A Naturalist?

As one might expect, I was asked what I “do” at my class of 1975 reunion last summer. I drew puzzled looks when I said “I’m a naturalist.” After explaining what a naturalist is and does, puzzlement evolved into the surprised query: “you do that for your job?”

In fact, there are plenty of professional naturalists around. But the title “naturalist” gets applied to a variety of job descriptions – most often applied to environmental educator or leader of elementary school field trips. These are very important roles. But there is an older concept of naturalist, a concept that is closely tied to the tradition of Johnsgard, Wilson, Ray, Dillard, Leopold, Thoreau, Emerson, Muir, Darwin, Humboldt, and all the way back to Theophrastus, the disciple of Aristotle. It is not a job or a hobby. It is a life’s work and a way of seeing the world, and a profession that is integral to the health of human communities. Ralph Waldo Emerson pondered the need for naturalists in his personal journal on October 24th, 1850:

“Now that the civil engineer is fairly established, I think we must have one day a Naturalist in each village as invariably as a lawyer or a doctor… The universal impulse toward the natural sciences in the last 20 years promises this practical issue. And how beautiful would be this profession!”

Emerson goes on to nominate local acquaintances for the job. Among others, he names Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau would have been qualified for the naturalist job not by his philosophy or social activism, but by his encyclopedic knowledge of his local biotic community and ecosystem, and his conviction that the wellbeing of humanity depends on deep and local intimacy with “Nature.”

Wild naturalists at Hitchcock Nature Center in Iowa's Loess Hills.

Wild naturalists at Hitchcock Nature Center in Iowa’s Loess Hills.

I was recently asked for an interview by an Omaha World Herald reporter. I invited Andrea Kszystyniak for a wild hike during a warm week in November. She raised the inevitable question as we listened to birdsong and studied sedges and tasted bitter berries. Happily the answer came in that moment: a naturalist is a student, pilgrim and explorer of a native place, guided by curiosity and joined by good company. (Thoreau was good at the former but poor at the latter; he disdained company save for a chosen few.) Andrea was a delightful companion and wrote an insightful news story. (To read it, click here: Naturalist… )

I am certainly not an exemplary naturalist. Let us rather look to others among us – the likes of E.O Wilson ( I love his book In Search of Nature) and Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek should be the manifesto for modern naturalists). Above these witnesses, I look to my mentor, friend, and coffee pal Paul Johnsgard. Those of us who seek nature at the center of this continent have no one better to read and emulate. Of his plethora of great books, my current favorite is Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie (2014).

But don’t sit inside reading! Find wildness where you live. Fall in love with nature every day. Pick up a book while waiting for the blizzard to quit, rain to stop, morning to break, mosquitos to die down, or boots to dry. And come to New Tree School. This month we offer a workshop on Lichens and Fungi, and a Solstice Saunter. Click here for details.

And saunter!