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NATURALIST AND BIOLOGIST:
N these days there are two schools of naturalists, the New and
the Old ; but the members of the Old are fading away, while those of the New are stepping with but little reverence for past occupants into the places they have filled so sweetly and so long.
It is close upon a century since the most celebrated of all the older school dropped silently out of the daily life of the villagers of Selborne ; and the simple eulogy spoken of Gilbert White by a surviving fellow-parishioner--" He was a still, quiet body, and there wasn't a bit of harm in him, there wasn't indeed ”-would be equally appropriate to the great majority of his lesser brethren.
Now, too, the cobbler's stool where Thomas Edward was wont to work-his "friend of fifty years' standing,” as he calls it, has been empty for awhile; in the Scotch shoemaker the old school of naturalists lost a striking and touching example.
And last, greater, more pathetic than them all, the vanished figure of Richard Jefferies lingers yet in our memory apart : he held a unique position, he has left a unique void ; the prophet of the woods and fields has left us, and, alas ! there was no one to catch his mantle as it fell.
Here then are three great examples of the old school ; and if amongst their many lesser brethren, if even amongst these three themselves certain differences of disposition and method appear, it in no way tends to upset the following generalisation, which makes no pretence to be anything more.
Whatever individual peculiarities each may possess, they meet sufficiently often on common ground to be constituted, without forcing similitudes, into a class by themselves : a certain attitude of mind and a certain department of investigation at the same time connect them together and sever them from the members of the newer school, whom we may term Biologists. Characteristic of the Naturalists, then, as opposed to the Biologists, is their habit of minute observation of the ways of created things; they were content to sit for hours beneath a hedge, or half hidden behind a tree, for the chance, however remote, of seeing something of the animal world that they had never seen before ; indeed, though something new might have caused them more excitement, it could hardly have caused them more delight than that which was already familiar; for that which they found entrancing, entranced them always—it was a joy for ever.
This was the natural outcome of the attitude of their minds, and of the motives that led them to observation at all. They attached no especial significance to the actions of the animal they observed ; they sought to build no theory upon them ; no ambitious speculations as to the meaning of them exercised their minds. But they thought it a beautiful thing to see a wild creature freely following its natural habits, and were filled with delight when they could come upon an animal so quietly that it remained unconscious of their scrutiny. Still as a stone they would stand, though their limbs might ache from constrained positions, or a biting wind chill them to the bone, or the summer flies torment them past the limits of any but an enthusiast's endurance. They would stand immovable, selfconstituted martyrs, absorbed in the little drama before them, all forgotten or unregarded in the excitement that thrilled them ; an excitement that, if it were not very scientific, was at least very innocent, and in these days begins to seem not a little touching. For that spirit is on the wane. The Naturalist, who watched the ways of a bird, has given place to the Biologist, who studies its inside ; but whether this is such an advantageous change as the latter complacently conceives it to be, is a question still open to debate.
Here is a passage from the Natural History of Selborne ; it exemplifies the spirit of the Naturalist :
“I have no reason to doubt," says old Gilbert White, in his simple style, exercising his mind as to the means of support of our English birds in winter, “but that the soft-billed birds which winter with us subsist chiefly upon insects. Hedge-sparrows frequent sinks and gutters in hard weather, where they pick up crumbs and other sweepings; and in mild weather they procure worms which are stirring every month of the year, as anyone may see who will only be at the trouble of taking a candle to a grass plot on any mild winter's night."
That is the spirit of the true Naturalist, for whom no details are too homely, no facts that he can learn too trilling to be of interesi.
One can almost see this refreshing old gentleman, wrapped in his great coat to keep the damp out, as he potters about his little garden in the gloom of a winter's eve. The warmth of his own fireside is powerless to keep him indoors; by the light of his candle he makes his way outside, and wanders over the lawn in search of something new, something strange. And all he finds by the candle's glimmer are the worms that have stolen to the surface under cover of the night. It would not have excited a Biologist; but to him it is a discovery full of interest, worthy to be noted down in a letter to a friend. By finding the worms upon the surface he has learnt that they are not so deeply buried all the winter, after all. The secret of the birds' subsistence is explained one step further: it is enough to fill him with a simple joy. But it is worthy of remark, as denoting the bent of his mind, that his investigations have no further object than the satisfaction of his own affectionate curiosity—a curiosity which arises from his love of living things, and his consequent interest in their welfare. Once satisfied, it leads him no further. The Biologist is not thus easily pleased. “Hedge-sparrows frequent sinks and gutters” —that will make him smile ; nine times out of ten it will make him sneer—poor misguided man . He does not care a pin whether they frequent such places or not, unless the fact points to something further. He could not, to save his life, get up any enthusiasm over the old gentleman's worms and grass-plots, unless he perceived that they would have a bearing upon some theoretical point. The facts that were full of interest to the simpleminded old man of a century ago are nothing to him at all ; nor does he count any facts to be worth his attention whose only value lies in their intrinsic power to interest and please. Even Richard Jefferies is without honour amongst the Biologists, but possibly this may be because they have never seen what he describes: many of them were born and bred in towns ! The delight of recognition is missing therefore when, under the magic of his pen, country scenes and sounds rise up to the life. The chief charm of his work is lost upon them, and they find in Richard Jefferies a trifler, dull, unprofitable. To those, however, who are not so unfortunate this knack of Jefferies is a wonderful thing. It does not matter where we are when we begin upon a page of his work: at once the room and our surroundings begin to fade. With a few strokes of his pen he has carried us away whither his own fancy leads him ; we are no longer within four walls, we are out in the open air, in the woods, in the fields.
Perhaps it is autumn with Richard Jefferies—he is fond of autumn; then it is autumn with us too—ay, though the swallows are twittering in the eaves outside the window and the June roses are in full bloom upon the wall. We tread with him on the faded tussocks of the white, dry autumn grass. The air is fragrant of autumn, of moist soil, of rotting leaves ; the woods are full of colour—red and gold—but the foliage is getting thin ; the air is chill; the yellow autumn sunlight slants weakly down upon the fields. He has not finished yet. His pictures are full of living things—creatures we have seen before, sometimes, yet are glad to see again. A rabbit hobbles in the hedgerow ; it is as if it were before us. The startled stare of the prominent round eye, the nibbling movement of the lips, the grey roundness of the hunched back, he can show them all to us—it is a living rabbit ! Or he will point out the gaunt figure of the carrion crow calling from the topmost branch of a thinly-foliaged oak, till we catch the light upon its shining back, the tilt of its body forwards; till we see the very opening of its bill, and listen to its raucous cry ringing out over the still autumn fields. At our feet the field mice rustle, running jerkily in the dry grass—they are real, too ; everything is intensely real—the birds that shuffle in the hedgerows, the clouds that drift across the cold clear sky, the leaves that come twirling slowly downwards to the ground. This again is the true naturalist spirit. It is just this minute observation of country sights and sounds, without regard to their scientific value, that stamps a naturalist of the old school at once: affection, not inquisitiveness, is the basis of their researches. Listen to Jefferies : “I do not want change ; I want the same old and loved things, the same wild-flowers, the same trees and soft ash-green : the turtledoves, the blackbirds, the coloured yellowhammer sing, sing, singing so long as there is light to cast a shadow on the dial, for such is the measure of his song : and I want them in the same place.” That “sing, sing, singing ” is life-like. As you read it there comes a vision of a July noon, full of summer scents and sounds, and the songs of drowsy birds ; and the yellowhammer itself on the summit of a hedge singing ceaselessly, drearily, through the heat of the day. The new natural history has its home in the laboratory; the old in the woods, the fields, the mountains, and the lonely stretches of the sea-shore. The Biologist is of quite a different cast of mind. If he is infinitely more scientific he is also infinitely less tender: his curiosity is perhaps greater, his affection is certainly less.
When he discovers a new bird he does not waste time, like the Naturalist, in watching its movements, in listening to its notes, in surrendering himself to a delicious mixture of excitement, wonder, and a host of tender emotions. He produces a gun and shoots it ; that is the first duty of the Biologist. His subsequent course of action varies, but he will probably skin it, and cut it up in order that he may observe the arrangement of its intestinal convolutions, and discover whether its palate is formed on the desmognathous, dromeognathous, or schizognathous plan.
He is not to be blamed for so doing : there is no need to hold him up to reprobation ; it is his business. If he could not cut it up it would lose half, perhaps all, its interest for him : he would not thank you for showing it to him as it flew about, if that was all you could do. To carn his gratitude you would need to present him with a breech-loader and some cartridges ; while two scalpels, a forceps, a pair of scissors, and a “seeker” would fill him with a fearful joy.
Between these two types of naturalists, therefore, a great gulf is fixed. Both are possessed with an overpowering interest in the animated world ; but the interest of the one has its root in a deep and often passionate affection ; that of the other is the product of a variety of causes, to the consideration of which it may be worth while to turn. It is difficult to doubt that, at the bottom, it is the theory that has revolutionised natural history that has also revolutionised naturalists.
With the birth of the evolutionary hypothesis natural history was shifted on to a fresh basis, and took in consequence a position in relation to the questions of the day that it had never occupied before. With the general acceptance of the new doctrine a light broke over the whole field of the science ; dark places became plain, facts became significant, and biology acquired a direct connection with graver sciences with ethics, theology, and religion. The immediate effect of this was as natural as it was palpable.
Natural History, dignified now into Biology, appealed to a far larger section of humanity than it could ever have done before. Men who did not care a straw whether hedge-sparrows frequented “sinks and gutters ” or not, who were indifferent as to whether it was the greater or lesser “ Pettychaps” that pilfered their raspberry bushes, Aung themselves into the science of Biology when they learnt that it could throw light upon the origin and destiny of man.
Sociologists found that they might seek for confirmation or contradiction of their doctrines in the law of evolution that governed all