Monday, 30 October 2017

A Naturalist during the First World War

E Ray Lankester (shown above in an image from the Grant Museum of Zoology) wrote regular pieces on Biology and Natural History in the Daily Telegraph and these were collected into three volumes, the third of which is entitled Diversions of a Naturalist, Lankester liking the title Naturalist to describe his interests [1]. The Preface of this third collection was written in June 1915 and begins [2]:

At this time of stress and anxiety we all, however steadfast in giving our service to the great task in which our country is engaged, must, from time to time, seek intervals of release from the torrent of thoughts which is set going by the tremendous fact that we are fighting for our existence. To very many relief comes in splendid self-sacrificing action, in the joyful exercise of youthful strength and vigour for a noble cause. But even these, as well as those who are less fortunate, need intervals of diversion – brief change of thought and mental occupation – after which they may return to their great duties rested and refreshed.

I know that there are many who find a never-failing source of happiness in acquaintance with things belonging to that vast area of Nature which is beyond and apart from human misery, an area unseen and unsuspected by most of us and yet teeming with things of exquisite beauty; an area capable of yielding to man knowledge of inestimable value. Many are apt to think that the value of “Science” is to be measured mainly, if not exclusively, by the actual power which it has conferred on man – mechanical and electrical devices, explosives, life-saving control over disease. They would say of Science, as the ignoble proverb tells us of Honesty, that it is “the best policy.” But Honesty is far more than that, and so is Science. Science has revealed to man his own origin and history, and his place in this world of un-ending marvels and beauty. It has given him a new and unassailable outlook on all things both great and small. Science commends itself to us as does Honesty and as does great Art and all fine thought and deed – not as a policy yielding material profits, but because it satisfies man’s soul.

I offer these chapters to the reader as possible affording to him, as their revision has to me, a welcome escape, when health demands it, from the immense and inexorable obsession of warfare..

When Lankester wrote this Preface, the second Battle of Ypres had already begun - with the first use of poison gas - and even worse was to follow with the Battle of the Somme one year later. As Sargent's emotive painting of casualties of battle reminds us (above, upper [3]), it is doubtful that soldiers who fought in the trenches (above, lower [3]), thought too much about the wonders of the natural world. There is such a contrast between the "joyful exercise of youthful strength and vigour for a noble cause" and the dreadful reality of warfare. Lankester must have written that for patriotic reasons as, in a letter to H. G. Wells dated 29th June 1915 (just after he had written the Preface), he wrote this of his attitude to the War [1]: "[It] is too much for me. It has laid me flat. I am too old for it. I shall never recover."

People of many nations lost relatives in the First World War - sons, grandsons, brothers, husbands - and the ever-present anxiety of those at home needed relief. Lankester’s thoughts in the Preface must have been intended for this audience and many readers would appreciate that there is a wider realm than that just of humans, although human influence dominates everything. Nature can indeed be comforting.

While growing up, I had to cope with both the death of my mother (when I was 13) and father (when I was 21). Their funerals were both held at the local Baptist Church, followed by cremation, but I had already left organised religion and had no wish to attend either the church services or the delivery to the crematorium. Perhaps that was selfish, or a bad idea for me in coming to terms with the loss? It didn’t feel like that at the time as, on both occasions, I went for a walk in the Devonshire countryside before returning to join family and friends who had attended the funerals. There was something about the connection to the continuity of life that was all around me that appealed to my adolescent self and it made the immediate bereavement just a little easier to deal with.

A final point comes with Lankester’s statement that: “Science commends itself to us as does Honesty and as does great Art and all fine thought and deed – not as a policy yielding material profits, but because it satisfies man’s soul.” Too often we regard the natural world as something that we can exploit for human gain yet, with consideration and control, it is vital that we do exploit it. However, we also have a responsibility to maintain the quality of the environment and this would be easier if more of us had a sense of wonder about all that we see around us. I don’t mean that we should just receive information from polished Natural History programmes and documentaries, but have more of the “what’s that?” or “look at that” feeling that walks in nature provide – with no presenter, background music, tricks or high production values – yet an abundance of things to see, smell, hear and, occasionally, taste. And then there’s the additional pleasure of gentle physical exercise in the open air...

[1] Joe Lester (edited by Peter J. Bowler) (1995) E. Ray Lankester and the making of modern British Biology. British Society for the History of Science Monograph 9.

[2] Ray Lankester (1915) Diversions of a Naturalist. London, Methuen & Co.

[3] These illustrations are from the Imperial War Museum Collection

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