Learning to be a naturalist

Last week, our Behavior, Ecology and Evolution Reading club (BEER) had a FaceTime meeting with Dr. Harry Greene. In one of his [in]famous articles, Rewilding Our Lives (2015), Dr. Greene described the three most transformative experiences he has had as a naturalist, and in our meeting he wished for us as young naturalists to do these things as well. They are to:

1. “Shoulder a pack and walk for days in a wild place, with everything necessary for health, welfare, and pleasure on one’s back, and to do this at least once where carrying out your own solid waste is required.”
2. “Set out on foot in Africa, to spurn safari vans and mingle with the last diverse megafauna on Earth.”
3. “Kill, butcher, and eat a large bird or mammal.” (Or, to farm as the vegetarian-friendly option).


Gran Teton National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

How many of these experiences have you had? How many of Dr. Greene’s challenges would you take him up on*? How and when we have these transformative experiences “in the wild” shape our values, observational skills (and therefore research) as well as how we teach. For instance, I bet those who have been camping since age 7 are much more comfortable taking a class of 20+ undergrads on a camping trip later on in life. Most of our department agrees that being a good naturalist is an important part of being a good ecologist, but if not from how we were raised, how do we become naturalists?

Though many of the people I choose to surround myself with these days spent their childhood summers camping in national parks, or at the very least going on day hikes, I did not. I did not realize how much of an anomaly I might be in this field until our recent BEER conversation, which made me wonder: how did I get to where I am today? (And how can others do the same?)

Given that I can’t attribute my current outdoor enthusiasm to my upbringing**, I really credit my experiences in elementary, middle and high school, where I had some excellent science teachers who encouraged me to apply my curiosity outside of the classroom. It wasn’t until my undergrad years that I was regularly exposed to opportunities to get out into the mysterious “field” I had heard so much about.


Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park, Queensland, Australia

Field courses are difficult to facilitate. They can also involve whiney students. But they’re the primary reason I became a naturalist and an ecologist, and had science instructors not been enthusiastically leading the way on these excursions, I probably wouldn’t have done half of those things. (Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!)

We need more organizations like The School for Field Studies, The Nature Place Day Camp and more individuals who push for field-based courses even when they’re more challenging to organize and face push back from administration. CSUN’s Biology Department does an excellent job of incorporating fieldwork into upper level courses (just ask any undergrad in the major- it’s almost impossible to avoid field trips), and an intro course is currently being redesigned so that it more appropriately sparks students’ interest in nature. How does your institution navigate the risks and costs inherent with field courses?

*If all expenses were paid. Which was obviously the first question the grad students asked.
**Though I should mention I did have limited exposure to gardening and fishing.

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  1. By Recommended Reads #53 | Small Pond Science on May 22, 2015 at 5:01 am

    […] Harry Greene shared his three tips about how to become a naturalist. […]

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