Susan Leigh Tomlinson
Susan Leigh Tomlinson has a Ph.D. in geology, an undergraduate degree in fine art, and is the director of the Natural History and Humanities program in the Honors College at Texas Tech University. She is also one of the editors of To Everything on Earth: New Writing on Fate, Community, and Nature (Texas Tech University Press, 2009). Tomlinson also writes the popular garden blog, The Bike Garden, which chronicles her adventures in "re-claiming El Llano Estacado, one wild and sprawly prairie garden at a time," along with the lives of Pearl and Henrietta, two cartoon chickens. Tomlinson lives in Lubbock, Texas, with her husband, also a professor at Texas Tech.
Read Susan Tweit's review of How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 04/15/2010
Your writing in How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook seems like that of someone who grew up in kinship with nature. Yet you open the book with these words, "When I was in my twenties, I discovered nature." Was your discovery just a matter of dumb luck, or do you think you were ready to immerse yourself in what Scott Russell Sanders has called "the more-than-human world"?
You know, for as long as I can remember, I have always enjoyed being outdoors more than indoors. Even so, it was more about playing (running, cycling, camping, hiking, etc.) than learning about the world in which I did those things. It took guides like the nature group I joined to open my eyes to what was there. I find that the same is usually true of the students in my class. Once someone starts pointing things out, the world seems to blossom before your eyes. Of course, it has been there all along...
It was, in fact, mostly "dumb luck" that I found the Midland Naturalists, though. Had I not been bored and looking for something to do on the weekends, I'm not sure that my life would have taken the course it has. Even so, as you suggest, perhaps my preference for being outside prepared me for that to occur.
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?
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. Even so, I think it is an important question, so I'm going to give it a go.
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, as I said above, 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. I can't recall the name of it, but the host was someone named Carl Fishbeck. 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 (even better if you get to start a whole movement!). The trouble is, I'm really a pretty simple person, and don't care a whole lot about being a ground-breaking artist. I just like to draw things, and I like visual that makes me feel good when I look at it. 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, and perhaps consequently, nobody wanted to buy my half-hearted ground breaking paintings. 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, or as I shifted my focus toward vertebrate paleontology, learning about how organisms fit into the environment 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.
What is your favorite nearby place to "stand around as though with your arms open" in Mary Oliver's words (which you use as an epigraph in your book)? If you could visit anywhere in the world and spend time sketching and observing, where would you go first?
This is easy, because it is the same place: my garden. When I was younger, I loved especially traveling to the ocean and the mountains—perhaps because they were both so radically different from the desert in which I grew up. But nowadays, to be honest, I love my own garden here in the middle of the prairie plains so much that I am reluctant to go anywhere else for very long. Because a gardener has to work with and in the garden itself, one can't help but develop an intimacy with it. I am more likely there to be thinking about the big questions than anywhere else I go. While I enjoy other places, even ones I visit a lot, they are just that: places I visit, and not places to which I am as deeply connected as I am to my garden.
What's next with your art and writing?
I am working on a collection of short essays (my own) about gardens, gardening, and life. There will be illustrations from my garden, as well occasional appearance from a couple of cartoon chickens, Pearl and Henrietta, who are my phantom companions in the garden.