A good natural history book is a joy to read. They seem to be growing scarcer, alas, although it might just be that there are so many books out these days that winnowing “natural history” from “environmental dirge” from “pop-science” from “local writer writing about local birds” has grown far more difficult. But when I find a good natural history, it is such a treasure.
What is natural history? I know it when I read it. OK, beyond that, it is a study of a place over time, one that looks at everything from the dirt and rocks to the birds, plants, waters, land-use, and weather of a generally small bit of of the world. When you finish reading, you know the critters, flowers, trees, grasses, soils, and story of the land – sort of a biography of place, with a dollop of science. The first of these that is fairly well known in English is Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. Selborne was the parish where White was minister for many years. The book was published in 1789, and is still in print. White described the place through the seasons, what grew there and why, and so on. Pliney and other ancient and Renaissance writers had done descriptions of places and critters, but no one had written a popular study of one small corner of the world.
White inspired a lot of other writers, some talented amateurs, some professionals, some a little of both. Aldo Leopold was a forest ranger with a gift for writing, and his Sand County Almanac and other essay collections are magnificent depictions of places, and meditations on “nature” and “Wilderness” and what those ideas mean for people and critters.
So, what’s the difference between environmental history (my bailiwick) and natural history? Environmental history is more academic, meaning it has all the things that are required of academic writing (footnotes/endnotes, historiography, formal introduction and conclusion with certain elements in them). Environmental history often includes a lot about people, government policies, laws and how they were applied (or were not), corporate history, you know, paperwork stuff. And they tend to cover more ground. A natural history of Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas, for example, only talks about that particular place. It doesn’t go into discussions of federal and state wetland policies and how they changed over time, except as they related directly to the wetland, and then only one chapter at the end of the work. Instead, it starts with the geology, then the mud, the cattails and other things that root in the mud, the fish and bugs and amphibians, and works up to the raptors and other birds that live in and around the wetland.
I’ve tried my hand at writing a few natural history type things. I’m not good enough, and I don’t know enough to do a good job. Natural Histories are love songs. Environmental histories are ballads.