What is a naturalist? Must a naturalist be a scientist? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of a naturalist is “…a person who studies plants and animals as they live in nature.” By this definition, then, anyone of us could be a naturalist if we paid close attention to the world outside. And by extension, if one took notes, made charts and kept detailed accounts of these observations over space and time, might this person be termed a “Naturalist extraordinaire”?
At the moment, I am reading two books by Naturalist extraordinaires: Thoreau’s Wildflowers (masterfully edited and introduced by Geoff Wisner) and Natural Color. Each author, Henry David Thoreau and Sasha Duerr, respectively, defines their location by the surrounding indigenous plants. Duerr’s environs are the hills of Berkeley, CA, whilst Thoreau lived across the continent in Concord, MA. Separated by land and centuries, they are anchored together in their respect for the natural world and the desire to caretake.
We accompany each author on a year-long journey, progressing from Spring to Winter. Duerr forages plants from Oakland sidewalks and farmer’s markets to make splendid colors, guiding us through the year with seasonal ”palettes”. Thoreau’s observations of wildflowers – through scent, leaf and flowers – provide clear images of his peregrinitions in and around Concord throughout the four seasons. Both books are graced with sumptuous visuals (photographs by Aya Brackett in Natural Color, and detailed drawings by Barry Moser in Thoreau’s Wildflowers), better allowing us to ‘participate’ with the authors in their explorations, but more importantly helping us to refine our natural vision and to prepare us for our own observations.
As both a dyer and wildflower guide, these books are wonderful practical tools for me. Duerr, an expert natural dyer, provides not only the nuts and bolts – from gathering to extraction to finished project – but also writes a manifesto to counteract and contend with the today’s fast-paced fashion and food world. Thoreau’s minute observations – when a plant’s leaves first emerge from the earth, how long it blooms, and when it puts out seeds – is instructive and invaluable to the naturalist in each of us.
“If a man is rich and strong anywhere it must be in his native soil. Here I have been these forty years learning the language of these fields that I may the better express myself. If I should travel to the prairies, I should much less understand them, and my past life would serve me but ill to describe them.”
“Mapping and getting to know your own neighborhood and botanical region is another way of cultivating your natural dye practice, caring for the landscape, and working in harmony with ecological systems. Working with natural color can inspire you to make an authentic stewardship of the land itself.”
It would be among my greatest pleasures to accompany Duerr and Thoreau on a nature walk, listening to their conversation as they delight in the depth and breadth of Nature’s flora.
Note: Natural Color is released on August 23, 2016. For full information on where to purchase the book and a listing of Sasha’s upcoming book signings, http://www.sashaduerr.com
Henry David Thoreau, Thoreau’s Wildflowers, edited by Goeff Wisner and illustrated by Barry Moser (Yale University Press, 2016), pg. 256.
Sasha Duerr, Natural Color, (Watson-Guptill Publications, 2016), pgs. 125, 203.