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The first naturalist I ever knew

Posted: May 20, 2014 5:20 p.m.
Updated: May 21, 2014 5:00 a.m.

By Josh Arrants

Last year, I was asked to speak at the South Carolina State Museum. When contacted, I was told they wanted me to discuss my influences and, more specifically, what it was that made me decide to do what I do. Now, this isn’t a terribly unusual question to ask a person of any profession. I have friends that are physicians, lawyers and engineers and I have to admit, I have asked them the very same question. I am sure that you have likely been asked why it is you chose your vocation, so you know just how ordinary this question can be. However, this particular request had a bit of a twist to it. The gentleman that asked me to deliver this address wanted to know if there was an especially important person that impacted my decision to become a naturalist. He challenged me to trace my career path as much as I could, if possible, to an exact person.

After giving it some thought, I knew precisely the person that would be the topic of my presentation. This person, this prominent figure, was the very first naturalist I ever knew and though I had no idea at the time, this same person helped chart the course of my professional life. The following is a portion of what I told the audience that gathered at the State Museum:

I was not a child of the outdoors. I did not spend my very young years running through the woods, nor did I come from a remarkably outdoors-oriented family. It was not until my teen years that I cared to be outside very much and, if I’m completely honest, it was my desire to play basketball that took me out-of-doors then. What I have possessed throughout my entire life however, is a nearly insatiable curiosity about science and an equally strong craving to get the answers to questions because of that curiosity. As an adult, I had simply viewed the significance of science in my life and my analytical nature as evidence of a mutation, as they are quite an aberration from the usual traits expressed in my lineage. Upon closer inspection, it wasn’t exceedingly difficult to find the source of what has become not just a career, but also a lifelong passion.

When I was 17, I decided to swing by a fast food restaurant for a quick breakfast when I saw an easily recognizable vehicle. In the parking lot was the SCETV NatureScene van, large dragonfly emblem plastered on the side. This would be no drive-thru visit! I walked in and was able to see a man I’d watched on television many times over the years. As he emptied his tray into the trashcan, I walked towards him and nervously introduced myself. He was extremely kind, he was very friendly and he took a genuine interest in the fact that I was interested in his work. He gave me sincere words of encouragement as he prepared to leave and wished me best of luck. I am, of course, talking about Rudy Mancke. While it is very true that he is without compare as a naturalist and knowing him has impacted my career, this was not the provenance of my life in natural history. In spite of my appreciation for him and this notably providential meeting when I was a teenager, he was not the first naturalist I ever knew.

As a child, there was a dear lady that had the greenest of thumbs and an admiration for every creature I ever witnessed her observing. There was no plant she could not grow, no seed she could not nurture to maturity and no critter she did not love. Mabel Arrants was my paternal grandmother and, in my eyes, she was equal parts horticulturalist, zoologist and gourmet cook. Known to all of her many grandchildren as "Ma-Ma" (pronounced like ha-ha, with both syllables receiving equal stress), Mabel was a woman of very simple means and meager resources. Though she never even came close to finishing high school, she knew plants more intimately than any other person and, though she was no academician, she had an innate knowledge of the creatures that surrounded her tiny home. Short in stature, she still stands head and shoulders above many I know today. She never had the opportunity to travel very far from her Lee County home in the 80 years she lived; but, she was with me as I stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon and the edge of Niagara Falls, as I watched the sunrise in Yosemite and set in Yellowstone, as I hiked the Northern Rockies and the Sierra-Nevadas, and she was with me as I walked the halls of the University of South Carolina and the U.S. Capitol Building. She may have passed away when I was 16, but I still carry the lessons learned from her these many years later.

The greatest of her attributes, which had the deepest impact upon me as a human being, was her conservationist spirit. She had no political power and she most assuredly did not have the financial wherewithal to affect policy pertaining to land usage or endangered species; what she did have was an abiding sense of worth and value for all things great and small. I remember a lizard that frequented her kitchen window that she nicknamed Lizzie. She took great joy in this reptile’s visits, which would have frightened the life out of the majority of other older Southern ladies. I can recall her taking me under her arm and walking me to the window, showing me Lizzie, (which I now know was a Carolina anole), telling me how beautiful Lizzie was and that Lizzie was helping her with bugs. As it turns out, anoles love to eat insects and Ma-Ma had a free exterminator in her scaled friend. Others might have tried to run the lizard off or even indiscriminately killed it. Not her. Instead, she used Lizzie as my very first lesson in natural history and in the intrinsic value of nature. Truly, she had a conservationist’s heart.

Nature brought her joys that were simple, yet profound. Ma-Ma would often step outside during the day and whistle back and forth with Northern Bobwhites. She could mimic Bobwhites with an accuracy that even Rich Little couldn’t attain. She would send out the familiar "bobwhite" call and smile in great delight when a bird would respond to her. She would do the same thing in the evening when the Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will’s-widows would begin their nightly serenades. Whistling out to them, that same smile would illuminate her face when an answer was received. With her legendary green thumb, the seeds for conservation and ornithology were being planted in my mind. Is it any wonder I work with birds and am a naturalist?

Of equal influence upon me were the old wives’ tales and superstitions that my grandmother spoke of regularly. Hardly a visit would pass that she didn’t have some strange story of luck being dictated by the presence, absence or behavior of an animal. Owls brought dark and ill fortunes, hummingbirds brought good weather, cardinals brought good luck, and frogs were able to plead for rain until it finally came. As a youngster, a steady diet of these tales both tantalized and vexed me. Little did I know these hard to believe stories were nurturing my future studies in Native American iconography and cosmology; all while sopping syrup at Ma-Ma’s table. That need to find answers and explanations to questions my inquisitive nature raises would lead me into the field of cultural ecology to find the real, scientific, natural reasons behind nonsensical narratives told by my beloved grandmother.

Superstitions are nothing more than an attempt to explain natural phenomena by prescribing supernatural origins. Make no mistake; Mabel Arrants was a superstitious woman. Much of this, unfortunately, was caused by her limited exposure to science and higher education. When it comes to superstition, the deeper the perceived relationship between nature and some supernatural cause, the more elaborate the story will be tying the two together. As mentioned in a previous article, Ma-Ma believed Eastern Screech Owls brought certain death; but not all of her superstitions were so funereal. To stop an annoying Whip-poor-will that may be keeping you awake all night, simply turn a shoe upside down under your bed and that bird will hush up. At least that’s what Ma-Ma believed. I can assure you that bird could care less what you do with your footwear under your bed.

Most of us have terrific memories of grandparents and I’m aware time has accentuated the positive images I carry of her. There is however, no overstating the significance of this lady. Memory is a funny thing. I bet I couldn’t give you the names of three people I attended high school with, but I can recall, in the greatest of detail, precise moments with Ma-Ma.

Time wipes away the unimportant details, but it leaves us jewels. Jewels like my cousin Alan pulling into Ma-Ma’s front yard on his Honda motorcycle as she implores him to be careful. Jewels like the smell of peanut butter cake drifting from that miniscule kitchen in her small home. Jewels like a young boy eating chocolate pie and sitting in amazement as he listens to the words of the first naturalist he ever knew.

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