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.  

Why I Care About Natural Things

The following is a draft of the introduction to a book that I am currently in the process of writing (I will share the title for this book at a later date). This excerpt explains why I have decided to take on this project, for which I have been compiling notes since the spring of 2015.  Hopefully I will have this book completed, and published, by 2018. Because I have been busy documenting a hawk migration (see my daily reports here: http://www.drhawkwatch.org/hawk-count-monthly-summary), I haven’t had much time to write much else than the beginnings of this book, which is my first non-fiction project. So, I thought that I would share a bit of it, and a picture of a group of people at the hawk watch count site scanning the sky for hawks and other raptors. Their feeling of awe towards the natural world offers daily inspiration to me.


Here is the excerpt!

I used to wonder how studying plants and animals could be beneficial to humanity, and therefore to me financially, if I chose wildlife biology as a career. Recklessly (so far as careers go), without a real answer, I chose it anyway, because it was fun, I enjoyed being outside, and believed that non-human life should be protected despite being unable to articulate specifically why. But in the process, my studies have liberated me in regard to the way that I see our world and my place in it. Further, I can now articulate why non-human life must be protected. So, the shorter answer to the question of why I wrote this book is that I am attempting to share what I have been fortunate enough to learn about the wisdom that can be attained from studying and preserving the natural world. 

Here is the longer answer (if you were satisfied with the short answer, feel free to skip ahead!):

I happen to find more joy in interpreting facts than in establishing them, which in some regards makes me less of a scientist and more of a philosopher. Given the incredible amount of scientific knowledge that has been and is being generated, I believe that people like me can help make otherwise esoteric bits of information useful. So, in relation to several different topics with a link to biology that effect the lives of many people, I will try to explain in the following chapters some of the obstacles to having, and reasons to have, hope.

A sample of the topics that I will discuss, from a naturalist’s perspective, are: evolution, understanding ourselves and others, free will, climate change, death, hostility between groups of people, (G)god(s), homophobia, and the interdependence of all life on Earth.

This book is not a technical description of the mechanisms by which the topics that I discuss work. There is plenty of literature already in existence which can supply that information. Rather, I will present ways to think about the situation that we are in, and you can choose if they suit you. I have not cloaked my writing with formality, though rather have tried to present myself just as I would if the reader was a friend who wanted to know why I care so much about things like birds and trees. I am not a world-renowned authority in biology, and don’t claim to be. I do, though, know enough of the basics to be able to see the incredible all around and within myself, which have caused endless inquiries about life, many of which are presented in this book. Some of my ideas are, I admit, audacious, but all are inspired by scientific thought. Further science could disprove what I present, which is what makes scientific thinking so beautiful. With science, we are stuck with nothing but the truth.

I consider the natural world to be much like an abstract, mind-bendingly beautiful painting (like those of Salvador Dali, for example) that tells me something about what I am and where I am. If one does not look at the exquisite painting that is life in the right way, they might miss what can be learned. And this painting is being consistently burned away year after year so that people can fuel their vanities. Imagine billions of people smoking their cigarettes in front of a Dali painting, and stamping out the flaming end on the beautiful canvas. Before long, the priceless, irreplaceable painting will be gone, destroyed by the residue of careless and ignorant people. That is exactly what is happening to the natural world that I love, and in the following pages I will try to explain what we can learn from Nature in addition to how and why most of what is left of the natural world must be protected. The only way for this to happen is if the vast majority of people change the way that they relate to the world that surrounds them. In so doing, I believe that many of them could become much happier.  

Not long after trying to describe the basics of science and how it supports the reality of evolution to my mother, I had an interesting dream. There was a grizzly bear in our front yard, and I wanted her to join me in approaching it, for a closer look. She didn’t want to, though did eventually acquiesce and drove me over to see it, on a four-wheeler. She was in the front, I was sitting on the back. Once we got close, I started taking pictures and then the bear aggressively charged toward the vehicle. I told her to ‘go!’ and she did. The bear was surprisingly fast, and had equally surprising endurance. It succeeded in scratching my hands, though we escaped. Once we reached the end of our road, somehow (due to dream logic), I was suddenly driving a motorcycle and my mother still drove the four-wheeler. I raced to the north down the road we had arrived to, leaving her at an intersection with a bear approaching. As I was speeding down a dirt road on the other side of the block, I thought that she might decide to go back toward the bear alone, ill-equipped to do so, and therefore expose herself to danger. Upon feeling very guilty, I awoke. This example of the subconscious eloquently using a metaphor (which goes to show how much the sub-conscious mind can perceive and create) is a perfect analogy for understanding other ‘grizzly bears’ in one’s front yard, in addition to evolution and its implications. ‘It’ is there, undeniable, and without the appropriate preparation can be daunting. And I felt in the dream that my mother was not prepared to think about a particular grizzly, mainly because she had not had years of schooling involving the study of evolution, such as I have.

So, I think that it is important for everyone to avoid facing grizzlies alone. There should be open discussions led by educated individuals about many such subjects (maybe dynamic and honest weekly meetings that the whole family could look forward to?). There is no reason for someone to have to grapple with such a difficult subject alone. Especially because it can turn from daunting to beautiful if approached correctly. This book is an attempt to help people turn a frightening grizzly bear (or bears) into a beautiful thing, so that an incredible painting can be saved and live to inspire others as it has so inspired and liberated me and others like me.

Climate Change is Not a Centaur

Centaurs, the half-man and half-‘beast’ creatures of Greek mythology, are now almost unanimously perceived as a human-created idea that many people in the past believed to be real.  There were centaur-fearing people, werewolf-fearing people, etc.  There are still some of these fearers, and large numbers of people today who fall into many disparate x-fearing categories (many of which are entirely human-created and not in the least, objectively, real).

Those things that can be influenced by a human being are worth worrying about by that particular human.  For example, a father may worry that if he died unexpectedly he would leave his family in an extremely difficult situation.  Investing in a life insurance policy can abate such fears.  There is no point in worrying about ways to prevent the very brain aneurysm which could leave his family in trouble.  Either it will happen or it won’t – there is essentially nothing that he can do.

Many argue that ‘climate change’ is not human-influenced, and therefore is not something for us to worry about it.  Some of those people who believe that centaurs exist may warn you that, if you go out into the forest, a pack of sweaty horse-men are going to trample you to death.  But there is nothing that you can do about it anyway, they might say, since centaurs can be anywhere at any time (including your home) so there is no reason to worry.  What will be, will be.  Don’t pick up your axe when the centaurs come clattering your way.  Such an outlook is not favorable to most of us.  It would be better to go down fighting a centaur, if it were a real creature, rather than allowing it to trample you.  It does not take a biologist to know that almost anyone will fight when presented with a situation that is apparently deadly.  Survival is the most engrained natural instinct of any living thing.  So if our life (which in genetic terms includes that of our offspring) depends upon it, we are naturally inclined to fight, say, a centaur – or any other threat that we perceive as real.

“I’m tired of hearing about centaurs.  Centaurs are not real.  I am a rationalist.  But even if centaurs do (or does, keep reading) exist, humans cannot possibly offer any resistance.  So let’s not worry!  Frankly, I’m quite sure that the Romans created the idea of centaurs so that we waste our time and resources trying to eradicate this myth!”  Replace ‘centaurs’ with ‘climate change’ and ‘Romans’ with ‘Chinese’ and this is essentially what Donald Trump has said in his so-far successful campaign to become president of the U.S. of A.

There are disconcertingly many who argue that climate change is such an illusion.  Human-caused climate change, they may argue, is as real and worth taking measures against as a centaur.  The fact that a major political party in the U.S. largely believes or pretends to believe that climate change is illusory is baffling from an ethical standpoint, considering the preponderance of scientific evidence suggesting otherwise, though expected from a political standpoint.  The support that candidates who deny human-caused climate change receive is a testament of the startling, and willfully ignorant, beliefs of a large percentage of United States citizens.

In the United States of America, many people are skeptical of science in general because, due to little or no fault of their own, they have not been trained in science.  Such a fact undermines the efficacy of statements by scientists, such as: humans are causing irreversible harm to the biosphere by burning fossil fuels.  People, understandably, don’t want to lose jobs and/or infrastructure associated with fossil fuel consumption, and will align with anyone who agrees with them.  Many (I stress, not all) Republican politicians, therefore agree for selfish and exploitative reasons.  They want to be elected, and say whatever it takes to gain the support of those who they do not ultimately care about the well-being of.  Being purposely selfish and exploitative are expected in the animal kingdom, which includes us humans, because that is usually the best way to have a lot of offspring.  But we must recognize this avoidable natural tendency now, and take it upon ourselves to demystify the notion of human-caused climate change before it is too late.  Let’s not allow the selfish people take advantage of us and the world that we love.

It is true that we as humans have a short reference frame, if one considers the vastness of time, and so the increase that we have seen in global temperature since we have been recording it could be a tiny, natural, and otherwise (if we weren’t living in the moment) brief and unnoticeable trend that is ultimately independent of human activity.  It is also true that a changing climate is natural.  There used to be tropical forests at the North Pole, for example.  Isolated weather anomalies do not prove human-caused climate perturbation.  Phenomena like solar flares could be more responsible for climatic variation than anything humans can do.

Such is the material of, for example, gabbers who are paid by oil and coal companies to talk on television or the internet in order to confuse people about the facts, and convince them that human-caused climate change is as real as a centaur.  The most devious and effective trouble-causers are those who construe veritable facts to support claims that are untrue.  Such is what the afore-mentioned political gabbers seem to be doing.  A puppet of such political strings should not be ridiculed, but should rather be reasoned with.  It is by talking to our neighbors, I think, that progress can and should be made.

This much is undeniable: we rely upon the plants and other animals which rely upon the climate that they evolved to (or were ‘created’ to, whatever floats your boat/arc) flourish in.  A changing climate negatively effects them, and therefore us.  John Muir said it best: “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else…”  And so it goes with us and the other things on Earth.  Just like a typewriter can no longer compete in the current technological climate, and has therefore gone extinct, so to do biological organisms go extinct when the climate changes.   If the climate changes substantially, it would not be that big of a deal for the Earth in the long, long run considering it is an inanimate object that would likely support different kinds of life after we, or something else, eradicated the life we know.  But it is a big deal for us as a species, in our short crawl of that long run, considering that when the other species go, their replacements will not likely come anytime soon.  We have one chance here, and if the thermostat is turned up, at best we will be uncomfortable.  At worst our civilization will be destroyed.
Climate Figure 1

Figure 1.  From Wiki Commons, showing how atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperature correlate.  The increase around 1900 seems directly related to human activity soon after the industrial revolution.  Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which means that it allows solar energy to gain admittance through the atmosphere but not leave. 

Anyone who has been in an uncomfortably hot room knows that tensions can run high, especially if there is melting ice-cream waiting to be eaten.  And if tensions become high enough (due to increased competition for natural resources, etc.) in a world where there are nuclear weapons and irresponsible leaders, than the end of our civilization could be much closer than most are willing to acknowledge.  Climate change makes an already difficult situation (living in this place among others who live in this place) more difficult to due resulting conditions such as sea-levels rising, weather unpredictability, and resource scarcity.  So let’s keep the thermostat from being turned up while we can, before Uncle Donny throws his empty ice cream bowl at Granny’s heat-stricken head.

Metaphors aside, my message in regard to climate change on planet Earth is as follows.  Even if we are not changing the climate, we should be worried that it is changing, and do everything in our power to combat major environmental perturbation.

A fish will die a terrible death if, say, hydrochloric acid begins to mix in sizeable amounts with the water in its bowl, whether or not that fish is the ultimate cause of the acid being poured in.  If Nemo, though, can push a button that diverts the acid from entering his environment, then he had better do so before it is too late.  And we, of course, are able to push a multitude of buttons here in our fish bowl called Earth that can reasonably maintain and restore the environment upon which we depend.  But the majority of us fish have to open our eyes first!

A few buttons worth pushing:

Forests should be spared from being cut down, or allowed to grow again, because they combat climatic perturbation by absorbing and assimilating the very carbon dioxide that is released when we breathe, or blithely burn trees, coal, and oil.  Such ‘fossil fuels’ as coal and oil, when burned, release carbon from organisms that lived long ago, and it has of course become fashionable for many and profitable for fewer to take advantage of this to provide, so-called, cheap energy.  But a hefty environmental cost is being paid, even if not apparent to those who have been duped into thinking burning coal is ‘cheap.’  Other technologies, like solar panels, could be nationally embraced so that we may someday utilize the sun’s energy in a sustainable and cost-efficient way.  One only needs to look at a photosynthesizing plant to see what is probably the best answer to our dire energy-consumption problems.  Furthermore, burning fossil fuels is an obvious dead-end, considering that oil, coal, and natural gas will likely run out or become too hard to access, which makes the development of renewable energy systems even more important.  And while there are many gifted minds already at work trying to develop efficient solar energy utilizing systems, and other renewable energy systems, they would stand a much better chance of achieving their goal if we all as educated citizens cared and demanded the development of such technologies be a global priority.  The job creation that would likely result from implementing a new, clean-energy infrastructure would be unprecedented in magnitude.  Anyone and everyone can/should drive less, recycle, re-use, join pro-environment clubs, and support politicians who are not selfish exploiters.

But for any of this to happen we must care about the issue that confronts us, and see climate change for what it is (a global challenge) and for what it isn’t (a centaur).  If we don’t care soon, our prospects look bleak.  This must become an everyday conversational reality if we are to salvage this strange and wonderful opportunity that is life on Earth.  One only needs to look at the fossil record to see how fast chances to develop consciousness evaporate.  Over 99 percent of the species that have ever lived, of which we are but one, are now extinct.  The time to see, care, and make a difference is now.

There are disconcertingly many examples of the effects that human-caused climate change has already had on the natural world.  It is probably not a coincidence that the mass extinction that we are currently experiencing is correlated with recent climatic perturbation.  For the sake of brevity I will mention only a couple of the first dominoes that are falling, and have chosen just two organisms that depend upon cold temperatures (though species are imperiled for a variety of reasons, not just temperature change).  Polar bears and pikas are famous for being among the first to suffer the consequences of human-caused climate change.  The bears can’t go any further north to find suitable habitat to replace what is being lost due to warming temperatures, and pikas can’t go up any further.  Both species could very well be extinct before the end of the century.  Should those of us at lower latitudes and elevations be so foolish as to assume that the first dominoes will fall but the others (like us), won’t?  And even if the other ‘dominoes’ (plants and animals upon which we depend) fall, are we as a species still so ignorant as to believe that we could stand unaffected?  I sincerely hope not.

Climate Figure 2

Figure 2.  The stoic stare of an endangered species, the American pika.

Choosing to remain ignorant in regard to the topic of climate change is as unacceptable as shooting pikas with pellet guns.  For by not caring, and not educating ourselves, we are condemning them in the short-term and ourselves in the slightly-longer-term.  I have heard pikas yip, and have watched them scurrying in the rocks.  They have as much a right to live as anything else.  Even the things that aren’t cute and cuddly so far as our mammalian brains perceive deserve to live, too.  And those of us who love life and living must do our best to protect the other organisms that us Homo sapiens have imperiled.  Even if we as a species could stand alone without the others (which we probably can’t), would we want to?

Without question, we have made some small steps in the right direction.  A recent step was the international agreement which happened in Paris, signed by 195 countries, to curb fossil fuel use and limit global temperature increase to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  But if it were not for those who call climate change a man-made myth, the deal would have likely been much more politically-binding and effective.  If it weren’t for the mythologists, a frustratingly large fraction of which reside in the seemingly drunk and disoriented U.S. (hyperbolically ‘drunk and disoriented,’ due to having consumed too much oil, see Figure 3), the deal would have likely elicited a global celebration.  Those of us who love life should be proud of this deal, and do our best to continue encouraging such acts of sanity and fore-sight in a place where irrationality and myopia are much too common.

Climate Figure 3

Figure 3.  Also from Wiki Commons, these data show what countries are most culpable for climate change.  Other ‘developing’ regions will soon increase Carbon emissions rapidly.

We can make a difference, but must act fast if we want to save the natural world and our place in it.  Climate change is a major obstacle which could unite the world in the effort of combatting it.  Truly global citizens we could be become, united by adversity, if we are willing to come together to stand up for life as we know it.

If you have read this far, you are probably either my mother (love you!), someone who really agrees with what I’ve written, or someone who really disagrees and enjoys the feeling of indignation that comes with reading something counter to what you believe.  It is unlikely that an ‘on-the-fence’ person has read this far, which is ironic considering these are the people who are exactly who I want to reach!  So if you agree with my position, please spread the word.  This is important stuff, despite being less than real to most people.  If you disagree, please consider what I have proposed, and ask yourself if you are really different than a fish dependent upon a suitable environment.  If you are on the fence, I commend you for giving me this much of your time, and encourage you to make an informed decision in regard to how you will live your life and influence the lives of others.  If you are my mother, pet a basset hound for me and think about naming the next one Pika (and imagine how enraged you would be if someone shot him/her with a pellet gun!).

So please be aware: human-caused climate change is not a centaur.  It is a process that we should spend time thinking about, as well as one that we can and should combat, together.



More informative graphs can be found at: