Study the Birds and the Bees
We live in an age of science, therefore of accuracy and an opposition to amateurishness. While commendable in many ways, this attitude has an unfortunate tendency to kill enthusiasm—for if success in an area is connected to the precise mastery of an unholy1) amount of detail, we may be frightened away without having our curiosity properly engaged.

Take attitudes to natural science. I was a keen amateur scientist until I was 12, when I gave up for fear that2) too much had already been catalogued and known. It seemed as if it would be 20 years before I would encounter a real mystery again. Like thousands of others, I saw my spontaneous3) interest in science and the natural world killed by a secondary education that unwittingly suggested that everything was already known and categorised.
To remember what popular science could and should be, it’s instructive to consider the case of England’s greatest amateur scientist, Gilbert White4). White published his extraordinary (but too little read) book, The Natural History of Selborne, in 1789, setting out his observations of the animals, birds and insects of his native Hampshire village: squirrels rustling5) in bushes, spiders levering6) themselves across cobwebs, slugs pulling themselves across dew-coated lawns and insects dancing above ponds.
Like many of his contemporaries, White believed that God had, on the fifth day of creation, quite literally brought into life all the animals on earth; he had put the stripes7) on the tiger and the antlers8) on the deer. The animal kingdom bore testimony to the benevolence9), greatness and, at times, the sense of humour of God. The belief may have been nonsense, but the attitude that it inspired in White was perhaps less so, for it led him to express sentiments of uninhibited10) wonder about animals which we have in subsequent ages grown shy of expressing. White had another advantage over secular11) modern people. Much about animals was still unknown. Science had not yet defined or answered all the questions—leaving those interested in animals with the freedom to follow up their own curiosity, to ask “What interests me?” rather than “What must one know?”. Reading White evokes the excitement that all subjects take on when we feel ourselves moving from the rank of pupils to that of explorers. White was struck by a host of questions. Why do cats like eating fish so much? When do the sparrows’ eggs hatch? Can bees hear anything?
Because no one knew, White was free to carry out some touchingly homespun12) investigations: “It does not appear from experiment that bees are in any way capable of being affected by sounds: for I have often tried my own with a large speaking trumpet held close to their hives, and with such an exertion13) of voice as would have hailed14) a ship at the distance of a mile, and still these insects pursued their various employments undisturbed, and without showing the least sensibility or resentment.” White was similarly curious about the key that owls sing in and found that it was B flat15). It may be a good thing for science that many facts are now known, but it’s a sadder thing for the curiosity of most mortals16).
White constantly encourages his readers to focus on the number of animals that live alongside us but that we typically ignore, seeing them only out of the corner of our eye, having no appreciation of what they are up to and want. White prompted his readers to abandon their usual perspective to consider for a time how the world might look through other eyes. One autumn, he reported: “Swallows and martins17) have forsaken us sooner this year than usual; for on September 22nd, they rendezvoused18) in a neighbour’s walnut19) tree, where it seemed probable they had taken up their lodging for the night. At the dawn of the day, which was foggy, they arose all together in infinite numbers, occasioning20) such a rushing from the strokes21) of their wings against the hazy22) air, as might be heard to a considerable distance: since then no flock has appeared, only a few stragglers.”
It would have been easy to overlook that they had ever been in Selborne. Just the odd sound and sight, invisible to the unfocused villager more concerned with news from London or with the harvest or church gossip. And yet the swallows had been in Selborne since the end of February, the martins since the early weeks of April. They had spent the spring building their nests in chimneys, in forked boughs23) of trees or beneath eaves24)—gathering mud in their bills and applying it with trembling movements of their chins. They had searched for insects for their young, swooping25) low over hedges26) and ponds (while humans were baking bread and having arguments and darning27) socks). The swallows had sung in a soft low-twittering song—feet-feet feet-a-feetit—and the martins in a slightly lower chrrp chrrp, with the occasional treep at a moment of alarm. And now they were leaving Selborne on their immense journey back to the equatorial28) regions of Africa in which they wintered. White’s discussion of the birds guided us to view the world through a different lens: no longer just the human lens, in which Selborne was a village 50 miles southwest of England’s capital city, with a baker and a lawyer and a church, but through a swallows-and-martins lens, in which it was a set of nameless eaves and trees in which to build nests and hatch29) children and one stop in a year that had perhaps begun and would end again in a quiet lagoon30) in Madagascar.
The martins and swallows were but one example of the many life-forms co-existing so unobtrusively31) alongside humans, and for which familiar objects and places had entirely different meanings. White’s book, which rooted the observation of animals in a specific human context (the village of Selborne) encourages us to shuttle between the human and animal perspective; to consider for a moment how everything might seem to a swallow, to look at Selborne through the eyes of an ant—and hence to appreciate the narrowness of our previous view of reality.
When we are feeling out of sync with our era or society, there may be relief in coming upon reminders of the diversity of life on the planet, in holding in mind that alongside the main business of our species there are also swallows that build nests and quietly set off over the English Channel for Madagascar.
It’s often remarked that learning anything at school tends to kill the subject, be it literature or biology. Less explored is the reason for this. It may have to do with curiosity’s relationship to authority. In order to remain personally engaged with a subject, we have to feel, however naively and narcissistically, that we could at some level make a contribution to it. The best teachers give their pupils a sense that they too could, after mastering the basics, become pioneers. But because this hasn’t generally been true for the teachers themselves, they often imply the contrary message and so quash32) ambition.
If a love of science and the natural world is to take firm and wide roots, we should remember the underlying lesson of Gilbert White: that ignorance and certain clumsiness are the necessary building blocks on which mature research and insights develop.
1. unholy [ʌnˈhəʊli] adj. 不合理的,荒谬的
2. for fear that:害怕,生怕,唯恐
3. spontaneous [spɒnˈteɪniəs] adj. 自发的,自然产生的
4. Gilbert White:吉尔伯特·怀特(1720~1793),英国博物学家,鸟类学家,著有《赛耳彭自然历史》(The Natural History of Selborne)一书。
5. rustle [ˈrʌs(ə)l] vi. 觅食
6. lever [ˈliːvə(r)] vt. (借助支点)用力移动
7. stripe [straɪp] n. 斑纹
8. antler [ˈæntlə(r)] n. 鹿角
9. benevolence [bəˈnev(ə)ləns] n. 仁爱心,善行
10. uninhibited [ˌʌnɪnˈhɪbɪtɪd] adj. 不受抑制的,放荡不羁的
11. secular [ˈsekjʊlə(r)] adj. 世俗的
12. homespun [ˈhəʊmˌspʌn] adj. 简朴的,简陋的
13. exertion [ɪɡˈzɜː(r)ʃ(ə)n] n. 发挥,运用
14. hail [heɪl] vt. 招呼
15. B flat:降B调。flat [flæt] n. 降半音
16. mortal [ˈmɔː(r)t(ə)l] n. 凡人,人类
17. martin [ˈmɑː(r)tɪn] n. 紫崖燕:如家燕、紫燕等几种燕子
18. rendezvous [ˈrɒndɪvuː] vi. 在指定地点集合  19. walnut [ˈwɔːlnʌt] n. 胡桃,胡桃木
20. occasion [əˈkeɪʒ(ə)n] vt. 引起
21. stroke [strəʊk] n. (鸟翼的)扑打
22. hazy [ˈheɪzi] adj. 朦胧的,烟雾弥漫的
23. bough [baʊ] n. 大树枝,主枝
24. eaves [iːvz] n. 屋檐
25. swoop [swuːp] vi. 突然下降
26. hedge [hedʒ] n. 树篱
27. darn [dɑː(r)n] vt. 织补
28. equatorial [ˌekwəˈtɔːriəl] adj. 赤道的
29. hatch [hætʃ] vt. 孵出
30. lagoon [ləˈɡuːn] n. 环礁湖,潟湖(一片浅水湖,尤指在海中由河口的沙洲或珊瑚礁围成的)
31. unobtrusively [ˌʌnəbˈtruːsɪvli] adv. 不突出地
32. quash [kwɒʃ] vt. 取消,平息