Naturalist (nach-er-uh-list, nach-ruh-list]: a person who is expert or interested in botany or zoology, especially in the field
I was fortunate to grow up knowing many adults who were serious amateur naturalists. My mother —and her mother—were both gardeners and knew so much about plants, flowers, and trees. Mom is also a birder, and just today, she impressed me with her knowledge of the nesting habits of tree swallows. My father’s two sisters and a brother-in-law are avid birders, and my Uncle Edmund and his son Edmund can spot and identify just about any living creature, plant or animal. Another cousin, Imtiaz, can recognize bird calls better than anyone I know. They all just notice things!
Unfortunately, not as much of this rubbed off on me early on, so I was a little late embracing the naturalist within me. It’s true I was a biology major, so I was always interested in living things, but somewhere along the line, I stopped being so curious. Oh, I gardened when the children were little. I grew tomatoes and vegetables, and I canned, froze, and pickled the bounty of my garden, but I recognized only a few trees I passed in the woods. I could identify about eight or ten birds by sight and maybe four or five by sound, but when it came to telling the difference between a cardinal and a tanager—or distinguishing between any of the many types of sparrows—I didn’t have a clue. I did manage to learn a few local wildflowers, thanks to a wonderful book called Wildflowers of the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains, but I was far from a naturalist.
Fast forward a few decades. After the children left for college, I decided I’d better get cracking with whatever I might want to do with the rest of my life. I became hungry for learning more about the natural world around me. I realized I was only a small part of a huge, wonderful web of life, and I felt a strong connection with everything else in it. It felt hugely important both intellectually and spiritually to embrace that connection and learn more about it.
Birding became a passion. My indulgent husband erected bird feeders, and my family bought me bird identification books and a pair of binoculars. Soon, I thrilled to each sighting of the beautiful creatures visiting my feeder, and my pleasure only grew as I got to know them and call them by name. The day my husband came home with a Palm Pilot loaded with a program for recognizing bird calls was the unleashing of a brand new pursuit. Today I have iBird Pro on my iPad, and it has helped to expand the number of bird calls I can recognize even before I spot them in a tree or on a wire or fence.
Like most things worthwhile, becoming a naturalist is a slow process, and it starts with being more observant. Sights and sounds are stored in my brain one at a time, and I still am a novice compared to some of my friends and family who’ve been at it for years longer than I have.
But what joy and satisfaction I get just walking down my country road. Instead of seeing just a little gray bird, I recognize a mockingbird or a titmouse. Instead of a winter patch of briars in front of the barn, I see the lovely red stalks of wineberry bushes (see photo, left) that will yield their beautiful berries next summer. Instead of passing generic trees, I can call most of them by name and feel a kinship with them in nature’s web. Along the fencerow, I spot day lilies and wild peas (see top photo). I see all sorts of things I never used to notice in my haste to get wherever I was going: a hornet’s nest, a squirrel’s nest, a Monarch butterfly cocoon on a stalk of milkweed. I’ve learned to slow down, pay attention, take pictures, look things up, and ask others when I don’t know what I’m seeing.In the process, I’m becoming a naturalist.
And isn’t becoming—working towards something worthwhile— really what life is all about?
Photo credits: Top photo and photo of squirrel by John A. Cottrell, Jr.. Remaining photos by author.
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