North American Bowhunter, January/February 2002
by Randy C. Archer
As bowhunters, how many of us have little interest in all of the elements of the forest environment that is our home and passion? Most of us know an oak from a ‘popple’, but who among us does not strive to learn more everyday we are in the field and wished we knew more about the relationship between all plants and animals? Damned few is my hope. Of course, our thirst for this knowledge is mainly focused on enhancing our pursuit, but to varying degrees, we are all naturalists.
The Naturalist is a top quality documentary about a man who is a naturalist to every degree. This video documents the work and philosophies of this extraordinary woodsman. His name is Kent Bonar and except for the company of a couple dozen hound dogs, millions of plants and creatures on thousands of square miles of rugged, thickly forested hills, he lives and works almost exclusively alone.
He is a tall, gaunt, slow talking, slower walking man that looks to be in his sixties, but could be much younger. He is usually wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, slightly ragged clothes, and old beat-up shoes. His very thick-lensed glasses have the appearance of being home repaired often and are tied to his face with a piece of twine. I presume that he is blind in his left eye because that lens is covered with a leather wrap.
The video jacket states that he has been called the “John Muir of the Ozarks” and he is one of America’s great naturalist from any age. Living without modern amenities in the tradition of Thoreau, Leopold, and Muir, Bonar has spent his life observing and recording the natural history of Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks.
Certainly, one of the best measures of a man is the caliber of his friends and their eagerness to educate others of his virtues. The Naturalist records many praises and emotional testimonials from the friends of Kent, whom I assume are his colleagues/students.
Friend #1:“He is eccentric as hell, but he is a genius. He knows more about the Ozarks and its biology than anybody. He could never be replaced by any one person. His understanding of every element and relationship in the natural world is beyond belief and comprehension.”
Friend # 2: “He follows his nature, and his nature is nature itself. He has raised the concept of ‘Naturalist’ to a much higher level than just natural history. Being able to relate it all to ecological theory , and to understand all of the relationships and dynamics between every bird, animal, and plant in the landscape is something that nobody else is capable of. He can look at a place and tell you what was there before, explain how what is there now evolved, and tell you what will be there in the future.”
“It all fits together, and as a naturalist, you have to strive to be an interpreter and seek the connections and meaning of all things beyond trivial facts like names, statistics, and identifying characteristics. Those are things that anybody can learn from a book.
Friend #3: “People spend so much time and energy going out further and further in the world seeking out new things and experiences. For it is all right here. He is always walking and he knows every inch of this country. He has no vehicle and he walks his own path with no regard for roads. He has been criss-crossing the Ozarks his entire life. He operates on a different time level. Unlike most of us, he is in no hurry to get something done and move on to something else. Living that lifestyle, you give up a lot of things. But you also gain a world of insights that are beyond everybody else.”
Kent: “I like being someplace where I can go out at any time and be by myself from a day to a week, the world goes on just fine without me, nobody is looking for me, and I’m not being bothered by the big picture. I believe that at any speed faster than a horses walk, you start to lose track of reality. Just the physiological effects of walking, that’s how people were meant to function.”
Friend #4: “His greatest gift is the ability to guide people through the wonders of wherever you are and make it comprehensible and comfortable- more like home instead of some strange and foreign land- a place of beauty and order. Every time you go with, you learn something. It is just his way. As he walks through the woods, he can’t help but narrate. But his story isn’t so much about Kent as much as it’s about what he has to share and bring across generations and pass on so we don’t lose what we have, because we cannot recreate it.” “Learning is a lifetime pursuit, and any time you start thinking you’re smart, you’re in trouble. Most people have got some sense of reverence. But you also have to have some degree of pragmatism and self interest to survive. It’s how we strike a balance with that conflict that each individual has to find for themselves. This is part of what defines our character and establishes who we are.”
Friend #5: “[Kent] not only studies and documents every part of every living thing in the forest, he illustrates it as well. He does it with a skill and artistry and minute detail that has never been seen before, and he does it with a quill pen by candle light! In this slow, painstaking, and loving manner, he illustrated every entry in the Arkansas Naturalists Reference Atlas and turned it into a huge field guide. (This book is about three inches thick!) It took him over three years.”
Kent: “Preachers can wave & thump & row & holler all they want, but the way I look at it, the proper way to worship God is to study creation and be part of it instead of separating yourself from it. I grew up hunting with a bunch of old-timers and reverence for creation was our religion. I consider Aldo Leopold a prophet of that religion. He taught that hunting is a good measure of a man’s character because there are no witnesses. You have to make ethical decisions and decide what’s right or wrong on your own. I have hunted everyday of my life. Whether it’s for game or plants or insects or birds or knowledge or health or peace & tranquility, I am always hunting something. I believe that this is a concept that applies to every human being and every living thing on Earth.”
Friend #6: truly lives by his principles. It is of no consequence to him whether he is glorified or fades away quietly for lack of appreciation.”
Kent: “But I think that the world needs a few of us around even if it couldn’t stand many of us.
Me: “I am a bowhunter. This is how I define myself. This is the vehicle I use to strike my unique balance in the conflict between my reverence and spirituality, and my own degree of pragmatism and self interest. And I shall always carry with me a part of John Muir, David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Kent Bonar.”