Neighbourhood Naturalists?

Borrow trouble for yourself, if that’s your nature, but don’t lend it to your neighbours —Rudyard Kipling

Preamble.Elsewhere on this website, I write about born naturalists. And elsewhere also, I write about the Pandoracene Pathfinder, a societal function that born naturalists must eventually be invited to play if humankind is to achieve, as sooner or later it must, some form of reconciliation with the Gaian systems that sustain us.

Here I’ll say a few words — several words actually — concerning a second role that born naturalists may some day, who can say, come to play closer to home.

First Approximation


begin, rather inauspiciously, with the obvious observation that we’ve entered the Pandoracene, a time in the unfolding of human destiny when living out our lives without regard to the needs of the Living World to sustain us is no longer, if it ever was, a good idea.

No longer, I suggest, is it enough for us to misconstrue, as our narrow humanism has long prescribed, the interior surface of the self-reflective human bubble for the world itself. From this point forward, we must learn to look outwards as well, keeping a watchful eye on a Living World ever less likely to treat us with kit gloves.

Frank Ritcey in 2012

Rounding out, I’d have to say that the key to human thriving in our day consists not only in Gaian reconciliation, as I suggest right from the outset, but also in ongoing canny vigilance to the ever-changing ways of a Living World now in throe of reconfiguring all around us.

Enter the born naturalists – people, that is to say, who come into this world with an unfaltering conviction, often not articulated, that the Living World That Sustains Us is in some sense alive and, more than alive, is also ineliminably endowed with meaning.

As you’ll gather already, born naturalists are by nature a curious lot, in both senses of the word. By and large they spend an inordinate amount of time, energy and passion learning about their home place, and are fairly bristling with facts, tales and anecdotes about it. In a sense you might say the Living World is what they do and, so I believe, is what they’re born to do. Indeed, in some cases you could even call it their preferred lingua franca with friends and neighbours. Curious indeed.

For my part, I’ve come to believe that born naturalists can be handy to have around in these Pandoracenean times. More than that, I suspect that inviting them to play a (loosely formalized) role in the ongoing well being of their home communities is not a bad idea. In fact I have a name for that role, the Neighbourhood Naturalist.Pathfinder

Neighbourhood Naturalists are by definition people who as a matter of course attend so closely to environmental trends within their home places as to be aware, in some cases long ahead of government officials or scientists, of emerging challenges or threats associated with ongoing environmental perturbation. That’s part of it. The rest of it is that to qualify as a Neighbourhood Naturalist, a born naturalist needs from time to time to share her leanings, the pertinent onces, with her neighbours.

What kinds of learnings are those? To get the ball started, here are some familiar ones widely associated with born naturalists, albeit usually in their guise as “local experts:”

  • Is this mushroom good to eat?
  • When do the thimbleberries come ripe?
  • Why can’t I grow carrots anymore?
  • What kind of bird is that?
  • Where on Earth did those slugs come from?
  • Is there any point planting out plum trees these days?

Such, at any rate, are some of the questions my partner Curtis Bjork and I field from time to time; and we’re glad to do so. Still, it seems to me that there are plenty of other questions, important questions some of them, that simply don’t get asked by our neighbours and probably won’t get asked until there’s general consensus (a) that they’re worth asking, and (b) that born naturalists like ourselves might have some insight or other to share concerning them. Here’s a sampling:

  • What’s coming up for the valley’s moose and deer populations?
  • Are there any new weeds or pests I should know about?
  • Do you think the bears are likely to get into mischief this fall?
  • Are we in any danger of flood damage?
  • Why are there so many sapling trees in the forests these days?
  • And what does this mean for wildfire resilience?
  • What’s up with the wind lately?
  • Do heat domes have any lingering effects?
  • Climate change being what it is, what are the pros and cons of relocating?

Doubtless you see where I’m going with this. For forty years and more I’ve been documenting the environmental status quo in my home valley and, more recently, its worrisome diverging trends. Concerning the latter, wouldn’t it make sense to alert my community sooner than later – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and all that?

I grant that most people reading this would be inclined to say, of course, it’s a no-brainer, just go ahead and do it. Well yes, but have you ever tried talking to your “community”? I don’t mean a neighbour here, a neighbour there, I mean the entire collective of people who make their homes in this valley, some of whom, for all I know, might prefer, even rather strongly, to avoid thinking on themes not necessarily pleasant to think about. And besides, on what authority? I’m only one voice among many; why should I presume to have more say in the matter than anyone else?

I suppose what I’m coming to is a sense that our community, indeed all communities, would do well, in these deepening Pandoracenean times, to bring the born naturalists in their midst into the community fold, to recognize that, different from the Time Before, they may now be in position to help gird against fallout from a world coming apart at the seams.

Think of it this way. Just as every farmhouse has, or should have, a trusty canine companion to warn of thieves in the night, so every human settlement, large or small, would do well, in these deepening Pandoracenean times, to have a Neighbourhood Naturalist on hand – somebody driven to observe, document and ponder environmental change in real time and, should things start heading south, feel welcome to bring her observations to community attention.

Could there be community buy-in to such an arrangement? Probably, but to my knowledge it’s never been tried; nor am I quite sure what it would look like. Still, I’m determined to find out one way or another, hence Neighbourly Naturalist, where I offer up my own Naturalist Neighbour services to the good people of Upper Clearwater. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Next up: The Stranglehold of Grace