Naturalists’ unique task is one of interpretation. Just as our gifted theologians take on the critical task of correctly applying a hermeneutic to scripture, the naturalist attempts to explain the goings on in the field and hedgerow, in the reef and jungle, in the boreal forest and the backyard. This is an important and underappreciated ancestor of our modern scientific process and more specifically of biology and ecology.
Naturalists, unlike many scientists, employ the skills of observation and description above all else. They don’t ignore experimentation, as they must read continually to be aware of new findings, but they don’t typically employ experimental design in the field. After all, they are also explorers, and time in the field is essential to hone one’s art.
David Douglas was one of the preeminent naturalists of the 19th century. He exemplified the qualities above and is well known for his remarkable success in describing species new to the British and sending back seeds and samples (over 7,000 species from the Pacific NW, Hawaii, and the Eastern U.S.)
“Douglas was more than a scientist who saw in nature only grist for the scientific mill. His eye “was alive to all that is picturesque,” in the words of one contemporary, and his writings point to the inexhaustible variety and “great operations of nature” as manifestations of “an infinite intelligence and power in the Almighty hand.” A man obsessed by the study of nature, he deplored a narrow-minded devotion to the pursuit of scientific truth as leading to “a condition little better than moral servitude.” “We can travel through distant lands,” he wrote, “and become acquainted with the complexions and the feelings and the characters of mankind, under every form of life; and in so doing this, if we be not most indocile pupils we must learn many lessons of kindness, and freedom of thought along with an appropriate knowledge of our immediate vocation.”” – http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/douglas_david_6E.html
Read his journals here
Watch the trailer to Finding David Douglas