Almanac For Moderns: Good Poetry, Good Science
As long as one knows little of Nature save that which impinges upon one sensually, one is subject to the moods it throws, like a shadow, across the spirit. But as soon as one begins to search for knowledge in the thing that dims the light, the power of mood fades. A biologist confined to the prison isle of Ste. Marguerite would soon set up some equipment or technique for studying the swallows–the pulsation of their crowding population, the control of their behavior, their effect upon the rest of the animal life of the island, or something else from which significant conclusions could be drawn.
I accept the challenge of the artists that cool investigation may often be the death of poetry. As knowledge lessens the terror of plague, so it may take some of the soulfulness out of nature. There is a sort of Wordsworthian sermonizing that shrinks before a biological frame of mind, just as the childish abhorrence of insects vanishes with familiarity. But not all poetry is really good poetry (however good it may sound). Good poetry is swift-winged, essential and truthful description–and so is good science.
The merest beginning upon the little specializing in the swallows led me to the sandbank, to the burrowing bees and their beetle guests, and has sent my thoughts straying upon the biology of the social habit, to which life in a cliff seems to give rise. After all, our own ancestors were cliff dwellers. From there I have strayed in my musings to the nature of parisitism, as it is exhibited by the Hornia beetles, as well as, I learn, several other members of the same family. One may object that all this is reprehensibly diffuse. I should concentrate upon swallows, and not leave them for blister beetles until I know all about the birds.
But the purpose of studying Nature at all, aside from the distraction which it affords, (and it is in the nature of distraction not to dwell on anything to the point of tedium) is that the study should illuminate the relation of living things to each other, to us, to the environment. One thing should lead to something quite other. Complexity is the keynote of biology–a fact which those who have been trained first in the exact or physical sciences can never seem to grasp. The goal of biological thought is ramification, many-viewpointedness, and a man who drops his swallows uncompleted because he has suddenly grown excited over beetles is simply a man who is growing.
More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.