Taking the Round-About Route to the Proper Destination

A few weeks back, my snail-mail box yielded a treat, a review copy of Susan Leigh Tomlinson's new book, How to Keep A Naturalist's Notebook. I dipped into the book immediately, and here's part of what I said in my review for Story Circle Book Reviews:

This thoughtful and elegantly written guide shows you to how to dip beneath the surface of the natural world through keeping an illustrated field journal. We journal about our lives, why not journal about the other species around us as well? Observing and noting nature is a way of getting to know that wider, wilder community, and through it, deepening our understanding of our own species. It's a way of honoring the living world….

I knew after reading the book that I wanted to talk with Tomlinson about her work. So I emailed her, and she agreed to an interview. The full Q & A is on Story Circle Book Reviews, but here's an excerpt that touches on questions near and dear to all who write about our life-choices. 

Tweit: Your writing in How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook seems like that of someone who grew up in kinship with nature. You have an undergraduate degree in fine art, and two graduate degrees in geology. Why the switch? Or do you see art and science as integrated?

Tomlinson: This is a difficult question to address–not because I think science and art aren't integrated, because, in fact, I do. Rather, it is a more troubling and complicated answer, and says something, I think, about society and our perception of the arts versus science. Also, this is a bit confessional, and so that makes it harder to share….

Early on, my parents recognized something in my drawings and enrolled me in in art classes at the local museum, even though that must have really stretched their very strained budget. I enjoyed it–immensely–but I also enjoyed being outside a lot, too. I would walk around in the surrounding desert, exploring arroyos, picking up interesting rocks… and somewhere out there, I decided I was going to be a scientist. Art was just something I did because it was fun and it came naturally to me, but it wasn't something I ever took seriously as a career.

I had this idea, see, that scientists were more respected for their brains than artists–they were taken more "seriously"–and that was important to me. I've always struggled in school, mostly because I am an inveterate daydreamer, even today. A teacher would be explaining how to do this or that with math and my mind would start to wander…and the next thing I'd know, we'd be having a quiz about it. So while my siblings were always excelling at school, I was dragging home the dicey report card. I got it in my head that I wasn't very smart.

Around the same time, there was a wonderful television program on in New Mexico, and it focused on science for kids. … It was, I guess, a local version of "Mr. Wizard," and we used to watch it school. I truly loved that show. And perhaps because of it, science was one of the subjects at which I did well in school.

But math was not. And so when it came time to go to college, my father sat me down and told me I should major in art, because a scientist needed to be able to do math. Though he probably didn't mean it this way, the implication, in my mind, was that I wasn't smart enough to be a scientist. So I majored in art, and always felt a little less smart because of it.

I enjoyed majoring in art, more or less. But what I didn't know then and understand now is that I didn't really want to be a "fine artist." I wanted to be an illustrator. One is not better than the other, but certainly there is more prestige in society in being someone who is creating original and ground-breaking art…. The trouble is, I'm really a pretty simple person, and don't care a whole lot about being a ground-breaking artist. … In art school though, the emphasis was on fine art (and at the time, this seemed to mean, "the uglier, the better" though I am certain, in retrospect, that I interpreted that incorrectly), so that's what I thought I had to do.

Oftentimes, I've envisioned the path my life has taken as someone who is standing in a station when a train rolls in, and I hop on it because I think it's going to take me where I want to go. Only later do I find that it is the wrong train, and I have to wait until the next stop in order to get off and right my course…

So after I graduated, I kicked around, trying very half-heartedly to be ground-breaking, but it just wasn't in me… . After awhile I got a job working for a geologist, who made a point of teaching me some things about geology. I enjoyed it a lot, and then one day, I said to myself, "You know, I've always wanted to be a scientist…"

My feelings about scientists being "brainier" than artists persisted all the way through graduate school, all the way through getting a doctorate in geology. But while I loved being outside and doing field work, learning the geology of a place, … at some point I realized that, once again, I'd apparently gotten on the wrong train, for the wrong reasons.

After I'd earned my doctorate, I stumbled into a job in the Honors College at our university. Through a series of very fortunate circumstances, I wound up directing and teaching in a new degree program that combined humanities and the study of nature and the environment (the Natural History and Humanities degree). I was hired, of all things, because I had a scholastic background in both! And suddenly, it all came together, and I knew I was home. It turned out that all those years, I hadn't been on the wrong trains at all–I'd just needed to take several connecting trains to reach my destination.

And most importantly, I'd finally matured enough to realize that I was neither "brainier" as a scientist or as an artist, one discipline did not have more prestige than another, fine arts were not somehow "better" than illustration. I finally realized that what is important is to always keep seeking the things that interest you, the things you love–this is what is important when trying to chart a course for your life. If you do this, you will one day arrive at your proper destination.

I still reek at math.


Here's your life-writing prompt: Imagine the course of your life as a series of metaphorical train journeys. Where did you begin? What trains did you take? And where did they take you? Can you say, like Susan Tomlinson, that in the end, by "seeking the things that interest you, the things you love" you have arrived at "your proper destination"?

4 responses to “Taking the Round-About Route to the Proper Destination

  1. Susan and Susan,
    With a Bachelor of Science as my undergraduate degree and my current career as an artist, I can really relate to this post. My parents wanted me to get the BS, while I secretly wanted to get a degree in art and writing. I don’t know that my ‘train’ has reached its proper destination yet, but reading about your experience gives me hope that someday, it will.
    I truly enjoyed reading about your life journey.

  2. Isn’t it interesting how many of we “creatives” had our paths shifted by parental advice/approval/suggestion? And yet here we are, finding our way to what we love anyway.

  3. That is simply one of the loveliest book covers I’ve ever seen. I have to take a camera along to record nature for myself–no artistic ability of the drawing/illustrating kind.
    As for your life-writing prompt, I’m not there yet. I’m still hopping trains. Some days, I feel like a full-fledged paying passenger, and others like the hobo who barely made the train before it pulled out, because he was afraid of being seen. Just recently began riding a new train and I boarded before I found out for sure where it’s going. Should be an interesting ride. Whenever I look out the window, there’s something new to marvel at. I’m armed with laptop, journal, camera and the prayers and well wishes of many friends. (Can you tell I like your train analogy?)

  4. The cover is a great “teaser” for Susan Tomlinson’s sketches and art inside, Susan I. Seems to me that by hopping trains, you’re making important decisions about the direction of your life–for you right now, the right track is to take a ride and see where it goes. That’s a plan, and if it suits you, a good one….

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