A Plea for Specialists

WE have read with appreciation and sympathy the protest in the Contributors’ Club against bird-fiends, and the plaint of one who is made to feel that she is in outer darkness because she refuses to cultivate a scientific spirit.

The long-suffering person who wrote the protest is evidently frankly bored by the obtrusive ardor of so-called birdlovers, and the author of “ Outer Darkness ” enjoys too much in her self-chosen exile to need our sympathy. How we should like to climb with her to that hilltop on a June morning! But there is a tone of veiled pity for the specialist in both of these contributions, an assumption that the desire to know necessarily gets in the way of the eyes and the ears of one’s soul, that leads me to suggest that there is something to be said on the other side of the question.

I admit at the start that the specialists are in the wrong. With our notebooks and our specimens and our thirst for information, we have made ourselves a nuisance. We must learn to be more sophisticated, to hide our crude joys. This is not always easy. And remember, if we bore you with our enthusiasm for facts and our zeal for collecting, you can easily put us out of countenance. There is something in your atmosphere — in the gentle, amused tolerance with which you regard us — that is at times disconcerting, and makes us feel young and self-conscious in your presence. After all, our fault is that of the youthful spirit. The desire to share one’s good things with others, to take the world into one’s confidence, springs from a childlike attitude of mind. Certainly the passion for collecting — which lies at the back of all zeal for knowledge — is a primitive instinct. Whether it be marbles or butterflies, postage-stamps or only bits of broken china, no normal child is without it. Probably this is the reason why specialists are the youngest people in the world; and their eagerness to exchange specimens and experiences is equaled only by their spontaneous joy in their own collections.

I call to mind the youngest person I ever met, — a gray-haired lady whose name is not unknown to fame, — who once spent a never-to-be-forgotten day with me, in early May. More than seventy summers had passed over her head — it is impossible to reckon her age in winters — and she was no longer able to wander far afield; but she sat in a rocking-chair on the edge of a wooded ravine, and we watched birds, talked birds, dreamed birds together from morning till night.

The next youngest person I have known was a botanist, who once took me with childish glee by secret ways, to see his latest find, a bed of linnæa, blossoming far from its native home in northern woods, near a great city. To exchange confidences with these two scientific children of nature was to hazard a guess at the secret of perpetual youth.

“ But these are real scientists,” I hear you exclaim, “ not the people who sit on piazzas of summer hotels and assort mushrooms.”

But even these people, I claim, are tasting joys unknown to the generalist — the sophisticated spectator to whom their excitement seems so absurd. It is exciting to find that the handsome yellow mushroom flecked with white, that we have met so often in the woods, is the Fly Amanita that once killed the Emperor Alexis. It says so in the book. No wonder we lose our heads over facts like these.

And is it not too much to assume, that because we pore over microscopes and notebooks, we are quite unconscious that the sky is blue and that birds are singing ? The fact that we know that the singer is a thrush, and not a pelican, does not seem to detract from our pleasure in the music.

“ Can’t you catch the call of the meadow lark back of it all ? ” a friend once asked me, as we stood together at sunset and listened to the tangle of bird-songs that came up from the marshes. To me it was divine, but a medley. He was like the trained musician at the orchestral concert, who knows the ’cello from the oboe, the violin from the clarionet, whose joy in the symphony is twofold. I speak with conviction, for the time has come when I too can catch the call of the meadow lark back of it all, can even identify the lark by his flight and his markings, and know something of his nesting habits; yet I still worship with the birds at their vesper service.

Perhaps no one ever enjoyed nature more intensely — through the pores, as it were— than Thoreau; and yet he was twelve years on the trail of a bird he called the night warbler. “ You seek in vain half your life,” he says philosophically, “ and one day you come full upon the whole family at dinner.” When that event occurs and we, who have despaired of ever identifying our rara avis, “ come full upon the whole family at dinner,” there is joy in the heart of the birdfiend that the uninitiated will never know.

We would-be scientists have two strings to our bow. We start out to follow the rare bird, or to find the walking fern; every bush by the roadside, every nook and cranny in the woods, may hold a secret for us; voices lure us on, hands are stretched out to detain us. We do not reach that hilltop nearest heaven as quickly as you do, but we arrive in our own good time, and we share your joy in the view from the summit. The boulder by the bridge is beautiful to us as to you, even though we insist upon knowing whether it was deposited there by a glacier or a dump-cart; the gray lichens on its side are no less lovely, for all this geological information. We even confess a desire to know the name of the lichen, and its habits.

There are joys within joys, and we would share them with you if we could. We come back to the inn laden with treasure, — polypody, mushrooms, long lists of birds, — or we bring nothing. We specialize when we may, and we generalize when we must, and either way, we are royally content. The shy fern and the rare bird that elude us to-day still wait our coming. There is always a to-morrow, and a day after, and a day after that. We too have felt “ the sun on our faces, the wind in our eyes,” and we have not failed of our heart’s desire.

The old palmers, when they went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, set out with a definite quest —an excuse, as it were, for the journey over land and sea. They often came back without reaching the goal, but never with empty hands; and we may be very sure they did not fail of strange adventures by the way.

We crave your tolerance, nay more, your sympathy, O friend, who walk for the joy of the morning, if we still persist in our pursuit of a twofold pleasure. Our quest may be different from yours, but all roads lead to the same country for those who are in love with the world. We both come home content, for we have traveled in Holy Land.