Sunday, October 9, 2016

What is a Naturalist?

If you've heard someone referred to as a "naturalist," you might have wondered just what exactly that meant.  An unshaven John Muir-like figure?  Someone living chained to a redwood tree?  A contemplative observer, the reflective Thoreau type?  A scientist?  A hippy?  Just what is a naturalist?

The definition of a naturalist is "an expert in or student of natural history."  And natural history can be described as the scientific study of plants and animals, based primarily on observation.  In my definition, I would add the study of geology as well.  Synonyms for a naturalist include natural historian, wildlife expert, and a number of scientific-sounding titles: ecologist, biologist, zoologist, botanist, environmentalist.
A Naturalist at work (or play), in Joshua Tree National Park
 But don't let that deter you!  You need not have a degree in science to be a naturalist!  Children can be naturalists.  Retired folks can become naturalists.  Being a naturalist can be anything from a hobby to a full-time profession.

Being a naturalist means having a love of nature and passion for its conservation, plus a little more: it means paying attention to the daily and seasonal rhythms of the natural world, and having the desire to learn not only the names of species, but their life histories as well.  Naturalists can tell you more than the name of a bird.  They can tell you about annual migratory patterns, breeding cycles, and feeding habits. 
Tools of a Naturalist
Naturalists are, perhaps above all, curious.  They want to know things, like where the sparrows go in the winter, what formed a particular rock, when the lupines bloom.  To find the answers, they observe and they read and they ask questions.  Naturalists are observant, perceptive, and patient.  They tend to be quiet and contemplative, but hardy folk not deterred by inclement weather or dirt.  Naturalists are also systematic and organized, at least to some degree!  Records are valuable: field notes, photographs and the like.

Being a good naturalist requires little more than curiosity and observation.  But a few tools are useful in the field, such as a notebook, field guide, camera and binoculars.  It's always helpful to take ample photos, as well as sketch and describe what you see.  At home, the accomplished naturalist will have a well-used collection of reference books and field guides, as well as a collection of interesting specimens acquired over time.*
A collection of field guides and reference books, packed up and ready for a trip to the desert.
I encourage you to be an naturalist.  Be curious, explore, observe the natural world.  Notice things, like the birds in your yard and what wildflowers bloom during each season.  There's no need to venture deep into the wilderness if you'd rather not; you can study nature at a local park, or visit a natural history museum.  All it takes is a little time to slow down and notice what is around you to gain an appreciation for our beautiful, fragile environment. 

So take a little time, pick up a field guide and head outside.  You might be surprised at what you discover!

*Note: Please NEVER collect anything on protected land, including but not limited to National and State Parks.  Be aware of the rarity of a specimen and ecological significance of removing it from the environment before you do so.  And be selective: when you do collect, take only what you need and know will be useful to you.  Leave the rest where you found it and be content with a good photo.

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