In our high-school yearbook, I wrote as my life’s ambition: To become a naturalist. I never really comprehended then how to become a naturalist like Jose Rizal or John Muir; but I just realized I was one, years before I even stepped into high school!
I had grown up in the rustic and relaxing atmosphere of Dumaguete City, the city proverbially known for its gentle people and surroundings. Living there, I never heard of such a claim. You see, growing up in a family with eight children (divided equally into two sets of both genders, and being the youngest boy in between two girls and with another at the lowest end) was hardly an arena for gentle upbringing. I was not always gentle to my younger sisters (or agreeable to my older brothers); and my mother was not either when I harassed them. She must have broken two or three wooden hangers on my butt.
Ironically, being the youngest boy gave me much time to be alone for play and for introspection. I played most of the time with birds, grasshoppers and chickens while my sisters either helped mother with chores or played with their dolls and my older brothers were out to school or with their friends. Thus, I turned out to be the most dark-skinned of all for always playing under the mid-day Sun.
A boy had to do what he could with his time; and the vast fields of the provincial plant nursery in Dumaguete gave me that chance to explore Nature: there were exotic fruit trees (berba, hebe, mabolo, balimbing, lanzones — in a city and in Negros, they were indeed rare — and the more common macopa, sampaloc, mandarin, chico and poncan). There was a banana grove, a corn field, a citrus patch and many vegetable plots all around. We also had our own gardens, poultry, pigeon coop, grapevine, kaimito (star-apple) trees around our bamboo-and-nipa house and lines of coconut trees along the back perimeter fence of the compound. Our father kept us busy around the farm like we were also his 4-H members outside of his regular job as a government agriculturist.
I had never seen a forest, except the one I saw every day on the slopes of the blue mountain range of Valencia town toward the west, which separated Negros Oriental from Negros Occidental. I could remember painting often a landscape with one big tree among a few that remained on the peak of that range, silhouetted by the blue sky, crowned with big clouds and framed below by the dark-green tropical forest and coconut farms. It took almost fifty years before I finally set foot on that mountain, during a sentimental visit together with my four sisters and their children.
Less than a kilometer to the East was the strait that separated the Negros and Cebu islands. It was another ecological zone that sparked my young mind to Nature’s mysterious powers: a beach teeming with various strange creatures, such as starfishes, sea urchins and crabs, while providing plenty of fun-filled time for swimming, hunting for shells and catching fish.
Living in the burgeoning city of Manila when I turned 13 caused me to almost forget all those treasured moments I had spent in my childhood. Another 11 years and I would finish what my parents wanted for me to bring to the family and to society: a college degree in engineering. Biology (next to art and music) had become my least personal choice.
It took another four decades or so and many detours before I could finally decide to go back to what I missed doing in my childhood: to be with Nature and to somehow become a naturalist. But what does it mean to be one?
Well, for one thing, I was a budding naturalist when I lived in that plant nursery in Dumaguete. I had Nature as my toy, my playmate, my laboratory, my school, my teacher, my friend and my home. I would sleep on a kaimito tree with my brothers after feasting on its fruits and would lay on the grass to watch the clouds paint figures for me and my sisters. I would observe how grasshoppers moved their mandibles when they ate grass and “teach” maya younglings we stole from their mother how to spread their wings and to flutter by throwing them in the air and catching them as they fell. (Hardly a “natural” way to treat a bird or teach it how to fly, I must admit.) I ran with my dogs as they chased a quail from among the bushes and climbed the tall sampaloc tree to collect its sweet, tangy fruits.
To be a naturalist or what we might call a Nature scientist is, for me, not simply to study Nature or to learn from our habitat but to gain (harvest its bounty) from it and enjoy it (savor its offering to other living beings) as much as you can. Does the corn bear fruit only to propagate itself or to feed others also? Does the lanzones bear lusciously sweet fruits to satisfy the appetite of marauding bats alone? And does the dragonfly have to study the physics of flight in order to fly with its four diaphanous wings to help pollinate plants? Does the bee have to learn Math to know how much nectar it has to eat and how much to carry back to its hive in order to feed us humans? Does the coconut tree have to know engineering, manufacturing or economics to produce it immense supply of virgin oil, protein and all the materials humans need to make vinegar, alcohol, spoons, lumber, sugar, stick brooms, floor-polishing husks, lumber, wall sidings, hats, lumpiang ubod, bukayo and ginataang-whatever?
Nature, by its very nature, teaches, feeds and gives life in abundance. To be like Nature (to be a natural part of Nature) then, one must first learn to accept what it offers and to savor the life it provides and then, eventually, to pass on those benefits to others. One becomes a naturalist to make Nature understandable and replicable – as it is and as it should be. It is an unending quest which many have not truly appreciated enough.
And so, Nature, because of the modern city and modern life, has become artificial. It has been processed and transformed to suit our “natural” human needs through invented or contrived means. My friend Matthew Raymer puts it this way: We have mastered the “technique” to make life what it was not actually and naturally meant to be – that is also his critique of technology. Not that technology is wrong. We need smartphones, yes. But we should not forget what making, having and using a smartphone does to Nature and, ultimately, to a person. Does it enhance the way we treat Nature and others? Does it make us better persons or merely better and more efficient “information transmitters”?
Manufacturing not merely transforms Nature but it can also destroy it as it has proven so in many cases. Where are the clean rivers of our youth? Gone. That alone tells us we are killing or we have killed Nature in pursuit of progress, profit and pleasure. Or maybe in pursuit of multiplying ourselves and all the wrong ideas we have about life and our environment. That is, in trying to preserve and propagate the human species we have instead invented the art of war and the science of business that alternatively destroy and corrupt Nature and, as a result, unwittingly diminishing our chances to survive on this planet. Which, by the way, justifies the rush to conquer other planets where Nature is even more, well, unnatural. But they assure us that we will have the technology to allow humans to live within artificial environments by harnessing the advantages of artificial intelligence. As if we were not already living within the throes of Nature’s death through our love for material (in contrast to natural or organic) things.
Today, we are still learning how to take care of Nature or how to bring it back to how it is meant to be. In some cases, it may be too late as science has found a way to force Nature to adjust to our greedy pursuits. Hence, we have learned how to manipulate genes in order to make plants and animals produce more protein and starch to feed more people. It does not take a naturalist to do that but an un-naturalist. And in the process, we have reaped the scourge of Nature’s wrath in the form of diseases, plagues and calamities.
Sadly, in a more basic way, we do not really comprehend what Nature was meant to be. Why are there eight planets? Are they there merely to provide cosmic balance to the solar system? To serve as extra “gears” to maintain the Earth’s orbit around the Sun? Or were they meant to be part of the human home or ecology in the future (or the aborted future of sinless humanity) the way our planet was designed to be? That if we had succeeded to learn the real secrets of Nature, we could transform other planets and other galaxies the way Earth was meant to teach us in the beginning. Not the way we think it should be done – without the use of the perfect knowledge and wisdom which created Nature itself.
The naturalist does not have all the answers – only Nature does. Forcing Nature to do what it was not meant to be or do is the great issue we need to resolve before we can undo or unmake our mistakes. Nature will always find a way to bring us back to the path she has chosen for us – not without her but with her. Thinking independently of Nature leads to chaos and destruction.
Nature has kept her deepest secrets from us all. What science sees and knows is but a small portion of what Nature is all about. Because Nature itself is beyond human vision and understanding, much of it lies invisible. But one sure secret she imparts without fail is her ability to make us genuine humans – beings who once lived in a pristine Paradise and a friend and master of all Creation. When we learned to violate the laws of Nature and Creation, we started becoming unnatural. We began to live in a world of our making which we built by unmaking Nature and its natural laws.
To be a naturalist then is simply to be a student of Creation and to remain obedient to its unchanging laws and processes. Changing such laws and processes without knowing in the first place why they were created – and that they were, in fact, created for a definite purpose – releases the curses that Creation reserved for unnatural beings who desire to live outside or apart from Creation.
Yes, there is the natural and there is the artificial. However, there is also the supernatural. And the supernatural is the source of the natural. To know then the natural, one has to know the supernatural. Hence, to be a genuine naturalist, one would need to fully understand super-Nature. Only then can we be completely aware of our role in created Nature.
That which does not wish to become a natural and useful part of Creation dwells in darkness and death.