#IAmANaturalist. It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve become comfortable with using that title. More officially, I am an ecologist. Certainly these titles are not, and should not, be mutually exclusive. Actually, I think being both an ecologist and a naturalist is ideal as interests and insights in one are often inexorably linked to the other. However, up to this point, much of my research in ecology and evolutionary biology has not been particularly inspired or rooted in natural history observations, at least not my own observations. This is not necessarily a flaw, but rather something I would simply prefer not to be the case. Something to strive for in the future.
I mention this because natural history in the broad sense—attentive focus given to organisms, patterns, and processes in nature—has grown as a personal pastime and passion. This of course can take many forms: photographing arthropods, bird watching, walking through and enjoying natural landscapes, and identifying plants growing out of sidewalk cracks, just to name a few. My increasing comfort in calling myself a naturalist comes primarily from four realizations: 1) natural history observations are key in informing and inspiring interesting research questions in ecology and evolutionary biology, 2) basic natural history is of critical importance in managing species, communities, and ecosystem imperiled by anthropogenic changes (e.g. climate change, habitat destruction), 3) natural history is the common thread in basically all my interests and pursuits in life, 4) understanding of, and connection with organisms and natural places is simply very pleasing and can even evoke a sense of spirituality that is otherwise foreign to me.
Much has been written about my points 1 & 2 above (notably these recent papers here and here) but I would like to provide a bit of a window into my points 3 & 4:
Yesterday I headed up to Hartwick Pines State Park about two hours north of East Lansing, Michigan (where I just moved). I learned of this park from this list of old-growth forests. I knew visiting an old-growth forest in Michigan would help me gain a sense of place in this new environment.
The forest was a mix of white and red pine, sugar maple, beech, and eastern hemlock. The tall and straight white pines were the signature feature though, as they were typically larger in diameter and extended above the canopy of the other species. This 30 second video gives a sense of the environment better than anything I could write (do you hear the woodpeckers foraging?):
It is important to stop moving. Listen. Look. Smell. Touch. Taste. Tuning your senses to a natural environment always results in interesting discoveries. I was inspired to capture my discoveries with a poem (of sorts):
In these ancient woods
My eyes scan
For dead trees
I walk slowly
Peering around snags
Tail feathers pressed firmly against bark
Pounding fits of 8th notes
Head angled left
Chiseling bark and wood
Scatter and fall
On twigs and pine needles
Red squirrel shouts
Feverishly runs off
And then a duo
Both hopping upwards
White pine dance floor
For their performance
Of course there were other interesting sightings too:
Experiencing this setting, all the details, the clean smell of the air, even the mosquitoes that swarmed around me, was an uplifting experience. But it was also bittersweet. Undisturbed communities such as this old-growth forest are very rare. Building a connection with this unique place, this islands of unlogged forest, gave me the visceral realization that I was within a biome that is severely damaged, and in its pristine state, nearly extinct. Old-growth forests in North America are miniscule polka dots on a map dominated by landscapes fully or partially run over by humans’ destruction. Aldo Leopold said “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” This is the dark side of being a naturalist.
But there is power in connection with nature and power in feeling the pain of the gaping wounds ripped across our landscapes. Reed Noss said in his great book on the natural history of Southern Grasslands “Endless fascination with nature–nothing more and nothing less–is the key to enlisting people in the fight to save biodiversity”. If we can’t get more people to have personal connections with places and organisms then are attempts at protecting and rebuilding populations, communities, and ecosystems are doomed. This is another very important reason to be a naturalist, to identify as a naturalist, and to promote and share the practice of natural history.
We must remember that aboriginal cultures did not have a word for “nature” because they had no reason to consider themselves as separate from the world around them. Their lives were entirely dependent on their understanding of the organisms, communities, and ecosystems that surrounded them. This remains true today although it can be hard to tell and easy to forget. That understanding is scattered across our vast populations with selected few having the personal connections with the physical, chemical, and biological processes that allow our modern lives to continue as they do. When we become disconnected we lose wisdom, compassion, and foresight. Natural history is about rebuilding those connections. #IAmANaturalist, and proud of it!