Sunday, July 13, 2008

Return to Warden's Grove

Return to Warden's Grover: Science, Desire, and the Lives of Sparrows by Christopher Norment. University of Iowa Press. 2008

I thoroughly enjoyed Return to Warden's Grove, probably because it reminded me so much of my own experiences, thoughts, and emotions resulting from conducting my own field work. Christopher Norment uses his own experiences conducting research on Harris Sparrows in the barren grounds of the Northwest Territories to explore the logistical and intellectual challenges of basic natural history field work. Even more so he shares the emotional challenges of conducting research on which a career is based and he explores his internal struggle to fulfill the need for a settled family life with the ache for wild places and a hidden connection to life sought in places internet and telephones can't (shouldn't ?) reach. It is an annual journey I also take with my work in Antarctica.

Return to Warden's Grove explores the role of naturalist and descriptive science in a world of "sexy" science. Norment weighs the importance of his research against the ecological science of expensive equipment and complex methodology in labs far removed from the actual lives of the organisms being investigated and it is somewhat ironic that I was reading this book when news came of a recent genetic study that found some very interesting and unique relationships between different families of birds. The results of the genetic relationship work made national news but the breeding season feeding habits of two Zonotrochia sparrows did not. Both are important in our understanding of the world around us. I confess I much prefer the idea of enduring blackflies and mosquitoes to examine the intimate details of a little known sparrow to working in a sterile lab but I value the results of both arenas.

He also explores the role of killing animals for science. Again, not in the lab setting but field collection for specimens and stomach samples. His exploration is reminiscent of my own feelings having been employed to collect specimens on a few research expeditions. There is also an excellent chapter which compares the "real" story of a dying musk ox with the dispassionate, removed version of the story that appeared in a scientific journal. How many excellent stories of events, emotions, adventure and loss are behind the varnished methods, results, conclusions and discussions in any paper describing the results of field work in any discipline?

Norment also writes of the need to simply watch. He describes how the nature of his research with uncooperative animals forced him into a self described slowness resulting from his focused work. It reminded me of hours spend at the edge of a penguin colony waiting for an incubating bird to adjust something so I could catch a peek underneath to see how many eggs or chicks remained. It was definitely a slowness forced by the work I was doing but I gained so much in understanding by really watching the lives of those birds. He says

"This "need to hold still," to fall into slowness and simply watch, is a chief blessing of focused work in both descriptive natural history and hypothesis-based research. It is a skill that both scientist and non scientist need to cultivate, a vital way to pay attention to the world. Perhaps it also is where science and art can interact with one another - sensory experience as a synthetic, creative process that grows out of watching and waiting, listening and coming into patience. Through observation, it is possible to develop a richness of texture and nuance, substance and form in our understanding of the animate and inanimate residents of this world - and our place in it. It is how we become informed."

Return to Warden's Grove reminded me of a Wendell Berry passage from a work entitled "Healing" from the book What are People For. Berry writes:

"And by it we enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness.

Only discord can come of the attempt to share solitude.

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One's inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one's most intimate sources.

In consequence, one response more clearly to other lives. the more coherentone becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance."

Christopher Norment has shared with all of us his gifts of circumstance and you should partake in this gift by reading Return to Warden's Grove.


Beverly said...

Thank you for that...

Steve Bodio said...

Good review! I am doing it for Living Bird and agree entirely with your points.

Of course now I am going to have to find a way to say something different (;-)

John Carlson said...

Thanks Steve and Beverly. Steve, I suspect you will find a way! There is lots of material to work from in the book and lots of skill on your end!