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  • by Ann Bennett

The Natural World of Donald Stokes

"A sad thing to me is that people view science as being a closed subject. They say, 'Someone must know the answer to that by now.' Adults and children alike feel that everything is well known, that there's no mystery left, and that simply isn't the case," asserted Donald Stokes. "It is just as much a wilderness as it ever has been. Just a different kind of wilderness."

Stokes, one of New England's leading naturalists, was at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Pinkham Notch Camp this week to lead an intensive six-day workshop, and, he hopes, to help its participants experience a little of that mystery.

Stokes, who resides in Wellesley, Massachusetts, is best known for his authoritative field guides, which include A Guide to Nature in Winter, A Guide to the Behavior of Common Birds, and The Natural History of Wild Shrubs and Vines (available later in 1980). He is currently at work on his fourth, a volume on the behavior of common insects. Stokes estimates that his writing occupies about three quarters of his time, and the rest is spent teaching seminars and workshops like that at Pinkham, which was entitled, "Examining Nature in Winter."

A man of diverse background himself, Stokes' approach to learning is refreshingly unconventional. A graduate of Philadelphia's Swarthmore College with a degree in comparative religions, Stokes later studied classical music and taught musical theory before he decided upon his career as a naturalist. "I was spending hours a day outside recording my observations in a journal, and the more I saw, the more I wanted to know," he recalled. "I became so excited about learning that I decided to devote myself to becoming a naturalist."

Ultimately, Stokes hopes that his students' curiosities will evolve in the same manner, and it is the key aim of the workshop. "I'm really not here to present a catalog of information as much as I hope to get my students connected with the natural world," he explained. "And hopefully that will be ongoing after they leave. I try to teach a method of learning, of seeing, something that each person can make their own. If all the teaching centers around me, it stops when I stop. But the learning that comes from them and the world can continue."

For this reason, the students, who range from their mid-20s to early 50s, spend many hours of the workshop out in the woods by themselves simply observing and recording their impressions in a journal. The day begins shortly after an early breakfast, when Stokes gives a brief talk on how to use a journal, and then sends the group off for the morning. "There are ways to be more receptive to the experience," he said, "and I try to give them a few hints. First, you can't start out with a project in mind, and you have to be patient, since all of us carry a lot of baggage around with us. To tune in, you simply have to start using your five senses. I also urge them not to clutch about the writing and drawing, which many do at first. It's simply a form of communication, and drawing a form of seeing."

"The workshop incorporates large doses of personal observation," Stokes continued, "and the journal is the heart of it. It's a way of acquiring a backlog of experience with nature, of amassing and analyzing detail, and people should have more experience than book learning. Then when you go to books, all the pieces fall together."

In the late morning, the participants gather again and discuss their experiences; what they saw and how they recorded it, whether it was a bird's nest, animal tracks or winter weeds. "This is a very important time," Stokes emphasized, "since learning and sharing the experience of learning are the flip side of the same coin. They are synonymous." The group then eats lunch and spends the afternoon in a variety of activities, from learning games devised by Stokes, to taking a walk together. The evening is usually devoted to a more formal discussion period, and often Stokes gives a lecture on some aspect of natural history, be it animal behavior or the ecology of snow.

Not all of his students adjust immediately to the workshop format. "There's no question that some people arrive with strong preconceptions about what a learning experience should be," he said, "and I'll admit that teachers often have more preconceptions than others, and feel more pressures in general. But the nice thing about a week-long workshop is its leisureliness. It takes time for people to relax and adjust, and I try to create an atmosphere where they don't have to have the answers. If you break out of the conventional student-teacher experience, it takes a lot of pressure off. All kinds of fears close our ability to learn."

Stokes once taught adolescents, but now concentrates on adults, and admits that he prefers it that way. "I saw a great deal of creativity going into children, but very little into helping adults learn," he noted. "and I really enjoy the challenge of restarting an individual's curiosity. Many of us have lost it. Rediscovering that is one of the most exciting parts of it, and can be relayed directly to science," Stokes continued. "Getting back to the very simple things and questions, and to evolution. Why is there diversity? Why are there so many trees, short and tall? Why hasn't one learned to be the best?"

It is apparent in conversation that Stokes's approach to the natural world borders on a religious view, and he feels strongly that at the heart of this interdisciplinary approach lies the definition of a naturalist. "Largely, through my ongoing work, I'm trying to figure out what my relationship is with the world, and with its living things. How do I fit in?" he asked, noting that such questions definitely tie into his study of religions in college. "How can I leave this planet without knowing who the other living beings are, and what they are really like. Again," he added, "this process of discovery is all part of being a naturalist. Finding out why things have evolved in the manner they have."

A naturalist, Stokes opines, is a peculiar sort of scientist; a generalist rather than a specialist. "you try to look at as many things as you can absorb," he remarked. "Be a jack of all trades, and a master of one - being a jack of all trades. There's definitely something to master there. It's not a master of none. Again, the interdisciplinary approach."

Above all, however, Stokes feels the world of a naturalist is open to all who are curious enough to explore it. "The naturalist is just a lay scientist, and it's a way that anyone can participate in science," he explained. "It's amazing the things that are not known about the natural world. The very simple things. For example, the amount known about the common Fisher cat could be written in two paragraphs. Many mammals are complete mysteries to the scientific community and that's true of all things. It's an open book, available to anyone. What it takes is observation and patience. But you can't be a naturalist and live your life inside."

Comprehending the complexity of the natural world also takes a certain mental preparedness, Donald Stokes asserts. "Einstein once said that chance favors the prepared mind, and I think preparedness is questions," he stated. "Much of the good learning about nature is taking advantage of chance--but you have to be out there with a clear and questioning mind. Many times you come into a situation with preconceptions, and nature surprises you. Being tripped up like that opens your mind, and oftentimes active learning starts at that moment."

If Stokes could finger one goal he has for a workshop like "Examining Nature in Winter," it is that his students come away with that certain mental conditioning that will enable them to continue exploring the workings of nature on their own. "I do want them to learn some natural history -- names, tracks and that sort of thing. But generally it's not that important for the workshop, though often the people who come feel much more strongly about it than I do," he said. "I don't teach just facts, though my books are very detailed. But if that's what people want, they can open the book and read them. I try to avoid being a walking encyclopedia," Stokes continued. "I know, and through the week they begin to realize, that their journal and personal experiences are the most important part of the workshop. Their curiosity has been whetted. Curiosity is energy, and energy begets energy, After this week, I'll be gone, as will the other participants. Above all, I want them to realize that you don't need anything but yourself and nature to learn."

After the conclusion of this week's workshop, Stokes will return to Wellesley to work on his fourth field guide, which, he said, will be his last for a while. "I've learned how to write books like this, I love detail, knowing all these fact, and putting them together into larger patterns," he reflected. "But it's also time to move on in order to keep growing." Stokes indicated that his next effort will be a book of essays exploring the natural world. In the meantime, he'll continue teaching workshops like the current session at Pinkham. "I"m a translator of science and my books are tools for people to use," he said. "But I'm also an educator. If there's one thing I work toward, it's affecting my students' way of seeing. All teaching is aimed at that in a way; changing one's sense of the world. It's the ability to reach and affect others, and it's one of the life's real highs."

** Donald Stokes is still writing, now with his wife, Lillian -- check out his newest book, The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America. .

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