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Commentary: Naturalists

By Lee Cullum, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

We are so divorced from nature most of the time that it's startling to meet what once was called a naturalist. John James Audubon was a great naturalist. So were Teddy Roosevelt and Charles Darwin. And so is San Antonio lawyer Luke Kellogg who is more than an expert at hunting and fishing. He is a student of wildlife, weather and crops. He is an astute respecter of nature as well as the laws that govern the natural world. He does not play around with lightning. Nor does he allow anyone to wave a gun to the right or to the left. Straight ahead, he says, is the only way to shoot. Kellogg has the poise and confidence of somebody deeply rooted in the earth. Not for him the anxiety of those who flit about the land, never alighting in a place that truly feels like home.

This makes Luke Kellogg reliable in the air. He knows when it's foolish to fly in a six-seat plane. People of science, he said, sometimes make bad pilots. That's because they believe they can overcome nature. Isn't that what medicine teaches? How to use the science of nature to counteract or neutralize natural effects? It causes some, he explained, to understand the science, but not the art, of flying.

They are not the only ones who think they can have their way with the natural world. John McPhee wrote a book about some of the others called "The Control of Nature." In it he described how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mounted a Herculean campaign to keep the Mississippi from changing its course by a hundred miles, as it was wont to do. As this work explained, if the river moved its mouth by going down a tributary, the Atchafalaya, that would cut off New Orleans and Baton Rouge from river commerce. The Corps succeeded for the moment in saving the bayou city, but not forever, since Nature, as we now know, had other devastation in store.

I realized as I talked to Luke Kellogg that naturalists are different from environmentalists. Environmentalists are essential to our survival, but they may be entirely urban people who never see a sunset outside a city. They may deplore contaminated air and water, the extinction of species, the destruction of rain forests and global warming, but these can be intellectual or political interests, uninvolved with the passions of the heart.

Environmentalists seek to preserve things as they are, said Kellogg, and that's impossible. Naturalists, he explained, know they cannot "stop all encroachment and go back to the Garden of Eden," so they practice a "practical acceptance of change." They do not embrace the solution sometimes advanced by environmentalists to "get people off the land." Kellogg stresses that he and his compatriots want to conserve natural spaces, but "they can only manage them around the edges."

We need more naturalists in the world, more students of nature, including human nature, who understand the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, that there is a time for every purpose under heaven. The thing is to match experience to the moment, and not mistake one's own force for a force of nature itself. It could be called knowing when to fish and when to cut bait.

Lee Cullum is a contributor to the Dallas Morning News and to KERA.

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