What the hell is a “naturalist”?

And so, what with my recent graduation from the Missouri Master Naturalist program, I’m often asked, “what’s a naturalist?” I hope this brief essay will shed some light on the subject for you. And, don’t stop asking me! 😀 Any typos are my own. -M

*Excerpted from The Naturalist, Winter 2003

     One evening long ago, I was reading an issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine. I suddenly spotted an announcement for an upcoming meeting of a group called “The Association of Interpretive Naturalists.” Voila! An epiphanous light bulb clicked on over my head as the words rolled around in my mind. That’s what I want to be! A naturalist!

However, what became clear to me that distant evening has often remained murky to others. Just what a naturalist is, or what a naturalist does, is sometimes hard to put into words. Some folks even get the term confused with naturist, which, I am told, is something entirely different. But being a naturalist doesn’t have to be difficult to understand. You don’t necessarily need years of training or an advanced degree to be a naturalist. In fact, you might be one yourself and not even know it.

And so, as a public service, I offer the following observations, so that you, too, might know if you are indeed a naturalist.

You know you’re a naturalist when:

  • The meat in your freezer still has fur on it (people who live with naturalists tend to examine leftovers v-e-r-y carefully).
  • There’s a bug in your soup and you need to know what it is–not how it got there.
  • You pull weeds from your yard and serve them as a salad.
  • You stop on interstate highways to look at birds [and turtles and roadkill] even though you’re pretty good at identifying raptors at 75 m.p.h.!).
  • You can collect more than five kinds of rocks or fossils without ever leaving your car.
  • You run toward snakes instead of away from them.
  • Your binoculars are worth more than your car.

Obviously, being a naturalist is as much a matter of attitude, as it is of education or training. One just needs the right opportunity to express one’s naturalistic tendencies (some people suspect naturalists are a couple of classes short of a phylum but that’s another story). So next time you’re cruising down the highway and see a roadkill….

Brian Burnette is Chief Naturalist at the Dallas Museum of Natural History.

Links to Missouri Master Naturalist info:
Rolla chapter – http://meramechills.org/
Program overview – http://extension.missouri.edu/masternaturalist/overview.aspx

And, of course, I promise a lengthy update soon. I’ve a lot to get y’all caught up on!


Photo courtesy of Meramec Hills Chapter of Missouri Master Naturalists.

Oh, and this, too!  Gotta remember to talk about this:


Photo courtesy of Amber Cothren, http://www.adamsphotographynola.com

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