Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Throughout my life, certain people have had the audacity to lecture me about how a scientific education and a scientific life forever destroys a person’s ability to appreciate nature. I always tell them how science enhances my appreciation and .. dare I say it? .. my love of the natural world, but I sometimes think no one hears me. But thanks to the wonderful book, Return To Warden’s Grove: Science, Desire, and the Lives of Sparrows by Chris Norment (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press; 2008), there are others out there who openly celebrate how science has enriched their lives and deepened their love of the natural world and her citizens.

This well-written book is a brilliant synergy between science and poetry. It describes the author’s highly personal journey to establish a connection to something beyond himself, to discover his intellectual, emotional, and spiritual “far country” in a world that felt less and less familiar and welcoming for him. But this book is also about the process of doing science, particularly the type of science that focuses on patiently observing and recording the details of the lives of animals in their natural environments — a dying “breed” of scientific inquiry in a high-tech world filled with cell and molecular biologists, it seems.

It’s humbling to consider the process of getting inside the mind of a nonhuman animal and understanding something of how it views the world. [...] Most behavioral ecologists argue that fundamental differences in how human and nonhuman animals perceive the natural world make it impossible to understand what it is like to be another species. The difficulties are compounded by the necessary limitations of the scientific method. We can study the structure and function of a Harris’s Sparrow neural system at scales extending from the organ (brain, central and peripheral nervous systems) to subcellular (individual ion channels in neurons) and molecular (action potentials and the chemistry of neurotransmitters at synapses) levels. We can quantify relationships between physical and social environmental stimuli and the organism’s behavioral responses under precisely controlled field conditions. We are good with anatomy, physiology, chemistry, and behavioral outcomes, but we are very poor with emotion and answering a fundamental question, What is it like to be a Harris’s Sparrow? [pp. 61-62]

Norment never answers that particular question, but he is far richer emotionally and intellectually for having tried, as we discover from reading his book. Return to Warden’s Grove is based on three years of the author’s field research while a graduate student at the University of Kansas investigating the breeding biology of Harris’s Sparrows, Zonotrichia querula. To complete his dissertation work, the author left his family behind every spring to migrate north, just ahead of his birds, to Warden’s Grove in the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary of the Barrenlands in the Canadian arctic. The story itself is “creative nonfiction” because the author compressed his three years of work into one archetypal field season, similar to what Edward Abbey did in his classic, Desert Solitaire.

One of the things I loved most about this book are the beautiful descriptions of those fleeting moments that I also experienced during my own dissertation work, the depth and richness of those moments, along with the intensity, the sheer poetry of his revelations;

Listen. When I cup a small bird in my hand and feel its heat, feel the thrum of its fear and the tiny pounding of its heart against my palm, it is impossible not to wonder. Or when I look into the umber silence of its eyes and imagine the paths of light and chemicals that bind us together (cornea and lens, retina and optic nerve, sodium and potassium, brain and neural network), it is impossible not to wonder. And when I am done with my measurements and I have written down the last of the numbers, I will open my hand, as if in supplication, and the bird will rise into the air. Then, too, it is impossible not to wonder — about the arc of its flight, the way in which the barbs and barbules of its feather vanes interlock, the lightness of its bones and very being and, most of all, its completeness. Connected as we are by the paths of history and genes — stasis and change, extinction and speciation, and the tangled necklaces of adenine and guanine, thymine and cytosine — it is still impossible not to marvel at its sheer otherness, and the way in which it makes its way through the world. [pp. 7-8].

As the reader follows the thread of Norment’s archetypal field season, we are taken on an intellectual and philosophical journey through the major themes of biology. As the author explores each topic, their threads combine to form a progressively thicker and stronger cord that leads the reader through the labyrinth of ideas and knowledge that characterize life and the study of life: we learn about the cascading interrelationships between the hormones that regulate reproduction, moult and migration in songbirds (much of this based on the work of my advisor and his advisor), how Norment decided to devote a significant portion of his life to studying the mysterious Harris’s Sparrows, the value of natural history museums and the scientific collections they house (along with the “morality” of killing things), how scientific papers are written and the purpose for their very distinct language, and the stories of some of the birds that provided data for his dissertation.

This book is only 215 pages long, but it will stay with you much longer than that. It will change how you think about scientists and their science, about man’s relationship to nature, and it will open your eyes to the true value of knowledge.This book will be appreciated by those who particularly love biology and enjoy poetry and beautifully-rendered prose, as well as those who enjoy reading stories about scientists and their work in remote and seemingly barren places.

Christopher Norment is a professor of environmental science and biology at SUNY College at Brockport, where he was awarded SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. Norment focuses on the breeding biology and ecology of migratory birds. In addition to numerous scientific articles, he is the author of In the North of our Lives: A Year in the Wilderness of Northern Canada (Portland, ME: Down East Books; 1989).

Comments

  1. #1 Bob O'H
    June 29, 2008

    Another book that sounds really interesting! I’ve got too many of them as it is!

    I realised early on in my career that the “real” biologists are the ones who can think like their organisms. There really is an other-worldliness about them, but we can get glimpses of what they see and feel.

    I managed to do that a couple of times with my organism. That’s when I knew it was time to start working on something other than mildew.

    P.S. an i tag needs closing somewhere

  2. #2 deang
    June 29, 2008

    Can’t wait to read it. I’ve always found it troubling that so many biological scientists insist on viewing their objects of study as feelingless machines, and that has become even more the norm as molecular and cell biology has come to dominate while organismal biology is defunded. Maybe books like this can inspire more people to pursue organismal biology and ecology.

  3. #3 Jay Greenberg
    June 30, 2008

    I’ve met Chris Norment, heard him talk about his experiences in the Arctic, and even birded with him. I share his passion for preserving grassland bird habitat. Like he once was, I am a trustee of the Bergen Swamp Preservation Society. However, I had no idea that he is an eloquent and philosophical writer. I started life as a nature lover, but got diverted into the fields of cellular and molecular biology, which are brutally competitive, and for the most part, not populated by nature lovers. Now that my career is over, I have returned to my roots as a nature lover.

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