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.  

Fox Snake Swimming in Marsh

While I was completing a marsh habitat survey where a King Rail that I’ve been tracking had been hanging out, I noticed a large snake swimming across the water nearby. It was easy to catch up to. I identified the snake as an Eastern Fox Snake (herpetologists, feel free to correct me!). Regardless of what it is called, I think the snake and the way it moved through the water is beautiful. So, I thought I’d share. Here is the video:

Don’t Litter! Save a Life

While driving to get groceries, my mother noticed something strange at the very edge of the road. So, she pulled over and investigated. Only inches from where traffic sped by, she saw this (she took the picture):

Was it a raccoon? Or a opossom? Whatever it was, she could see that it was shaking, she tells me. So, despite being worried that she might get bit, my mom took a brave step forward and pulled off the bag. And what did she see?!? This:

What a relief it must’ve been for the little cat to be freed from the greasy darkness! It ran away, and luckily didn’t get hit by a car while doing so. A life saved. Good job, mom!

If anyone needs convincing why not to litter (or knows someone who needs to be convinced), I thought that these pictures could help. Individuals of many species could be similarly imperiled by people who litter, or by people who don’t pick up trash when they can, and none of them deserve the fear and further suffering which can result.

Domesticated outdoor cats, I have to point out, can cause great environmental harm. Because they tend to be fed by humans, their instinctive killing is especially hard on their prey (e.g., song birds). Unlike in a natural predator-prey relationship, domesticated cat populations don’t decrease after the populations of their prey decrease. And so the relentless killing by outdoor cats can consequently drive their prey to local extirpation, or even extinction.

Hopefully this cat that my mom’s kindness saved ran home to a relieved human friend, who will keep it inside. Maybe after its ‘cat in the bag’ experience, this particular feline won’t want to go outside again!

A song: ‘Donkeys, Elephants, and Caribou’

I made it my goal for today to write a song about doing a better job of conserving our natural heritage. The song that I came up with is called ‘Donkeys, Elephants, and Caribou.’ The lyrics are below the link to me playing the song, so that you can read along (or read only) if you’d like.

Donkeys, Elephants, and Caribou

Paul wakes up and makes his eggs,

he says: ‘here we go again.’

The old engine fires, moves his tires

to the place that hollows his years.

By the forest-bordered river he drives

where there’s so many memories

that for a moment he forgets

the radio’s conspiracies.

 

With hair done and makeup on,

Winona walks through the park.

The girls will be indignant today,

the news never disappoints.

But, for a moment, the gossip-world erodes.

As a young fox pounces on a leaf,

Winona feels a warm glow

that she hasn’t felt in weeks.

 

But Evelyn the politician says:

Pauls shouldn’t trust Winonas,

because donkeys and elephants don’t mix.

And demonizing and dividing she knows,

gets herself far more votes.

And people become so dizzied that they

fail to see the beauty that she sells to

get profiteers to give her money.

 

The Evelyns of the world will do whatever they can

to change the image that in the mirror they see

But they’re just reflections of Paul, Winona, you, and me.

And their charisma is often meant just to deceive.

Don’t listen when they say to disagree, without thinking.

 

So, let’s prove the politicians wrong.

Let’s tell them loud and clear

that there’s something about which we all agree.

Whether we’re ‘R’s’ ‘D’s,’ or ‘L’s’,

We won’t sleep under your spell.

We demand our natural heritage to be protected,

Or you won’t be elected

Or you won’t be re-elected

Or you won’t be elected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Stranger, Sagan, and Science

In the spring of 2013, I was a junior undergraduate university student. I was studying wildlife science, and had just gotten to the point that I could take some ‘free elective’ courses, which didn’t have to be directly related to my sought after degree. That semester, I decided to take an introductory astronomy class, for non-majors. I remember enjoying the course, but I do not remember much about it specifically. Parsecs, astronomical units, blue dwarfs, red giants, and parallax shifts. Those are some (maybe most) of the few terms that I remember learning in that class. Admittedly, I did not gain much knowledge from that course that I still possess. As is the case for most of the classes that I’ve taken, however, the main value that I gained was not the knowledge that I can recall, but the motion that it caused. I forget almost everything that I learn, but the act of learning moves me in a direction which could guide for a lifetime.

As I look back, there are very few moments in my life that I can point to which I’m sure had an exceptionally large impact on helping/causing me to become who I now am. And that person who I am now, in a single, simplistic sentence is: ‘I’m a scientist and writer who cares about conserving and experiencing the natural world.’

I attribute much of that sentence to a single moment. And that moment was when I was leaving the aforementioned astronomy course, namely a ‘lab’ portion of that course which occurred every week, at night. If I recall correctly, my in-class assignment for that lab was to try to make a telescope out of materials like cardboard, paper towel tubes and mirrors. When I was leaving the classroom that night, I think that it is safe to say that I couldn’t see anything more closely, nor more clearly, than when I had entered.

But as I walked alone through the hallways, I recall looking for a restroom. I don’t know how I ended up talking to the short, older man who was wearing a stocking hat. I think that he was writing on a paper, beside a cart that held cleaning supplies. Maybe I asked him where the bathroom was? Regardless, for some reason, we began talking.

With a spark of life in his eye that I don’t see often, I remember him asking ‘what did you learn in class today?’

Clearly, I remember saying, ‘I learned how small I am.’

And I think that that was, to some degree, actually true. In preparation for making the telescopes, we were first informed about the far away things that some telescopes (not the one I would make) can show a viewer.

I recall that then the man (who I’ll call Allan) and I began discussing a number of things related to learning. Somehow, I found out that he held the pursuit of knowledge in very high esteem, despite many obstacles, and that when he was not working as a janitor he was working to complete an engineering degree. Allan had nearly completed the degree, and was obviously proud. For some reason, the conversation led to him taking out from his stack of papers by the window a piece of paper, for me. And he wrote down the name of someone who, looking back, I am surprised that I had not heard of at that point in my life: Carl Sagan. I needed to look up this amazing scientist, my friend for the moment said as he handed me the paper. It was as if Allan were speaking of someone who had provided him a key that had freed him from unbearable, stifling chains.

Carl
The paper that I was given, with Carl’s name on it. Thanks to my mother for finding this paper in my library and sending me a picture of it!

After he finished praising the work of Sagan, I told Allan that I’d heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who I thought must be similar. He replied by saying that I’d be more impressed by Carl. So, thrilled to have had such a nice, unexpected, inspiring conversation, I said that I would look up Carl. We shook hands and I never saw Allan again.

For a variety of reasons that I think are commonly experienced by young (or older) people trying to acquire independence in a complex and challenging world, I was at the time a bit psychologically battered. Therefore, I was receptive to suggestion, and open to possibilities. I think that it is safe to say that the man’s enthusiasm about learning and science that night, and his seemingly sincere awe about reality, was something that I had never seen before. Not in my fellow students, not in my professors, certainly not in myself. At the time, science was just a vague concept that didn’t seem like something that I could actually do, which I felt was at odds with my ‘creative’ self, and about which I knew embarrassingly little. But that night, for maybe the first time, I felt truly excited to learn more about it.

And, so, when I got back to my dorm room, where my roommate was sleeping on the other side of his desk, I did look up Carl Sagan. In the dark, from my glowing laptop computer, I learned that Carl was an astronomer and science communicator with broad interests, who rightly insisted that science is a way of thinking that anyone can relatively easily participate in. He had gained most of his fame by writing the book ‘Cosmos,’ and by producing a compliment to that book in the form of a TV series, for which he also was the host. After I listened to several videos of Carl speaking that night via headphones (his voice and rationality are still soothing to me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wupToqz1e2g), I eventually acquired and read the book ‘Cosmos’ a few months later. Reading a book like that either in a tent or from my car (i.e. house), during a summer spent travelling thousands of miles across the Great Plains, hiking deep into natural areas to identify what birds were present in those areas, was transformational. The words of a scientist/poet like Sagan, who confronted the strangeness of reality by looking at it hard rather than hiding from it, was the most intense jolt of scientific inspiration that I’ve had. That inspiration, I think, was just enough to keep me on my journey toward becoming a scientist.

That journey toward understanding and participating in conservation-related applications of science, and to become a conservation biologist, has been a circuitous, difficult route that is still being blazed. Scientists are people, too, and can be difficult to deal with. I’m sure that Carl was no exception. I’m sure that I‘m no exception (though I try to be good!). There are limited funds to support science, and many fiercely seeking them. The entire process of being a professional scientist can be isolating and exhausting. However, as Carl wrote, ‘science exacts a substantial entrance fee in effort and tedium for its insights.’ To pay that fee and to be able to understand even a microscopic fraction, from my minuscule human perspective, of the incredibly vast process of which I’m a part has become a truly awe-inspiring experience.

And I have the kind man in the hallway who told me about Carl Sagan to thank for that.

Rocky Raccoon Almost Meets His Match

 

When I was walking to our urban study site, hoping to catch a pesky Song Sparrow before sunrise, I heard what struck me as an unidentifiable sound. I can identify most natural sounds that I hear, but this one had me stumped. A shrill, persistent, screaming-type sound had me wondering if some tropical bird of a species unfamiliar to me had been blown north by a hurricane to Indiana, where it was complaining about a lack of friends in its new environs – or about some other injustice. This didn’t seem likely, but I needed to know what the sound was, regardless.

It was clear that the sound was coming from a spruce tree next to the city street that I was walking on, so I took a few moments to peer into the dark. And this is what I saw (pay close attention at second 40):

 

I know that I’ve heard raccoons calling before, but never quite like this little guy/gal was. I’m not sure if at the end of the video he/she was scolding me for not lending a hand, thanking me for moral support, or assuring me, ‘I meant to fall, you know’, but I am sure that I’ll never forget what a young raccoon hanging on a branch (apparently terrified) sounds like! The deer and rabbit which were standing directly behind me when I was filming this (unbeknownst to me at the time), who were as far as I can tell possibly interested in the wails, too, may not forget what a stressed out raccoon sounds like, either. In the natural world, it certainly pays to listen to your neighbors, who might warn you of danger. Who knows, they might also warn you which branches to avoid…

P.S. The title of this post is in reference to a great song by the Beatles. If you don’t know it, then maybe you should change that!

 

 

Best if on Accident

I experienced a simple, pleasing accident involving a picture (you’ll see below), which inspired this short post about how wonderful accidental occurrences can be. First, I need to set the scene…

Last week I was out in the woods, trying to catch a Song Sparrow. As I’ve been doing a lot recently, for a research project, I was trying to entice a male Song Sparrow to fly into a net that I had put up by playing the song of another male Song Sparrow. Males of this species use song to both attract a female mate and to protect their territories from other males, by advertising their presence. Bird song often says something like, ‘if you are a dude, stay away, I’m tough. If you are a woman, come to me!’ So, when a male Song Sparrow hears an ‘intruding male’ singing (that is actually a recording that I’m broadcasting), often he will rush in, sing a bit, and then fly right into the net that is in the vicinity of where he thinks another male is, as a result of what I imagine might involve blinding fury. Then I quickly take him out of the net (see picture below– usually they are in the net for less than 15 seconds). Next, I take some measurements, and attach color bands to his legs so that I can know who he is when I see him in the field again, after I release him.

MistNet
Me taking the first Song Sparrow we banded for this study out of a mist net.

It is important to note that you need permits (maybe several) to catch native songbirds like this in the US, and that broadcasting the song of a bird might cause it to use precious energy that could be better used. And misusing energy can be deadly. Point being, I’m not suggesting that you should go out and do what I’ve described. I’m not catching birds just for fun, I’m catching them because the data that I’m collecting for this project has the potential to help people better understand how to co-exist with birds, rather than causing birds to disappear.

So, that day last week, it appears that I met a Song Sparrow that is smarter than me. Or maybe random chance just wasn’t in favor of the bird hitting the net. Anyway, no matter where I put the net, or where I put the speakers, I couldn’t catch him. Multiple times, just over, just under, or right beside the net, he flew. Singing away he was, as I sat there thinking about how many more Song Sparrows I have to catch, and how this one would be doing himself a favor by going into the net already!

But, he didn’t. Just before I was about to take down the net, to stop bothering him if he wouldn’t go in, there was a flash that came out of the woods along the flooded stream to the north and a sparrow was in the net. For a moment, I thought that it could have been my Song Sparrow! But I could tell as I walked up that the bird in the net was too small, and lacked streaks on its breast that a Song Sparrow would have. I saw that it was a Field Sparrow that I had caught, a cute little sparrow with a pink bill.

I quickly took it out of the net and decided to take a picture of the little guy (I checked).

FISP
The Field Sparrow described in this story, and my fingers.

That is the picture that I had intended to take. It is a good picture, I think, kind of like what I had imagined. It shows how that adorable little bird with a pink bill looked in that moment. But I wasn’t blown away after looking at it, because the image isn’t perfectly crisp, the lighting isn’t great, and the angle of the bird isn’t perfect. Also, my fingers aren’t as calloused as they used to be from playing the guitar! Oh, how I wish I played the guitar more… In other words, the picture is adequate, but not amazing, not how it could have been. However, the ‘lower quality’ picture that I took on accident right before I took the one above left me far more satisfied, due to accidental circumstances. Here is that picture (taken as my phone was falling!):

Accident
Accidental picture of a Field Sparrow and I.

To you, this picture might not seem exceptional. But I think that this picture which I didn’t intend to take, of a bird that I didn’t intend to catch, is special. I’m guessing that my left hand which had the bird in it may have slightly moved as my right hand dropped the phone and grabbed at it. And that slight movement might have caused the Field Sparrow to quickly flap its wings. My fumbling fingers must have hit the screen when the phone was falling and snapped the picture which captured an image of the exquisite, out-stretched wing of the little male, and his sharp claws held by my semi-calloused ones. How unexpected and exciting it was to see what my phone had captured!

And that element of accidental, pleasant surprise seems to me a great gift, as it provides a brief escape from the terrible dilute-er of pleasure that is a mind which expects too much of an event that it has had time to anticipate. Time for anticipation, I’ve found, can cause disappointment after discovering what actually happens if what happens doesn’t live up to what one hoped would happen. Had I been trying to take a picture of a Field Sparrow’s wing out-stretched, and not held in an out-stretched position by me, I probably would have been less happy with this picture. But I wasn’t trying for what happened, and so I can cherish the unexpected result.

When a phone drops, say, and captures a unique perspective that one’s mind didn’t have the chance to expect and in a way destroy, the result can be very pleasing, due to the pleasantness of surprise. When it comes to discovering books, relationships, nature trails, etc., for me, at least, a pleasant accident is almost always better than a planned occurrence. And so, while I try not to expect extravagantly of what I see coming, I excitedly stumble and fumble along, knowing that what I can’t see is coming, too.

 

Changing Places

I have changed places (moved) many times in large part because many places (particularly, natural environments) are changing. Environmental change endangers much of life on Earth, including human life. Thus, numerous times, going back to my first year as a student at Purdue University, I have been hired by some entity (non-profit organizations, universities, governments) to help monitor and/or respond to those environmental changes. This conservation-related work has led me to work/learn in 15 states in the U.S.A, as well as to Canada and to Costa Rica (one of which was reluctant to let me in…), and to more adventures than I ever thought that I might experience. It has been a great ride. That said, I’m glad to be in a place now where I plan to be for at least a couple years. Travel can be tiring, and settling down for a bit (so I’ve heard) can be rewarding.

I’ve decided to submit this post to WordPress in order to deliver to you a couple videos. Video 1 overviews a project led by Indiana University which has caused me to (very happily) move again. Video 2 is a short song/poem by one of my favorite artists about moving. I hope that from the first video you will learn a bit about why acknowledging, caring about, and responding to the dangers of environmental change is important. From the second video, I hope that those of you who are also ‘movers’ (or have moved at least once!) will feel the glow of companionship via ‘I can relate to that!’ thoughts.

Or maybe these videos will cause, ‘hm, I didn’t know that people thought that way’ thoughts, which are important, too – and may eventually lead to another category of thoughts which aren’t possible now…

Video 2 can be better fit into a short window of time, but both are relatively brief. I hope that you enjoy them.

Video 1

 

Video 2