Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/April 1881/The Felicity of Naturalists

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THERE is something very charming, especially to sedentary persons, in a sketch such as that of Mr. Frank Buckland, which has just appeared in "Macmillan," from the pen of Mr. Spencer Walpole. It is not that the sketch is at all particularly good as literature; it is as good as it needed to be, but we read a hundred papers as good every year. Nor is it that Mr, Buckland's career was in any way suggestive of any tranquil or attractive sort of idyl. He was a man of business and a man of bustle, knew how to hurry, and from a curious kind of carelessness was very often in the state known as flurry. He could not keep anything he wanted, unless it were alive, and when over-bothered by human stupidity, such as that of the railway officials, who taxed a monkey as a dog and exempted a tortoise as a "hinsect," he could get very hot indeed. He lived a more or less commonplace though very active and useful life, working very hard as Fishery Commissioner, and chief contributor to "Land and Water," and correspondent-general to the practical naturalists of the United Kingdom, making the money he wanted, spending it as he liked, with a good deal of waste of silver, and generally demeaning himself as a valuable and bustling member of the community. He was not of the lotos-eaters, but of the breezy-bodies. The charm lies in the sense which the narrative evokes, that a very happy career, a life in which depression, and low spirits, and trouble generally are unknown, is quite possible to men. We have noticed that specialty in the lives of naturalists very often before, and begin to believe that it is to a quite separate degree peculiar to them. It is not unlikely that it should be so, for many of the great conditions of happiness are present in their lives. It is essential to true happiness to have some pursuit which strongly interests you; and the naturalist has his pursuit, which never tires him, never fails him, and can never come to an end. The author requires subjects and leisure, the painter models, the student books and reasons for study; but the naturalist is always ready, always engaged, always getting his result, even if it be a negative one, and never has the smallest prospect of getting to the end of his occupation. No matter how small may be the subdivision of the natural kingdom to which he attends, it is more extensive than his life will be. Not only does no man know all there is to be known about ants, or spiders, or minnows, but no man hopes to know, except by study of the knowledge of other men also, accumulated through ages. Most men get satiated or "weary," as they put it, of their businesses; but who ever heard of a true naturalist retiring? The longest life, the hardest voyages, the most endless collections, will not satiate the curiosity of a conchologist about the colors, let alone the convolutions and the texture of his brilliant favorites. No forester knows or will know all the trees of the forest, or, if he does, will know enough of their growth, structure, and climatic conditions of reproduction to be satisfied with himself. No ornithologist ever boasts even to himself that his knowledge of his kingdom, with its wonderfully separate subjects, so unlike all other living things in the grand condition of their lives, is more than fragmentary, or insusceptible of increase. He has never examined all the eagles' eyes, or the angles at which the humming-bird's feathers lie, and therefore flash so unaccountably. Who knows all about lions, or can prove whether or no the wild beasts' rage is an evolution from hereditary hunger continued through ages? Mr. Buckland attended to fish principally, fish from sharks to minnows, and collected, it is said, five thousand specimens, and was always hurrying about inspecting, or receiving, or writing about, new fishes; but, if he had lived a thousand years, he would not have exhausted his pursuit. There would have been still much to know about varieties of gills, and fins, and scales, and more about the fish which could or could not be cultivated; and when that had been done there would remain the inexhaustible and bewildering subject of the comparative intellectual capacity of different fishes. Do carp know their friends or not? A pursuit always so fresh, always so inexhaustible, and always so full of results, is one high condition of happiness; and it has occasionally, and might have oftener this addition—that the naturalist may live by it. Happy the man who in earning his living is in his groove of work, who feels that his faculties are not twisted or repressed by his daily labor, and has in his hardest toil pleasure; but what is his happiness to the naturalist's who earns his income in his play? Imagine the street-boy to whom hopscotch brings a reputable and sufficient subsistence, and yet who can never be tired of hopscotch! Mr. Buckland, curious in fish, and fond of open air, and of traveling about, and of fidgeting in briny places, was set to inspect fisheries, and instruct fishermen, and write about fish in "Land and Water," and tell mankind generally anything it might want to know about fishes, and all the while was adding to his own store and the world's store of knowledge of a subject which he justly thought great, and got by doing all that an excellent income. What wonder that he was happy and cheerful, and given to jocularities, sometimes very clever, sometimes only whimsical, occasionally a little foolish; and had in him a most attractive element of childlikeness, which even secluded fishermen, jealous of the "Government chaps," and half dreading either interference or fines, found it impossible to resist? They "cottoned" to him always, like dogs to a fearless child. Mr. Buckland could have induced Irish fishermen to fish without bounties, a feat supposed impossible; and the magnet in him was the naturalist's magnet, Audubon's, or White's, or Waterton's magnet, the charm of a nature full of the content which springs from harmony between interest and occupation. The man is fortunate who lives in the open air and amid natural beauties, but the naturalist is never out of them; he is lucky who adds aught to the knowledge of his fellow-man, but the naturalist can not stir without making an addition to it; he is most favored whose occupation forces him to think of greater things than itself, who, like the astronomer, must, in order to learn, for ever look upward—and where is the naturalist without ever-present piety of some kind? It is very comic to hear that Mr. Buckland rejected evolution, because "my father was Dean of Westminster; I was bred in the principles of Church and state, and I will never admit it"; but the thought which prompted that half-humorous, half-serious expression of his faith was not comic at all. He could not, as naturalist, stand a theory which struck him (quite erroneously) as dispensing with, or even affronting, a sentient First Cause. The child in him—which in Mr. Buckland, as in every man who loves Nature with a single heart, was very strong—revolted, and grew pettish.

There is something, however, in the naturalist's pursuit besides happiness which gives him his tribal qualities, those always found with his pursuit, and it is a little difficult to decide quite satisfactorily what it is. It is not the pursuit of knowledge in itself. Scholars and metaphysicians, and men of the sciences which relate to other things than outdoor nature, physicians, for instance, and electricians, are not like the naturalists at all. Indeed, we do not quite know why the pursuit of knowledge of itself should tend to good any more than any other indulgence of curiosity. Nor is it all the open air, for the men who next to the naturalists live most in that, agricultural peasants, belong to a far removed type of men. Nor is it a certain innocence and permanent absence of sinister temptation which attaches to the pursuit, for many pursuits—antiquarianism, for instance—are quite as innocent yet evolve a totally different order of mind, a mind often very much more reflective and less simple. Naturalists, too, are of necessity incessantly killing, and constant though innocent killing seems, as in butchers, rather to brutalize than to refine the general character. Butchers' boys are not breezy people at all, nor, for that matter, are fishmongers or poulterers. The goodness of naturalists, like the serenity of Arctic voyagers, is of a kind per se, a quality which we scarcely discover in any other class, a benevolence quite unfailing and almost Christlike in persons otherwise very human indeed.

May it not be that the instinct of mankind is true—that Nature, an undeteriorated work of God, has in it something better than man, and in close contact with the mind gives that something out? It may be said that we do not find this result in the savage, even if he be Hawaian or Guacho—that is, even if he lives always amid scenes of unfailing beauty; but that is because the savage's mind is closed to the necessary contact. But we do find it in the sportsman, who, even if in other ways objectionable, or even brutalized by the constant and objectless slaughter of things more beautiful than himself, has often in him something of that which we find in a higher degree in naturalists, and which comes to all who can receive it from contact with Nature face to face. Very dreamy, all that! Very true; but, if we never dream, there are large regions of thought of which we shall understand nothing, for in them only hypothesis and sympathy can possibly be our guides.—Spectator.