The field is a place for observation. Early this year I spent several intense hours searching for a Blackburnian warbler as it was flitting through trees and nourishing itself on its way to the breeding grounds of the north. As the spring migrants ushered in a new field season, the constant press of binoculars on my face made me consider the importance of paying close attention. It is easy to watch nature go by, but it is another thing to really observe. But what does this mean in practice, and how does one become good at this? Enter John Burroughs.
Burroughs wrote copiously about nature, but naturalists meeting him for the first time should definitely read his essay “The Art of Seeing Things” published in Leaf and Tendril in 1908. To me, this piece is one of the most inspiring things ever written about natural observations. It may be difficult to seek out a dust-covered copy of this book from the stacks of a library. Luckily, Google Books will provide you with the full text in 0.13 seconds. Those who spend that brief moment finding Burroughs will be richly rewarded.
In his text, Burroughs wastes no time in focusing attention on the importance of observation:
“Some people seem born with eyes in their heads, and others with buttons or painted marbles…But here and there is the keen-eyed observer; he is the sharpshooter; his eye selects and discriminates, his purpose goes to the mark.”
Those with the basic observational skills are also encouraged to work to perfect this life trait:
“The science of anything may be taught or acquired by study; the art of it comes by practice or inspiration. The art of seeing things is not something that may be conveyed in rules and precepts; it is a matter vital in the eye and ear, yea, in the mind and soul, of which these are the organs.”
Love of nature is a topic that can make scientifically-minded naturalists feel soft, but Burroughs has love running deep in the veins of naturalists, and only the most cynical would be repelled by this description of the lifeblood of natural history study:
“Love sharpens the eye, the ear, the touch; it quickens the feet, it steadies the hand, it arms against the wet and the cold. What we love to do, that we do well. To know is not all; it is only half. To love is the other half.”
Burroughs does not specify how exactly to observe using particular telescopes, time counts, or data capture methods, but instead focuses us on the critical task of doing so, of being the ‘keen-eyed observers.’ He points out the importance of observation like no other, and describes what is to be gained with similar awe:
“Nature we have always with us, an inexhaustible storehouse of that which moves the heart, appeals to the mind, and fires the imagination – health to the body, a stimulus to the intellect, and joy to the soul.”
Consider spending some time with Burroughs before you next head to the field. I wager you will see more, and make better observations because of it.