Tasty tidbits versus wild fruit

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

cultures_of_habitat_coverIn Cultures of Habitat: On Nature, Culture, and Story (Counterpoint, 1997), ethnobotanist and essayist Gary Paul Nabhan argues that modern peoples tend not to have opportunities for discovery in the natural world, and that this distance from our environment means we don’t grasp the complexity of the world and of ecology. He writes on pages 97–98:

I have a wish for humanity: that all of our children would become field naturalists as they grow up. Imagine living in a society where every youth has the chance to explore the earth on foot and in hand, getting to know its creatures on a first-name basis.

The reason that I want everyone to become field naturalists has nothing to do with financial or professional rewards—or, for that matter, with the hope of advancing science. To the contrary, ecology seems to be the field in which I am most likely to fail to prove any scientific hypothesis I attempt to test. And that’s why I like it; I am constantly reminded how wrong I can be about how the world works.

That’s half the problem: most of us need to be humbled more often, to be reminded that nature is not only more complex than we think, it’s more complex than we can think.

The other half of the problem is that most children today grow up robbed of the chance of discovering anything at all on their own. They are told early on that scientists in little white coats discover all the world’s “facts” in neat, antiseptic laboratories. These facts are then handed to an ecologically illiterate public on an equally antiseptic platter filled with pasteurized, homogenized truisms to nibble on as stale appetizers empty of much of their former nutrition. Trouble is, all those tasty tidbits taste far more bland than any wild fruit plucked right off the tree.

And so I wish to champion the fine art of discovering, a process far different from the heroic act of discovery. Through the process of discovering, we seldom achieve any hard-and-fast truth about the world, its cornucopia of creatures, or its cultural interactions with them. Instead, we are inevitably assured of how little we know about that on which each of our lives depends.

Nabhan defines cultures of habitat as human communities that have long interacted with a particular landscape—and its non-human occupants—that is local to those communities. Usually we think of cultures as societies with particular customs and shared beliefs that are passed along from generation to generation. It stands to reason that cultures would have a grounding in their local habitats. Indeed, understanding this kind of human-environment linkage is fundamental to modern archaeological research and theory-building.

Do you think so many people find archaeology interesting because of the potential for discovery that Nabhan outlines? Is there a link between archaeological research and understanding and a knowledge of natural history as Nabhan describes? Or do you mostly disagree with Nabhan?

Elsewhere in this volume, Nabhan argues that people are not natural stewards of the environment. Do you agree?