A Brief History of Natural History *

While our study of the world around us is undoubtedly as long as that of human history (and has been the province of famous thinkers from Aristotle onward), the field of study known as natural history really got its kick off in the mid-18th century and reached its height of popularity during the Victorian era, before the professionalization of science and the marginalization of the amateur community that was both a major supporter and a major contributor.  The real “heyday of natural history” (to borrow the title of a book on the subject), particularly in Britain where its popularity was the strongest, occurred from around 1820-1870, reaching into every strata of society from the aristocracy to the working classes.  Today natural history is largely a historical curiosity, and many of the basic skills of natural history are disappearing from modern science.

When most people (or at least the people that have answered my informal “poll”) think of natural history (not that most people think of natural history all that often), they tend to identify it with the science that is today biology.  Historically however, this is just half the story–natural history has included not only areas of modern biology such as botany and zoology, but also fields like geology and paleontology.  For a time, natural history also overlapped with the idea of natural theology, giving Victorians a convenient excuse to find entertainment in the study “through Nature up to Nature’s God”*.  Indeed, the study of natural history offered the middle classes an occupation–most of their household work had been handed off to servants, and there were strict boundaries set on social interaction, particularly for women.

Natural history would offer the Victorian era man or woman relief from boredom, and was seen as an acceptable sort of entertaiment, or a “rational amusement”**.  It was considered healthful–a reason for taking the advised daily walk, it was “morally uplifting” (the natural theology argument, lengthily laid out in William Paley’s weighty tome, Natural Theology)**, and it was entertaining.  While many today might question this last idea, natural history was equivalent to the gaming craze of today.  During the Victorian era natural history wasn’t seen as a useful subject, and was not taught in schools.  And like many subjects not taught in school (a young Darwin was told by the headmaster at his school that it was a waste of time), natural history became quite popular. Its popularity was also probably helped by the relative ease with which the layman could pick up the tools and skills of natural history and communicate with those individuals that made a living at it (and contribute to their work).

The decline of natural history was first sounded with the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. It is somewhat ironic that one of the greatest natural historians was also one of the last (I’m pretty certain that he would have been unhappy to realize this), but Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection turned the field of biology into a legitimate science, which led to the end of two of its most attractive features–it became part of school curriculum and it became increasingly professionalized, making it more difficult for laymen to feel as if they were contributing to its continuation. The end of the natural history phenomenon wasn’t purely a victim of these events, and it can be argued that natural history didn’t end so much as it just changed form, but the end of the natural history craze can surely be attributed in large part to this shift.

*from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man
**ideas discussed in chapter 1 of Lynn Barber’s The Heyday of Natural History

And a bonus reading list (from my library):

Books about Natural History’s History:  These books are a combination of general overviews, general themes or specific people or events in natural history. Nearly all of them are cheaper used online or via Kindle, though some are published by universities and are quite expensive (I paid over $40 for my e-book of the Botanizers).

The Heyday of Natural History by Lynn Barber
The Botanizers: Amateur Scientists of the 19th Century by Elizabeth Keeney
The Book of Nature: Natural History in the United States by Margaret Welch
Just about anything from Stephen Jay Gould (his essay collection, published as a series of books is superb)
Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E. O. Wilson by Paul Farber
Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History by Douglas J. Preston
Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World by Londa Schiebinger and Claudia Swan
Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by James A. Secord
Women in the Field: America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists by Marcia Myers Bonta
Lincoln and Darwin: Shared Visions of Race, Science, and Religion by James Lander
The Romance of Victorian Natural History by Lynn L. Merrill
The Evolution of American Ecology, 1890–2000 by Sharon E. Kingslan
Evolutionary Theory & Victorian Culture by Martin Fichman, Morton L. Schagrin and Michael Ruse
Asa Gray: American Botanist, Friend of Darwin by A. Hunter Dupree

Books from Natural History’s History:  All of these are public domain. Some of them are historically significant, while others are not–but they give an interesting glimpse into period natural history. A few of them I have purchased in print, either at a bookstore or online, but the rest (and more) can be found free from Kindle or Google books. I would recommend checking out the reviews as some of the kindle versions lack pictures, which pretty much ruins the book (like a 19th century field guide), while Google’s versions are often quite good (and can be converted easily into a PDF and printed from).

Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers
On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Voyage of the Beagle and The Autobiography of Charles Darwin by Charles Darwin
The Naturalist on the River Amazons by Henry Walter Bates
Evenings at the Microscope and Natural History by Philip Henry Gosse…really anything by Gosse!
Anything by Asa Gray
Anything by T. H. Huxley
Natural Theology by William Paley
The Birds of America by John James Auubon
Curiosities of Nature by Francis T. Buckland
The Loves of the Plants by Erasmus Darwin
The Entertaining Naturalist by Mrs. Loudon
Principles of Geology by Sir Charles Lyell

*I’ve posted this here as part of my blog consolidation process.  It was originally posted on my (now defunct) blog on the Victorian era, Civil War reenacting, and 19th century Natural History.

randomly connecting things I’m reading


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A (long) while back, I started reading a book called Shaman, Sorcerers, and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion by Brian Hayden.  I never got to finish it because it was a library book, and it was when we were in transition between Virginia to Illinois and back again, but it interestingly divided religions into two basic types–the so-called “book” religions and traditional religions.  This is by no means the actual point of the book…it was just a few pages from the introductory chapter before progressing to a discussion of the different ways to study the development of religions, but I think there were a number of ideas that the author expresses that I think are useful to consider as a contemporary Pagan

Hayden asserts that religions can (at their very most general and basic level) be divided into two main types–traditional (usually indigenous) religions (experiential and usually passed on orally) and formal “book” religions (religions that have texts or scripture describing the nature of divinity, the supernatural, and morality).  He states that traditional indigenous religions have been shaped by two main factors–ecology and (what I would describe as) “the something that makes us human” which is (specifically, according to the author) “an innate emotional foundation”.  The latter allows for us to have “the ability to enter into ecstatic states via a number of techniques and to create strong, emotionally binding relationships with other people (or institutions or ideals) associated with those states”.  The former “modifies the context of this innate emotional factors in terms of economic conditions or small group political relationships”.  And he goes on to distinguish and differentiate traditional religions from “book religions” in eight main differences (to which there will, of course, be exceptions):

  1. World viewIn most book religions, sacredness/divinity is something that is separate and often distant from material existence.  In most traditional religions sacredness/divinity is imminent (though possible dormant) and can be accessed through the technology of religion (rituals, special items, etc).  And if you notice, the differences in the following seven points pretty much all stem from this one thing.
  2. Sacredness of food and dance–I would describe this one more as “sacredness of the physical”, though the author is specifically talking about how food and drink, and music and dance are used as a link between man and gods/spirits in traditional religions, vs book religions that considered these actions and experiences to be profane indulgences.
  3. Ecstatic experiences–As the author puts it, “In most traditional religions, entering into ecstatic states is the religious experience.  It is a direct connection with the sacred forces of the universe and is therefore promoted as desirable.”  In book religions, not so much; if they aren’t outright shunned, they are kept as something separate and/or limited.
  4. Participation–Traditional religions are generally speaking more inclusive and allow for the participation of most aspects of the religion for a “broad segment of the community” (through altered states of consciousness).  In book religions, accessing the divine is generally a more spectator sport (if it happens at all) during rituals (usually performed entirely by clergy on behalf of followers).
  5. Life Attitude–In book religions, existence is generally seen as bad/evil/suffering/etc that can only be escaped (generally not until the afterlife), vs traditional religions which generally tend towards celebratory ritual that fosters connections between individuals and their environment (or aspect of the environment).
  6. Goals and morality–Traditional religions tend not to be moral systems while book religions tend to proclaim a moral system geared towards ensuring a lack of sin or state of purity.
  7. Central Mysteries–According to the author, central mysteries in book religions generally “revolve around the actions of deities” and/or “moral aspects of the universe”vs. the central tendency of traditional religions’ central mysteries to be centered around life and living: “where it comes from, where it goes, what affects it, and how it is transformed and continuous from year to year and generation to generation”
  8. Exclusivity–“Because book religions are ethical systems, usually based on the teachings of key historical figures such as Mohammed, Christ, or Buddha, book religions tend to consider other belief systems as not fully ethical and valid. Generally they are intolerant of other belief systems even when they do not actively campaign to eliminate them.  Therefore, book religions transcend ethnic groups and tend to become imperialistic.  In contrast, traditional religions easily accept other religions as being equally valid and are tolerance of beliefs in other deities.”

I’m not mentioning these differences to criticize the so-called book religions, but to point out that (while there is still variability) some of the commonalities between many contemporary Pagan traditions, which tend to resemble traditional religions more than they resemble the “book religions” (I’m not terribly fond of this term, but it works I suppose). While arguing over defining Paganism is a popular (though thankfully seasonal and seemingly out of season at the moment) spectator sport in the Pagan blogosphere, the predominant theme between most contemporary Pagan religions (as far as I can tell) echo these above-listed differences from book religions between.  When I’ve taken a wide-angled, multi-faith look at Pagan traditions, for the most part, these commonalities of traditional religions (and of contemporary Paganisms) can be summed up or distilled as 1) Practice is Experiential, 2) Divinity is Plural, and 3) the Material is Sacred (for full disclosure, I staunchly favor a polythetic definition of Paganism).  Which brings me to where our differences (at their most basic level can be found…

And I think the best summation of these differences, if one uses that same wide-angled, multi-faith look, can be found in the idea of there being multiple “centers” of Paganism (AFAK, John Halstead at The Allergic Pagan is one of the first people to write about this idea in this way, followed up by John Beckett at Under the Ancient Oaks, both of which are Patheos blogs). The first, Nature/Earth Centered Paganism, which is “concerned primarily with ecology, those more local forms of Paganism that I would call “backyard Paganism” or are sometimes called “dirt worship”, and many forms of (neo-)animism which view humans as non-privileged part of an interconnected more-than-human community of beings” (per John Halstead). The second, Deity Centered Paganism, which “is mainly concerned with forming and maintaining relationships with the Gods, ancestors, and spirits” (per John Beckett).  The third, Self Centered Paganism isn’t actually self-centered, but rather centered around the development of the self and “defined by spiritual practices which aim at development of the individual, spiritually or psychologically” (per John Halstead).  The fourth, Community Centered Paganism is “about maintaining harmonious relationships” where we are “secondary to the family, and immortality is in the continuation of the family, not in the continuation of the individual” (per John Beckett).

Practically speaking, most Pagans that I have encountered seem to identify with more than just one of these centers (and religion, IMO, is about the relationships we find in those centers, whether it is between one another or ourselves and the gods or ourselves and our ancestors or our relationship with the world around us).  Some of us identify with all of them through out our path, either at different times on our journey or in different aspects of our path.  Some traditions do this as well–ADF specifically recognizes and addresses the spirits of the land, the ancestors, and deities and leaves decision of which center to focus on up to the practitioner.  In fact (the reason I felt compelled to spend time on this topic), is that my own practice takes place (in different ways) in all four centers as well (or maybe where they all intersect, if we think of them in terms of being a Venn diagram), and I think this is an important distinction when talking about how we individually and collectively connect with spirit (a topic for another day), rather than dismissing one another as being *not my Paganism*.

Get to know your neighbors–Birding Basics

Whether you are interested in birding, or just interested in getting to know your neighborhood species, a great resource is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They have one of the largest libraries of bird vocalizations in the world, and a youtube channel with tons of great footage. The following four clips are from their site, and offer the best introduction for what to look for when birding that I have run across yet on the internet.

But remember when birding (or just going on a neighborhood walk) that collecting nests, eggs, or other bird parts–even feathers, is prohibited by international treaty. Migratory birds are protected in a number of signatory countries under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (and yes, its been updated since). During the 18th and early 19th centuries a number of bird species were hunted almost to extinction entirely for the ladies hat trade, leading to the passage of this act (not to mention habitat fragmentation).  Today, nearly all birds (excepting those that are entirely introduced–primairly the European Starling, the English/House Sparrow, and the Feral/Rock Pigeon, though the pigeon may have local or state protections the other two usually do not) are protected under this Act.  To take any bird or bird part requires specific permits (such as hunting permits, falconry permits, wildlife rehabilitation–for live birds, and permits for educational use), though I doubt Fish and Wildlife are interested in the 6 or 60 year old that picks up the odd feathere here and there (this law is intended to prevent tradeing and collecting since theres no difference between a feather falling off the bird during preening and a bird that was plucked after being hunted.

11 Things to Answer (about your religion)


I think I’ll be adding a question 12 to this:

12) How do you determine what actions are right or wrong? What is right? What is wrong? Where do/should our morals and ethics come from? Is anything always right or always wrong? Where does the notion of harm come into play in determing what is right or wrong? Can a right action be harmful or a wrong action be harmless? What do we owe others or ourselves when it is percieved that we have done something wrong (particularly if we don’t see it that way)?

Originally posted on bay witch musings:

As some of you may know (my regular readers and my PF buddies!!), I’m one of the administrators/moderators/co-owners/long time members of Pagan Forum, which is a multi-faith religious forum with a mostly Pagan perspective and I’ve been Pagan of one flavor or another for 22 years now, in a variety of settings (speaking in terms of practice, belief, and just plain geography), so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to see people new to Paganism wonder wherem in a plethora of traditions and world views, that they might fit.  When most of us discover Paganism (or any religion, really) it seems that we generally pick the one that resonates with the beliefs we already *grok* as true and sort of evolve from there, rather than the other way around.

Over the years I’ve had some time to take stock of my own journey and the journey of those around me and I’ve found it…

View original 1,128 more words

Food for Friday: Oat biscuits

I first found this recipe while looking for hardtack recipes.  It was an instant hit because, you see, hardtack is…well, not very tasty. Its seriously just flour and water (perhaps a pinch of salt), baked and then ‘seasoned’ (by 1863 Union specifications, kiln-dried).

I’ve written about adaptations to this recipe on this blog before, which referenced this recipe. This post originally is from my (now defunct, because I’m moving everything over here) Civil War reenacting and Victorian Era Natural History blog, posted on 3 June 2012.

Back in the day, hardtack had the character consistency of a weevil infested hockey puck.  To make it somewhat palatable, soldiers would place their ration of hardtack in their fire buckets overnight.  The water would re-hydrate and expand the hardtack and in the morning the soldiers might break it up and turn it into “biscuits”.  Hardtack might also be ground up and used to thicken stews and soups or broken into chunks to cook in stews and soups as “dumplings”.  If soldiers needed to eat their ration of hardtack in a rush, they poured boiling hot coffee over it which killed off the weevils and re-hydrated the hardtack enough to keep all of one’s teeth in place.

Okay, so maybe loosing a tooth in it is a stretch.

Or maybe it isn’t–scurvy is caused by the lack of vitamin C, resulting symptoms that include spongy gums and loose teeth, and the diet of Civil War soldiers (on both sides) wasn’t very nutritious.  Diseases from bad diets (as well as from poor hygiene, bad water, skeeters and loose morals*) were responsible for 2/3 of the 600,000+ Civil War deaths.  The soldier’s diet trifecta consisted of hardtack (or johnny cakes for the Rebs), salted pork and coffee was only occasionally supplemented (mainly while in camp and garrison) with canned goods, rice, beans, and fresh produce or meats (less so for Confederate soldiers as the war dragged on).

So, we really like this stuff instead:

A Sailor’s Diet

In one container combine the following:
2 1/2 cups old-fashioned or quick oats.
3 cups unbleached flour.
1 1/2 teaspoons salt.
1 teaspoon baking soda.

In a separate container, mix:
1 1/2 cups buttermilk.
3 tablespoons honey.
1/2 cup melted bacon drippings or shortening.

Combine the two sets of ingredients. When the dough is thoroughly mixed, roll it out on a floured board to a thickness of about a quarter inch. Cut out circles of dough with a large drinking glass dipped in flour and put them on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake for about 5 1/2 minutes at 450° F. Let the hardtack cool on a wire rack before serving with jam or jelly.


Cooking Notes:
1)we add twice the honey the recipe calls for
2)we use butter in place of the shortening

*Soldiers during the Civil War, on both side, frequently frequented prostitutes.  Gonorrhea and syphilis were pretty common, and eventually lethal, due to lack of effective treatment. In fact, there is even an entire (quite interesting) book on the subject (though not entirely without controversy), called The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War by Thomas P. Lowry, M.D.


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