Hanson unfolds wonder of small-scale nature

Jimmy Hall jhall@ptleader.com
Posted 10/2/18

Pointing to a picture of early turn-of-the-century naturalist John Burroughs, Thor Hanson, this year’s Huntingford Humanities Lecture speaker, said the renowned scientist was one of the …

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Hanson unfolds wonder of small-scale nature

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Pointing to a picture of early turn-of-the-century naturalist John Burroughs, Thor Hanson, this year’s Huntingford Humanities Lecture speaker, said the renowned scientist was one of the best-selling authors in America 100 years ago, selling 2 million copies of his books to a much smaller population. 

With books titles such as “Leaf and Tendril,” “Bird and Bough,” and “Squirrels and other Fur-bearers,” this was quite the feat for Burroughs, but Hanson put in context that science was more popular than it is today, illustrating that by pointing out that Burroughs rubbed shoulders with Henry Ford, who sent him a car every year, while he took vacations with Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone.

“What has changed?” Hanson rhetorically asked his attentive audience during the yearly lecture at Chimacum High School on Sept. 27. To help answer that question, Hanson mentioned how the population has moved to urban areas of the country. This was reflected in the Oxford Junior Dictionary, which had replaced words such as acorn, buttercup, dandelion, minnow, tulip and walnut with those that better reflect modern society, such as blog, broadband, database and bulletpoint.

One word was added for its relationship with the natural world, which was “endangered,” adding that daily interactions with nature have dwindled. Hanson said he often advises those who trek out to the wilderness to bring a child, instead of a field guide, as they “see all the things you don’t see” and “look with eyes that have yet to develop filters that we use.” 

“My goal and my hope in my career is not just to learn about the natural world, but to help people connect with it,” Hanson said. Going into the bulk of his presentation focused on the objects that “transcend the boundary of the human world and the natural world.” Among these wonders were ones that stood as “touchstones,” as Hanson called them, that teach about evolution and biology. 

Feathers were the first of these touchstones he addressed, starting at the University of Kansas where the standard theory of feathers, which supposed feathers evolved from dinosaur scales, was first contested. In the early 1990s, professor Richard Prum assigned his class to come up with alternative theories about how feathers grow. What came out was the conclusion that feathers stemmed from another evolutionary branch as they were more tubular like a finger. 

Seeds were another topic Hanson shed light on, teaching the audience that one of the basic characteristic of seeds was endurance, since they can lay dormant for years yet still sprout and grow thanks to a substance called “bioglass.” Illustrating this point, Hanson told about an ancient fortress on the Dead Sea, called Masada, where a siege happened between Jewish rebellions and the Romans. Later on during an excavation, seeds were found that had historical significance. These seeds would be planted and preserved, later called “Methuselah,” after the Biblical figure who lived nearly a century. 

Bees were the last small part of nature Hanson talked about, starting with his experience working on a mountain gorilla project. When studying the apes, a particular species of jet black bees, “no bigger than a pencil point,” Hansons said, drew the scientist crew’s attention. Using these, Hanson and his crew were able to track them back to their hive located in a tree trunk. 

Giving a historical context about the importance of bees, Hanson told the audience the Jamestown colonizers brought honeybees from Europe in order to pollinate their crops. He also talked about the difference between wasps, which are often mistaken as bees, saying bees are just “hippie wasps,” as they are “long-haired, flower-loving vegetarians,” and they were second to the wasp as they evolved from them. 

Bees also played a part in the spreading of flowers in early Earth history. Hanson described the Cretaceous Period landscapes that included more ferns were abundant rather than flowers, Charles Darwin calling the topography an “abominable mystery.” Soon afterward, a theory was developed from a naturalist who supposed flower bees evolved rapidly at that time, which eventually caught on in the scientific community. A wide variety of species of bees, numbering over 20,000 around the world, can be found around the world with more to be discovered, Hanson explained, showing the most interesting of the bunch in his slideshow.

Closing his comments, Hanson said there was much more to be uncovered in the natural, just as bees and bird species, as well as seeds and plants that continued to be threatened by habitat loss and climate change. 

“It makes it all the more crucial for us to revitalize our connections to nature,” Hanson said. “Our resolve gains strength to wonder. We are stronger when we meet these challenges from the standpoint not of despair, but of fascination.” 

Before Hanson took the audience, Jefferson County Library Tamara Meredith welcomed the audience at the 17th annual Huntingford Humanities Lecture, telling them about the history of the event. As a way to honor the memory of Sarah Louise “Sally” Huntingford, who was a longtime supporter of the library system and understood the importance of learning opportunities to rural, isolated areas, the lecture series was created. Huntingford believed that a high-quality library service was a key component to make those opportunities and resources available to everyone in the community regardless of income, age, social status or any other factor.” 

Following her death in 2001, the library board agreed to fund an annual lecture in her memory, aimed at bringing in authors who contributed to the humanities. Meredith also pointed out that many Huntingford family members were in attendance, asking the audience for a round of applause to recognize them.

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