As a wannabe naturalist, I am cursed, instead, by being a dilettante, a jack-of-all-trades, a master of none. Drilling down deeply into any one tiny segment of flora or fauna is probably not in my future. Example: Mushrooms fascinate me. I’d be willing to spend a half-day with an expert in the woods being shown which fungi are edible and which are fatal. That would be fun. But I won’t be devoting all my Saturdays this spring and summer to searching for mushrooms. The world is too big and too wonderful for that self-imposed limitation. I understand the value of acquiring expertise in one field of focus, but my own inclination is to gape in wonder at every aspect of the observable universe. Ultimately, I find myself interested in the whole: the fishing industry of Cape Cod, the nomads of the Sahara Desert, the rice fields in Bali, and the saints who once lived on the Inner Hebrides island of Iona. For me, never either/or. Always both/and.
A few years ago, my cousin’s daughter introduced me to an Internet website, Stumbleupon. The user creates a list of interests—from American history to architecture to gardening to jazz to photography to travel. No limits. Then, through the miracle of algorithms, Stumbleupon places random websites on your computer screen—photographs, essays, videos, tutorials, portraits, cartoons. If you like what they show you, you give a thumb up. If not, a thumb down. Then, based on what you have valued thus far, the site magically begins to display what it believes you might like.
The process is addictive.
This silly time-wasting website—you can enjoy it while watching your favorite sporting event or a reality cooking show on television—taught me something about myself. Apparently, I like it best when the natural world and human activity come together in a way that values both. Pictures of eco-sensitive architecture and landscapes kept appearing in front of me—Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Thumb up.
Stumbleupon also introduced me to the craft of building backyard bluebird boxes. Thumb up. I viewed oil paintings of old mill waterwheels and photographs of Japanese gardens. Two thumbs up.
Stumbleupon understood me! I appreciate the simplicity and practicality of Shaker furniture. What’s not to like about a British hedge maze that draws us in? Every visitor who travels to Charleston, South Carolina, wants to take home a woven sweetgrass basket. Australian cowboy hats, whether wide-brimmed and made of kangaroo hide, or Irish tweed flat caps, make perfect sense for the culture in which they are worn.
Humans interacting with nature in a pleasing way: That’s a good thing.