Nuttall, however, was not alone, and the work that he and his contemporaries did was as vast as the wilderness they explored. They produced a prodigious amount of scientific data about the American frontier, but Judd argues that to look only at the species they discovered and cataloged misses much of their value. They also documented the “psychic” part of it — how people reacted to the unfolding wilderness, Judd says.
“They were able to document nature as the Europeans found it. The Indians had made some changes, but they walked in these woods that had been that way for a thousand years; old growth forests before we began chopping the trees, tearing up the soil and digging up the minerals. They had the first, firsthand look at the expanse of America. And that’s something important,’’ says Judd.
Equally important, according to Judd, were the methods employed by the early naturalists. Often traveling on foot, they supplemented their findings with information gathered by local people they met in the villages along the way. Where earlier settlers had cataloged species based solely on their uses, the new wave of naturalists took time to notice the surroundings, where they observed different species of trees, plants and animals, and took note of their relation to one another.
When they wrote, Judd says, they followed a tradition of the travel journal used by earlier explorers and set down things in order, as they encountered them. They regularly combined scientific data with their own reactions to the setting, and often noted the smell, feel and taste of a place in their observations.
Many of these explorers had been sent to America by wealthy European collectors, and they took scrupulous notes on natural settings in which they found specimens so that they could be successfully transplanted to their patrons’ gardens.
“They made no distinctions in describing the people, the plants, the animals and their surroundings,” Judd says. “This is the foundation of modern ecology. It’s all interrelated stuff. It all fits together in some form. The role of the naturalist is to find that connection.”
This sense of connectedness was evident in the works these naturalists produced. Audubon, for example, not only posed and painted his birds in lifelike positions, he also painted those birds in their habitat, in nature, in a way that other ornithologists were not doing at the time, Judd says. He included the background to show the relationship between the individual bird and its surroundings.
Recognition of these relationships came during environmental changes along the Eastern Seaboard, home to the early colonies. In the decade after Maine became a state in 1820, with much of the New England forest cut over and the arable land depleted, settlers began to leave the region and move west seeking new, fertile lands.
As the naturalists watched the vast forests of the Midwest transform into farms and fields, they began to look at the land with a new understanding of these relationships. They not only saw nature as an interconnected whole, they recognized the innate value of the individual parts and the consequences of removing one element from the natural system.