Reflections from a naturalist

Me (in back) and my brother Stephan (front) studying a dead skate on the beach at Plum Island, Mass., June 3, 1967. Photo by my late father, Edward W. Pelikan. — Photo Courtesy of Matt Pelikan

I’ve written about natural history for the MVTimes for about 15 years now: from 1999 through 2004 in a column called “Field Notes,” and following a hiatus of several years, under the “Wild Side” rubric since mid-2008. I hope to continue for many years, though I am pleasantly baffled that this paper allocates space regularly for a perspective that, let’s face it, is a bit on the fringe. I’m grateful to all four of my regular readers!

The thing is, I just can’t help myself. I’m a naturalist. Oh, I’m other things, too, of course: An amateur musician, dedicated if talent-free; a voracious reader with a penchant for historical fiction and military history; a more-or-less grown-up guy with a wife and friends (yes, multiple friends!). But my default orientation is away from the social world and toward the realm of wildlife. I see habitat, not scenery. I want to know what’s out there, and how it spends its time. Learning something about nature — the name of a fly species, where some kind of butterfly lays its eggs, what a willow flycatcher’s nest looks like — gives me profound pleasure.

I love abundance, variety, and activity, but I’m not the least bit perturbed by a slow day in the field: The goal is to see what’s there, and if there’s nothing — well, I’ve found it. And when I’m in the field, I feel an abiding sense of doing what I was designed to do. My mind smoothly processes a stream of input, interpreting and prioritizing the sights, sounds, and smells of my surroundings. I feel, at once, totally present and totally dissolved into the world around me.

Fifty thousand years ago, I’d have been a scout. Oh, sure, I’d join the other guys at flint-knapping parties, and I’d head into the field toting a couple of six-foot darts made from alder sprouts and my willow-wood atlatl. But mostly I’d leave the spear-chucking to stronger, bolder members of the clan. My job would be finding the caribou, and I’d have done it well, with intuition improved by years of careful watching.

How did I end up so odd? My parents were not generally enthusiastic people, but two things they encouraged in me were reading and exploring the natural world. My father, a professor of pharmacology for his entire career, was resolutely scientific, and had extraordinarily broad intellectual interests, natural history ranked high among them. Family outings were regular, if not frequent, and almost always involved visits to natural areas, birding, identifying plants, or just walking through habitat to see what was there.

But I think my fondness for nature would have emerged regardless of parental attitudes. I know from a “baby book” my mother kept that by the age of 18 months, I “preferred animals to people” (Mom’s words, and I bet she was disappointed). And my oldest coherent memory is running down the hill in our backyard one summer morning around the time I turned 2, to say good morning to a garter snake I considered a friend. By first grade, I knew the common birds of our neighborhood. By high school, I was taking advantage of permissive 1970s discipline to blow off morning classes in favor of biking to a nearby National Wildlife Refuge. And today, if I had to pick one thing that defines me, it would be this fascination with nature.

At age 57, I’m beginning to feel a sense of shortening time, and perhaps of regret over how I’ve allocated time in the past. There are whole orders of insects that I know virtually nothing about. Of perhaps 150 ant species that live on Martha’s Vineyard, I can only identify a half-dozen. And flies? Forget it! Did I really need to spend those thousands of hours birding in my 20s and 30s, largely looking at species I was already familiar with? I could have been studying soil microbes!

What’s done is done, of course. If I’m lucky, I suppose I have a couple more decades of active field work ahead of me, and I hope to spend them well. There are still some questions about Vineyard grasshoppers and katydids that I hope to answer this season. Otherwise, it’s time to get working seriously on Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, and those pesky ants) and flies, at least, the fly families I find most interesting. After that? Who knows? There are multitudes of critters, plants, and fungi out there, and while I can’t possibly get acquainted with them all, I want to meet as many as I can before my atoms get recycled.

So if you find a rather scrawny, six-foot human male belly-down in the woods with a camera, that’s me. Don’t worry, I’m harmless.