What is a Naturalist?

As you may know, my blog is entitled, ‘Thoughts of a Naturalist.’ A worthy question, which I’ve never discussed here, is: “what is a ‘naturalist’?” For many of us, the word carries much meaning and perhaps even is a big part of our identity. Nature-lovers, philosophers, environmentalists, and ecologists all likely tend to use the word at least a little differently. If you have an opinion that you’d like to share about what being a ‘naturalist’ means to you, please share your thoughts as a comment. I’m curious how my views, which I’ll share below, relate to yours.

I think that it is probably fair to say that I’ve been a naturalist—at least a budding one—since I was in high school, even though I don’t remember using the word then. At that time, I began going out to natural areas with the primary goals of paying attention and learning. I remember walking through a nature preserve near to my house teaching myself to identify trees, which was perhaps inspired by mother’s and grandmothers’ interest in flowers. My naturalism probably started even earlier, when my grandfathers got me ‘hooked’ on fishing.

My brother and I at one of our favorite fishing spots, with a tiny fish.

During those many fishing trips, I learned to patiently sit outside and to pay close attention to my surroundings. I thought about where fish were likely to be, when they were likely to be there, and what they would want to eat. Not only did I get exposed to an incredible diversity of life—including aquatic vegetation, several fish species, and a variety of other animals—but I also learned to be comfortable outside. And to be there alone.

My definition, part 1: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world with the main goals of paying attention, feeling, and learning. 

A naturalist could be defined simply as ‘someone who studies natural history.’ This includes amateurs of all skill levels. The term ‘natural history’, like ‘naturalist,’ has a variety of meanings. Here is website—which I think is worth checking out especially for naturalists looking for a sense of community—where people explain what natural history means to them. As I see it, natural history is the story of a landscape, including its living and non-living parts. The timeframe of that story could be a day, a season, a year, or many years. For example, by noting when you see the first monarch butterfly each year, you are on the path to learning something about that animal. Just like by observing what plants the monarch caterpillar eats, you learn something. Before you know it, you are thinking about how the butterfly depends on the landscape, how the landscape depends on the butterfly, the long history they have together, and how changing the landscape could cause the butterfly to disappear and then cause the landscape to change further.

Stages of Monarch butterfly development
Monarch butterfly stages of development on a milkweed leaf.
Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

An ‘ecologist’ is also a word to indicate someone who studies relationships between living things and their environment. However, in my experience, this term tends to be used to indicate someone who does so professionally. Not all ecologists, however, are naturalists. Not in my opinion, at least. I think that the best ecologists tend to be naturalists (though not necessarily vice versa). It is possible to be an ecologist who doesn’t spend considerable time in the natural world and who doesn’t even want to. An ecologist’s work could be done solely in a lab and/or on a computer and not require any trips to the field (i.e., the forest, the prairie, the river, etc.). Results generated from such ‘field-less’ investigations can be valuable, especially if they are cautiously interpreted and cause field work for further examination. If ecologists do go to the field for work, their trips likely pertain to formal data collection in some way.

As a naturalist-ecologist, I cherish the times I get to go to the field for my ecology work. I do my best to observe a wide variety of phenomena. The birds singing, the plants flowering, mammal tracks in the snow, the way a river is flooding, etc. However, when in the field for research, I have a job to do and generally cannot sit and take it all in for two hours or so like I otherwise might. I have 5 radio-tagged birds to track (for example), a field assistant to coordinate with, and a manuscript to write based on the data that we collect. In other words, I’m out there primarily to take something (data) rather than to feel something. I get the impression that there are some ecologists who only ever go to the field to take. I don’t consider those people to be naturalists.

My definition, part 2: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world without the primary goal of taking something.

I’m not saying that those who go to the field to hunt, fish, take pictures, or formally collect data aren’t naturalists. Most naturalists, I’d guess, actively do or have done at least one of these things (I think that going fishing taught me to be a naturalist; when I fish again it will be as a naturalist). My point is that partaking in these activities alone shouldn’t indicate that someone is a naturalist. Some of the best naturalists are certainly hunters, for example, given the necessity in many cases of paying close attention to the natural world and being quiet (which I think generally go together). But there are also hunters who simply want to drink beer and shoot at things and pay little attention to their natural surroundings. Similar to naturalist-hunters, there are some ecologists who carefully observe and reverently experience the natural world while taking careful measurements so that we can better understand and conserve it. There are also ecologists, though (a small minority, it seems), whose primary goal is to collect data that will corroborate a pre-defined story that they want to tell in a scientific journal to advance their careers and perhaps feed their egos. Don’t get me wrong – I think ecology is a great profession that tends to produce solid and useful knowledge. I just wanted to point out that the process of taking, even in ecology, can come at the cost of experiencing and some people may want only to take.

My best moments in the field don’t tend to be when I’m collecting data. Rather, they usually occur when I can go out there to just sit and think about what is going on around me and to better understand what has led to what I see. Those thoughts and natural observations actually could help me with ecological research later, and probably are required for the best ecology to be done, but that’s not why I go seek the natural world on Sunday mornings. My weekly trips to the field are mainly to nourish what some would call my ‘spirit.’ I go there to feel connected to a location—often achieved by purposefully not thinking—and to understand how I fit into a larger place. Sometimes I get distracted and don’t pay attention to my environment or begin focusing on what I can take. But at my best, when I’m out there, I’m a naturalist.           

My complete definition of a naturalist: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world with the main goals of paying attention, feeling, and/or learning without the primary goal of taking something.