Heroes in Nature

A Species of Eternity

by Joseph Kastner
Knopf, 350 pp., $15.00

Taxonomy, the science of classifying and ordering organisms, has an undeserved reputation as a harmless, and mindless, activity of listing, cataloguing, and describing—consider the common idea of a birdwatcher, up at 5:30 in the morning with his binoculars, short pants, and “life list” of every bird he has seen. Even among fellow scientists, taxonomy is often treated as “stamp collecting,” while its practitioners are viewed much as the Biblical hyraxes—“a feeble folk that dwelleth among the rocks.”

It was not always so. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, taxonomy was in the forefront of the sciences. The greatest biologists of Europe were professional taxonomists—Linnaeus, Cuvier, Lamarck. Darwin’s major activity during the twenty years separating his Malthusian insights from the publication of his evolutionary theory was a three-volume work on the taxonomy of barnacles. Thomas Jefferson took time out from the affairs of state to publish one of the great taxonomic errors in the history of paleontology—he described a giant sloth claw as a lion three times the size of Africa’s version. These heady days were marked by discovery as naturalists collected the fauna and flora of previously uncharted regions. They were also marked by the emergence of intellectual structure as coherent classifications seemed to mirror the order of God’s thought.

A Species of Eternity is an account of America’s part in this great epoch of natural history. We often forget that 150 years ago much of our continent was as unknown and potentially hazardous as any place on earth. During the eighteenth century, when most naturalists denied the possibility of extinction, explorers expected to find mammoths and other formidable fossil creatures alive in the American West.

Kastner’s theme is discovery and the American frontier. His book is a series of short biographies, chronologically arranged, of the dozen or so passionate, single-minded iconoclasts who fought the hostility of wilderness, and often of urban literary people, to disclose the rich fauna and flora of America. For the most part, they worked alone, with small support from patrons or government. The Lewis and Clark expedition is the only official trip treated here—and its primary purpose was not natural history. We may now look upon tales of frontier toughness and perseverance as the necessary mythology of a nation too young to have real legends. But there is often a residue of truth in such tales, and Kastner’s dozen are among the genuine pioneers.

In his stories about them they appear as eccentric, undaunted. Alexander Wilson walked from New England to Charleston peddling subscriptions to his American Ornithology. Thomas Nuttall seems dottily heroic—oblivious to danger, a Parsifal under a lucky star, vanquishing every Klingsor in the woods, he discovered some of the rarest, most beautiful, and most useful of American plants. We find J.J. Audubon lying and drinking his way across Europe but selling his beautiful pictures of birds to lords and kings. Charles Willson Peale, the great promoter of natural history, was snubbed as an old man and excluded from the ceremonies…

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