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Naturalist Notes

In this equinoctial period, from the Fall Equinox to the Winter Solstice, nature has been very busy for those who observe closely. Let's start with the Harvest Moon, which is the moon that is closest to the Equinox. Northern farmers named this moon for the extra light it provided, allowing them to work later and to bring in their harvest before winter as it hung huge and golden on the horizon.[1] On December 3, it was full and very near perigee, which is when the moon is at its closest point to the Earth. At the same time, we have just enjoyed a period where Mars and Mercury appeared very close to the moon in the southwest sky. Just a pair of binoculars can bring out the valleys of the moon and the redness of Mars while a telescope brings all three celestial bodies to life.

In the Gulf of Maine, we saw some epic movement of the ocean dubbed "KingTides." They are created by the sun and moon lining up together and facing the Earth. Until Isaac Newton showed that the gravitational forces of the moon were varied over the Earth's surface, scientists did not believe that the moon affected the Earth's tides. The word tide comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "tyd," which means seasons.[2]

On the land, plants and animals have been busy as well. Many birds who migrate stayed later than usual due to the warm temperatures and abundant food. As shorter days and falling temperatures take over, trees begin to withdraw chlorophyll from their leaves, unmasking the red and yellow pigments that have been hidden by the green color of working leaves. Deciduous trees drop their leaves, which helps to prevent them from freezing in the winter.

On the forest floor, insects and fungi break down fallen leaves into humus, which becomes compost for the soil, helping it to retain water, nourishing the roots, protecting fallen fruit from rotting due to contact with soil, and helping prevent the growth of competitors, which gives their seeds a better chance in the spring. All of these events are connected and related to each other in some way. The idea of looking at nature in a connected way comes largely from the prodigious writing and work of the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt. Largely forgotten today, he was a joiner, not a splitter, meaning he thought science must be learned from books, tested in the lab, and vigorously pursued and observed in the field. He railed against the narrow range of most scientists pursuing an individual study and not looking for connections to other fields of study or ways of expression of what they learned. He was driven by a sense of wonder, and while agreeing that science must be measured and analyzed, he believed a great part of our response to the natural world should be based on the senses and our emotions.[3]

Humboldt's brother, a diplomat, described him in this way: "Alex's mind was made to connect ideas, to detect chains of things; everything he ever observed fell into place as part of his web of life."[4] His visual depiction of this web, called "Naturgemalde" in his native German, showed nature as a global force connecting species through the lens of climate and location rather than by taxonomic category. His Essays on the Geography of Plants looks at the wider context of nature as a holistic interplay of phenomena. It was the world's first ecological book,[5] but it was left to a disciple of Humboldt, Ernst Haeckel, to combine the Greek word for household "oikos" with "logos" for knowledge

to create the discipline of Ecology.[6] Humboldt's web of connections influenced many of the great scientists, writers, poets, and activists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Thomas Jefferson learned the farming practice of crop rotation from Humboldt; George Perkins Marsh used his ideas to reform land use in Vermont; Haeckel's work supported Darwin's work on the origin of species; Henry David Thoreau took Emerson's advice and went to live in the woods; and John Muir took a great journey as Humboldt did and saw nature as magnificent, as if through Humboldt's eyes, with everything big and small woven together. "And if we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." [7] Humboldt had understood the threat to nature; Marsh assembled the evidence into an argument for conservation; while Walt Whitman memorialized Humboldt's greatest work Kosmos in his own masterpiece Leaves of Grass, Thoreau and Muir saw it differently. They wanted preservation to keep the forests, rivers, and oceans pristine and untrammeled or at least not despoiled by humans. This web of connections led to the modern environmental movement. So, Humboldt the man is largely forgotten, but the name Humboldt graces hundreds of rivers, communities, mountains, counties, and even a major current in the Pacific Ocean—a testimony to a humble scientist who was once described as the most famous man in the world after Napoleon.[8]


  1. Schmitt, Catherine, 2008 A coastal Companion: A Year in the Gulf of MaineTilbury House Publishers, Gardiner , Maine

  2. Ibid

  3. Wulf, Andrea, 2015 The Invention of Nature: Alexander Humboldt's New WorldAlfred A Knopf, NY

  4. Ibid

  5. Ibid

  6. Ibid

  7. Muir, John 1911 My First Summer in the Sierra,Houghton Mifflin, Boston and NY

  8. Wulf, Andrea, 2015 The Invention of Nature: Alexander Humboldt's New World Alfred A Knopf, NY


John Halloran is the Director of Science for GOMI and a member of the GOMI Guide Team. John’s interests focus on the ocean environment where he pursues educational adventure travel, research, and recreation by sail, paddle, and scuba.John is the founder and director of Adventure Learning, Newburyport, MA, which has been involved with educational outreach in area schools and recreational programs for teens and adults since 1980. A long-time educator, John was at the forefront of the experiential education movement in the U.S.For 36 years, he taught natural science in the Newburyport Public Schools. John has special interest and expertise in teacher training and standards for learning in math and science. His role has included direct teaching, teacher training, program development, grant writing, and developing partnerships with professionals in the field.

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