February 2021
A Natural Historian Steps Out
The NHI’s Tom Fleischner turns the page

An ‘edge effect’ is what happens where different habitats meet, offering more diverse resources and changing the populations, interactions and structures of plant and animal communities.

On a continental scale, Arizona’s central highlands encompass the convergence of three large, distinct ecosystems: the Sonoran Desert and Mexico’s Sierra Madre to the south, the Rocky Mountains to the north, and the grasslands of the Great Plains to the east.

Elements of all three come together in what Dr. Tom Fleischner identifies as the Mogollan Highlands. He and Prescott’s Natural History Institute he have been “at the center of articulating the ecological importance of this area,” which features an “incredible mosaic of habitats” in what amounts to a huge transition zone making up “one of the most biologically rich areas on the continent.”

Even after 32 years of studying, exploring and teaching here, says Fleischner, “the more closely I look at it, the more fascinated I am with this area.”

“Connection with nature is a fundamental component of human health.”

His deep, personal sense of connection with the natural world led him over the years to expand his field beyond the modern study of environmental science to the traditional discipline known as natural history. With a group of like-minded colleagues at the University of Washington, in 2011 he won a National Science Foundation grant to fund a series of academic meetings on rejuvenating this field of study. Out of that came a working group, the Natural History Network, which Fleischner led from his seat at Prescott College, where in 2012 he established The Natural History Institute, which spun off from the college in 2017.

After four years as executive director, Fleischner is now stepping down, making room for the next generation of leadership and exploration.

Falling in love with the world 

In academia since the 1950s there has been “a misconception that natural history is outdated, unrelated to the rest of science,” says Fleischner, too often evoking an inanimate version of nature rather than a living, breathing world, but “it’s a fundamental component of human wellbeing.”

Fleischner defines natural history as “a practice of intentional, focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy. ”More fundamentally it is “the practice of paying careful attention,” understanding that “we are what we pay attention to.”

“We live in an anomalous time. Never before have people practiced natural history so little.” As a method for understanding the world, it’s a basic survival strategy that predates language itself. Up to World War II it was a standard component in teacher training. But with the postwar focus on advancing technology and competition for research funding, interest in this ancient discipline diminished.

Drawn from Naturalis Historia, published by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder over 2,000 years ago and considered the world’s oldest known encyclopedia, the phrase ‘natural history’ has shifted over time, taking on an antique tinge, a sense of focus on the past. But the Latin ‘historia’ is more precisely about ‘story,’ and Fleischner emphasizes this more active and current perspective in his approach to the discipline.

With today’s broadening awareness of the value of a more integrative approach to understanding the immense, interconnected systems we live within, Fleischner is finding “receptivity inside and outside academia” for a return to the natural-history tradition as “fostering a sense of authentic hope” for reconnection with the natural world. For Fleischner, on a deeper level, “natural history is the practice of falling in love with the world.”

A vibrant community

Over nearly a decade of growth and development the NHI has become a place that “people love working for” in a collective effort of which Fleischner is most proud. He describes it as a “heart-home for all sorts of people to connect with one another,” a nexus for camaraderie and mutual support through both learning and expression among a broad, multifaceted community of world-lovers.

The Institute’s arts and humanities mission brings the story back to natural history, through exhibits by local artists, public readings by authors and poets, including artists in field work, and other initiatives to illustrate the deep connections of nature and culture. Its website is a portal to art, events, presentations and activities to spread appreciation for and invite involvement in natural history. Check it out at naturalhistoryinstitute.org.

Fleischner is an artist in his own right, and his insightful and absorbing writing is highlighted on his personal site, tfleischner. net. A national search is underway for both his replacement and a new development director as the work goes on. His next steps will include continuing to practice natural history in writing, travel and exploration, but, he smiles, “I’ve been so busy I haven’t thought much about it.”

Steven Ayres is Editor of 5enses.

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