'The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn'

Along our walks in May and June up the Tyne and the North Tyne, we will be accompanied by some of the region’s best and most informed natural historians. However, there is another reason why I have invited Matt, Keith, Tina and Steve to walk with us – and that is that they bring a passion and enthusiasm that goes beyond the literal, objective scientific recording of data and information (important though this clearly is in their work). Their observational skills are, in my experience, embodied skills – they use their knowledge of sounds, places, seasons, jizz etc. to intuit what a bird or plant might be – and they see flora and fauna in communities that live together as an organic whole – not natural history taken out of context – seen in display cases. To be honest, (and ‘though they might shrink from the idea!), I see them as artists as well as natural historians in the way they interpret their skills – and the pleasure they evidently take in sharing this knowledge with others. I was reminded of this recently when reading Richard Mabey’s book (The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn ). In the first essay (The Greenhouse and the Field) he says that ‘…when I’m occasionally called a Romantic naturalist I wonder whether it’s an accusation as much as a description: the meticulous observations of the natural scientist corrupted by my overheated imagination; objectivity compromised by my Romantic insistence on making feelings part of the equation. Well, I suppose it depends what you mean by Romanticism. I rather incline towards Sam Coleridge and John Clare’s view – that nature isn’t a machine to be dispassionately dissected, but a community of which we, the observers, are inextricably part. And that our feelings about that community are a perfectly proper subject for reflection, because they shape our relationship with it – a more troubled relationship now than it ever was for the eighteenth-century Romantics. In principle these ideals shouldn’t conflict with scientific rigour. Feelings can precede or follow the moment of exact observation without necessarily contaminating its truthfulness. But in practice marrying these two approaches is tricky work, and raises all kinds of puzzles about the terms of our experience of nature’ I will explore some of these questions later in this blog. However, it is enough, for now, perhaps, to say that I hope that on these walks we will actually be ‘marrying these two approaches’. We will observe, note, listen, smell, hear and exchange ideas and information.