Though this might sound like the start of a bad joke (or a good one, depending how deep you are in the trenches of fatherhood), I recently bumped upon a living amalgamation of all three (well to be fair, he died about a hundred years ago.) This discovery was made possible through the uncanny literary instinct of my wife, who, on a whim, purloined his sole literary endeavor, The Canadian Naturalist, at the local V.V. Boutique for the lowly price of 3.99.
P.H. Gosse is likely someone you’ve never heard of.
Born on April 6, 1810 in Dorset England, he was classically trained and, during this season, also developed a keen passion for natural history that never left him. He loved to read, and his diverse tastes ranged from the theological works of the Wesley brothers, to George Adams’ Essays on the Microscope. Upon graduating, a series of events eventually led him to Newfoundland, where he would spend several years tallying up piles of bludgeoned seals (it was the mid-18th century and the seal trade was in full swing.)
In November of 1832 however, he “began systematically to collect insects and to enter scientific observations in journals.” The following summer he began to compile his discoveries, with illustrations, in a volume which, “despite an unusually high level of scientific accuracy”, tragically remains unpublished. He was what some people might call an eccentric, or, as other, less-socially aware people might (and did) call, “that crazy englishman who goes about collecting bugs.”
His legacy? Well, let’s just say you won’t find his hand-print on any square in Grauman’s Chinese Theater. As a spiritual mover and shaker, the diagnosis was bleak – “Gosse made no impact on the religious life of either Newfoundland or Canada.” At one point he moved to Canada (remember this was pre-confederation) to try his hand at farming, which also ended in abysmal failure.
His sole success, if one may call it that, were “his original works on invertebrates, marine zoology, rotifera, and lepidoptera” – and these, mostly in Newfoundland. In other words, he spend much of his life loitering around festering swamps, collecting and studying tiny little aquatic creatures no one else cared about.
While you might find the subject of evangelical naturalists boring, I happen to always be on the lookout for such anomalies and, let me tell you, they’re rare. In fact, I’ve never before read a work which combines such unabashed delight in the natural world with such un-contrived gratefulness to God. Here’s a sample of what I mean:
“To. . .a mind whose peace is made with God, this life is not without many unalloyed pleasures. . .Among these, not the least is the power of seeing God in His works. . .even in the minutest and humblest objects of creation. This taste I have long cultivated in myself, and I would wish to awaken it in you, that you may still have sources of pleasure, wide and deep, after the rapture of youth is felt only in memory.”
And here are his concluding remarks concerning dragonfly larva:
“[Such a creature] surely gives us exalted ideas about. . .the love of God, to observe such astonishing skill of contrivance displayed for the comfort of. . .a creature unknown to ninety-nine out of a hundred of mankind, yet not beneath his care. . .”
Now this is not necessarily a book you would read for hard-facts and lab-generated data – again, it was written in the 1840’s; Gosse himself states in the preface that “he has been compelled to draw water from Nature’s own well, and his knowledge of her is almost entirely confined to her appearance in the forest in the field.”
This is a book you read however, to help you know how to rightly enjoy nature. Here again is Gosse with a brilliant little meditation on a song-sparrow:
“No one can look upon a bird pouring out its soul in harmony, without feeling that it is an outburst of gladness and joy. Some indeed would make the bird a mere machine, and its song the effect of an instinctive impulse, uttered with no more emotion than the ticking of a clock – but if this be philosophy, indeed, “ – tis folly to be wise.” “
All that to say, if you want to learn how to enjoy nature the way it was intended to be enjoyed – that is, reverently, and completely – then Gosse is your man. He is so because he understands that the true wonder of a rotifer lies not in some inherent momentum residing in the creature. As a pure machine, we only ever have liberty to celebrate the rotifer. True wonder, however, lies somewhere in the knowledge that a Being of omnipotent eternality one day decided to craft an ecosystem which would rest so heavily on such a seemingly insignificant lil’ whirlygig.
The other reason I love this book, is because of how Gosse, without trying, establishes the inherent dignity of vocational pursuit. Throughout the book, I never received the impression that the author wrote his, Canadian Naturalist, in order to have an “in” to evangelize his naturalist friends. For Gosse, and I would argue, for us, the study of such things can be valued, even praised, as an endeavor unto themselves and, ultimately, unto God. Must only what we do on Sunday morning be presented as an acceptable sacrifice of praise? Just a few apples? Or may our entire lives – work, family, school – be offered as a banquet of gratitude.
In 1 Peter 3:15, we’re told to be prepared to give a reason for the hope that we have. The assumption here, by the way, is that Christians will actually live in such a way that people will actually be able to perceive the anomaly of hope in us. As I read, The Canadian Naturalist (and I hope you will too), I could almost see Gosse bent over some stream with a dish, collecting a sample to take home and observe. At home, there he is, arms waving wildly, eyes aflame, as he struggles to relate to friends and family, the wonder around us, the glory above us. . .
. . .and here, in what many might see as a life of failure, we find a man running over with hope.