographing sparrows, I strongly identified with his process:

"One of Lisel Mueller's poems bears the title, 'The Need to Hold Still,' and that was what I had to do. This 'need to hold still,' to fall into slowness and simply watch, is a chief blessing of focused work in both descriptive natural history and hypothesis-based research. It is a skill that both scientists and nonscientists need to cultivate, a vital way to pay attention to the world. Perhaps it also is where science and art can interact with one another – sensory experience as a synthetic, creative process that grows out of watching and waiting, listening and coming into patience. Through observation, it is possible to develop a richness of texture and nuance, substance and form, in our understanding of the animate and inanimate residents of this world – and our place in it. It is how we become informed."

Later on in his book, Normant reveals he experienced a less than happy childhood. His path toward transcendence with nature evolved despite (or because?) of this upbringing. I could relate. Like Normant, I had an abusive step-father who died from an unhealthy lifestyle. I was reminded of family who remain so caught up in a cycle of ignorance and abuse that appreciating nature in a transcendent way will likely elude them for the rest of their lives. This makes me glad people like Christopher Normant are out there – his book offered a sense of rightness and hope because I feel that I habituated with nature in a similar way:

"Once the wilderness became a sanctuary for me, an idealized world in which I could escape from the turmoil of my home and feel safe and strong, it was easy to conclude that by its very nature the wilderness cultured humane, moral behavior. I became convinced of the following syllogism: The wilderness is good; I am in the wilderness; therefore, I am good."

Still, Normant expresses caution regarding this potential illusion. As transformative as his experiences studying Harris's Sparrows at Warden's Grove were, he's keenly aware of his life's successes, responsibilities, and failures away from his love of the wilderness. Reflecting on recent events in my life, I cannot deny that I have used nature and birds as a form of escapism. Perhaps this is what I liked best about Return to Warden's Grove – it was largely a case of personal introspection and rewarded me with something I didn't anticipate when picking up a book about the lives of sparrows.

Harris's Sparrow © 2009 Mike McDowell

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