Become a Naturalist

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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, organismal biology, 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 I become a Master Naturalist?
Most nature-related societies offer educational training programs designed to familiarize students with a broad range of species and to introduce them to the methods and resources used to make confident identifications. These programs can be specific to a certain taxon (like the Seattle Audubon’s Master Birder program, or Mushroom ID Courses offered by the Puget Sound Mycological Society) or, rarely, can be state-sponsored certification programs in natural history broadly. Below are some resources and links to classes that may be useful to an aspiring naturalist.

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