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Aldo Leopold’s cabin

From Merriam-Webster:

: a person who does something (such as a sport or hobby) for pleasure and not as a job
: a person who does something poorly : a person who is not skillful at a job or other activity

The listed definitions are near perfect contradictions. Looking at the origin of the word — French for “lover of” — it seems they both miss the mark. The Wikipedia explanation goes in a different direction, citing Leonardo Da Vinci as an amateur artist and Charles Darwin an amateur scientist, which is pretty decorated lineage to be considered “not skillful.”

My interpretation of the word has evolved over the years and has been equally confusing. Growing up, I always thought it meant shoddy or second rate. But as I delved deeper into the maker world, and now this new world of citizen science, my perspective has changed. The idea moved closer to the “lover of” meaning. My personal definition is an even broader understanding, one that spans the blunders of a beginner to the genius of Darwin:

An amateur is someone who works outside of the established institutions and formal guidelines. They work on their terms, sometimes without compensation, but always in pursuit of a bigger idea: beauty, truth, pleasure, etc.

This has worked for me.

However, today I was re-reading A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold’s classic book on conservation and land ethics, and decided I like his way of explaining it better. Quotes from his “A Man’s Leisure Time” chapter:

“A hobby is a defiance of the contemporary. It is an assertion of those permanent values which the momentary eddies of social evolution have contravened or overlooked.”

“It is an axiom that no hobby should either seek or need rational justification. To wish to do it is reason enough. To find reasons why it is useful or beneficial converts it at once from an avocation into an industry — lowers it at once to the ignominious category of an ‘excercise’ undertaken for health, power, or profit. Lifting dumbbells is not a hobby. It is a confession of subservience, not an assertion of liberty.”

“A good hobby, in these times, is one that entails either making something or making the tools to make it with, and then using it to accomplish some needless thing.”

“A good hobby must also be a gamble.”

“A good hobby may be a solitary revolt against the common-place, or it be the joint conspiracy of a congenial group… In either event it is a rebellion, and if a hopeless one, all the better.”


(And do read the whole book.)

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