Bigger news than this Easter weekend snow and cold snap, for us, is a rare visitor at the bird feeder two days in a row: a swamp sparrow. Or so my mother determined — I’m no birder. She came back from a walk yesterday morning glowing with enthusiasm at all the birds in the hollow that were seemingly unfazed by two days of snow: migrant hermit thrushes, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, blue-headed vireos, and more. I had walked briskly down the hollow and back an hour earlier and saw nothing but the blowing ghosts of winter and the sharp contrasts between green barberry leaves or yellow spicebush blossoms and the new backdrop of white.
A purely aesthetic vision necessarily excludes as much as it admits, always seeking to impose some sort of frame. That may account for some of my blindness. Then, too, as a man, I am probably more inclined toward tunnel vision in the service of specific search images (in my case, certain kinds of photos). I’ve always agreed with Louis Leakey, who felt women make better naturalists than men because they tend to be more patient observers. That’s one reason why he recruited women — Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, and Birute Galdikas — to do the long-term primate studies he thought were needed. He also felt women would have more compassion and empathy for their subjects, and unlike a lot of scientists at the time (and to this day), thought that that was a good thing.
It seems to me that the critical balance we need to strike is not so much between art and science, but beween dispassion and compassion. It is not enough simply to dissect a frog, or to capture its picturesque image on a lily pad, in order to understand what makes it work. We need to see the whole pond, and the ecological matrix of which it is a part. We need to understand why frogs are suddenly going extinct all over the planet. And we need to understand that when they go, a part of us goes with them — and that no purported salvation that is limited to the human realm can in fact save us.