Foxy Thoughts

In our hyper-specialized society, “amateur” is far from a noble description. It is, in fact, usually the opposite, a term of disparagement, insult, attack. Meanwhile, in the sports-entertainment industry, it has lost all meaning, corrupted by the NCAA’s exploitative hypocrisy and the corporate/nationalist perversion of the Olympics. But the word’s roots lie in the Latin word for love. The amateur does it for love, with love. We amateurs need to re-capture, re-invigorate, and return the word to its origins.

It is an uphill battle. In the popular mind it might best be expressed by the ancient Greek adage, “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog one big thing,” cited by, among others, the great Erasmus, but made most famous by Isaiah Berlin. I definitely don’t mean to disparage the hedgehog when I say I am a fox, although of course the truth is most everybody is a mixture of both, just as we are both Melville’s “loose fish and fast fish, too” with one or the other usually predominating. From the other hand, Robert Graves throws down his glove, and skips the animal metaphors, “To know only one thing well is to have a barbaric mind; civilization implies the graceful relation of all varieties of experience to a central humane system of thought.”

The foundations of many modern sciences were made by amateurs. These were usually well-to-do men, with the time and inclination, so you may insert your class consciousness here. Charles Darwin, for instance, was an exemplar of the type, puttering away (to rather awesome effect, of course) at Down Farm for decades while his hammer, T.H. Huxley, duked it out with the postdiluvians (a hardy, indestructible species). Darwin’s partner-in-theory, Alfred Russel Wallace, was an example of the other kind of amateur, one not born into money, who had to work for a living. Still, he had no formal training either, so he was lucky he got to do what he loved, but it was trying, collecting specimens for wealthier men who didn’t have to worry about malaria, dangerous sea voyages, and so on.

Astronomy and ornithology are some of the few places that I know of where amateurs can still make a contribution to the larger realm of the sciences. (Can you think of any other?) This, I think, is cause for celebration, but also a little sadness. Science for the ivory tower alone is pretty paltry stuff. Science locked up by self-appointed gatekeepers is foolhardy. Science sensationalized by the idiot-media is just more stupefying entertainment. Science should be for the people. I am well aware that our democracy is also quite a paltry thing, largely sham, but I still idealize: scientists, many publicly-funded, who shy away from engagement with the rest of the citizenry can’t win in the long run. The fundamentalists are always out there banging at the gate, eager to burn books in prelude to the actual witches themselves. You may think this is hyperbole, but consider how they’ve mutilated the teaching of evolution in many parts of this country, or how the oil companies have so successfully bollixed people’s knowledge of climate science.

The recent interest in citizen science projects is heartening. Natural history is usually left for the children, where, like so many things, it is soon squandered. We all need to learn to live with the world, and some of us need to re-learn.
Note: I took these photos of this red fox, Vulpes vulpes, at Bombay Hook NWR last fall.

5 Responses to “Foxy Thoughts”

  1. 2 Kerry April 17, 2010 at 8:31 am

    Lovely shots of the fox.

    Regards from a proud amateur!

  2. 3 mthew March 13, 2015 at 7:49 am

    Reblogged this on Backyard and Beyond and commented:

    On being an amateur. With my best photos of a fox.

  3. 5 Traci March 13, 2015 at 10:40 am

    Great essay, great photos. Thank you!

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