Thanks, Stephen! I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog! And these are truly excellent questions!
- What makes a naturalist?
Becoming a naturalist is easy. In the words of Mythbuster Adam Savage, “the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.” The same can be said for natural history. The line between enjoying/observing the natural world and being a naturalist is purely defined by what you do with your observations. For me, I prefer to record natural history events either in a nature journal or through my photography. For others, a natural history observation is incomplete without a physical specimen. I’ll admit, I do keep an insect collection, but I find that a collection of photographs tends to be far easier to maintain (I tend to leave the collecting to the Natural History Museums, which you can learn more about here).
- What makes a good naturalist?
I can’t say there are any “rules” to follow that make someone a “good” naturalist, but there are a few things anyone can do to improve their natural history observations and scientifically profit from their passion for nature:
- Keep detailed observations. Like I mention in the description for this blog, any observation of nature in conjunction with a date and location becomes a scientific data point. If you collect enough of them you can start to learn more about how and why the natural world works the way it does. Just don’t forget to write it down! I recommend carrying a small notepad or nature journal for those times when you need to record some data.
- Get outside regularly. Observations in abundance are extremely powerful. Every time you step outside you have the opportunity to make observations. You can’t wait for the nature to come to you. Don’t worry about visiting new places every time you want to go “naturalize.” My most valuable observations are the records I keep of the birds I hear every morning on my walk to work.
- Keep on learning. Some would argue that a naturalist is defined as a scientist who observes all aspects of the natural world instead of focusing on just one part. This is a daunting task and may require an insatiable appetite for knowledge. Thankfully, you don’t have to become a walking encyclopedia. My favorite resources as a naturalist are my photographs and my field guides. The more time I spend identifying unknown organisms (lichens, as would be the case this month) the greater my knowledge of their biology and ecology grows. Soon, after spending a weekend learning about a few of the PNW’s commonest lichens for example, I can start recognizing growth forms and ecotypes and I am able to make new inferences without referencing my guide every other moment.
- Share your knowledge. For me, teaching and guiding others is the best way for me to utilize my natural history observations and to get better at recalling intimate details about particular species. Something about the teaching process solidifies my knowledge bank. Also, don’t be a nature hog. Knowledge is most valuable when shared!
- Do you need a PhD to be a naturalist?
Absolutely not! Some of the best naturalists I know are just curious kids with a passion for nature. You’d be amazed at how detailed and insightful the natural history observations of a fourth grader can be! As a matter of fact, it’s quite difficult to get a PhD or even a Bachelor’s degree in a field as broad as “natural history.” And even when you do, the field of natural history is no longer a respected scientific endeavor like it once was. But if biodiversity, nature, and all its glorious interactions is truly something you are passionate about, I would encourage you to pursue higher education in the fields of ecology, marine biology (which, contrary to popular belief, has almost nothing to do with dolphins, or most other mammals for that matter), or environmental science.
- How do you gain more or improve on “perspective?”
This is a difficult question with an equally difficult societal solution, but a relatively simple personal one. First, for those of you who have no idea what is meant by “perspective,” I’ll recap for you: Aldo Leopold and Ed Ricketts are famous for their “holistic” perspectives of the natural world. Aldo famously argues in his final essay in A Sand County Almanac, titled “The Land Ethic,” that to maintain healthy communities, within both society and nature, we must promote and maintain our “ecological conscience” and our inextricable link to all of nature. The idea that no living organism – including humans – exists independent of the natural world as a whole makes sense biologically and ecologically, but has never been well-received. For some reason, telling lawmakers “we’re all connected, man!” doesn’t tend to influence positive societal change. Even in scientific communities, while there has been a big push for “interdisciplinary collaboration” in the past few decades, most scientists focus on a single organism or a single system and often forget to consider their research “in context.” This is the “perspective” that I think you are asking about, Stephen. Even if it isn’t, it’s still a valuable discussion because, to be a “successful” naturalist we need to view the world more holistically. This broadened perspective can be hindering at times, but it can also provide us with a greater understanding of the world around us. For example in ecology, we struggle constantly to balance the seemingly opposing perspectives of the “broad trends” and the “intimate details.” But generally, most ecologists would agree that understanding ecosystems as a whole is the ultimate goal of their research, and ultimately this requires a holistic, multi-level “perspective” of the natural world.
Now to answer your question. For naturalists, it can be very easy to simply focus on what you know. For example, I will occasionally catch myself slipping into “birding mode” and completely disregarding all the other organisms around me. But fortunately, there is a remarkably simple way to avoid these scenarios. When the goal of natural history is a more complete understanding of nature, we will greatly profit from expanding our own bank of knowledge. Learning more about local natural history means that next time I’m out birding I won’t neglect to notice the critically endangered population of golden paintbrush next to that Rhinoceros Auklet colony. Or after photographing young aspens colonizing an old mining site, I won’t neglect to notice all the earthballs growing nearby which, remarkably, have facilitated the growth of these young trees. When we learn more about these seemingly disparate aspects of the world around us we tend to see more ways in which they are connected. Perhaps the best way to ensure you keep a healthy, whole-system perspective in your life is to start learning at a very young age. Children are sponges for knowledge and I have yet to meet a kid who isn’t completely enthralled by a cool bug or enamored by changing fall leaves. In fact, recent research even suggests that children who spend more time outside, interacting with nature tend to have fewer problems with attention disorders, depression, and obesity (see Richard Louv’s awesome book Last Child in the Woods). So perhaps Leopold was right – perhaps we really do need to maintain our connection with nature in order to remain happy and healthy. In that case, I encourage you to keep on naturalizing!