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On Becoming a Naturalist:

Living Like a 12-Year-Old

By James Reddoch

As a youngster,I was brought up in the woods, fields, ponds, and rivers of the deep South. My brother and I roamed the woods around our house. Once we found a hollow tree that was damp inside and barely big enough for the two of us. Even so, we were convinced we could make it our home and live off the land just like I devoured biographies about John Muir and other famous scientists and adventurers. My grandmother had a closet with National Geographic magazines going back to the 1920s. It was through these that I learned about the discoveries made by the Leakey’s, Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees and Diane Fossey’s with the great apes. I fumed when I missed the show, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, because we had to go to church on Sunday nights. I received a set of Golden Guides as a gift and carried one or more with meal most everywhere. (I still have them.) During library period at school, I would take Peterson’s Field Guide to North American Birds off the shelf and spend the class studying my favorites.

A luna moth caterpillar

Around the age of 12, I started telling anyone who would listen that I was going to become a naturalist. I don’t think most adults knew what I was talking about and most of my classmates thought I was a little odd. But I kept it up until one day my mother said, “Becoming a naturalist is all well and good, but how are you going to make money?” She had a good point.

My school studies and career choices took me in very different directions. Although my plan to become a naturalist faded into the background, it never completely died. My interest in the natural world, birds in particular, has continued as a hobby over the years. But now, finally at the age of 62, I am a few months away from completing the Maine Master Naturalist Program and I’ve noticed that I’m starting to live like a 12-year-old again.

A reticulated net-winged beetle

The Maine Master Naturalist Program instructors have drilled into our heads that to become a naturalist we have to improve our skills of observation. At its simplest level, that is what defines a naturalist-a person who studies or observes nature. All it takes is a willingness to put yourself in nature and spend time watching, listening, and making note of what you discover. Sounds easy? In concept, yes. However, I have found it harder than I expected. Forcing myself to slow down is hard in part because I too often am focused on reaching a destination. As a result, what starts as a nature walk turns into a hike. On a recent walk with others, I sped down the trail and stepped over a bright red salamander that people moving more slowly behind me found. On another walk, I zoomed past a giant caterpillar and walked right by an orchid I had missed. Lucky for me, slower and more practiced naturalists were more observant. I am getting better, though.

One of my favorite things this summer has been to take a daily walk down my driveway to see what new wildflowers are blooming along its edges and in the field. It has opened a whole new world. So far, I’ve found 70 different types of flowers. Seventy! I never would have imagined so much was going in such a small space. That’s not all! When looking at flowers,I couldn’t help but notice a host of different insects. More recently, I’m finding incredible caterpillars with bright colors and strange hairdos. Slowing down and asking questions: What is happening here? Where is this creature or plant living? What color is it? How would I describe its shape? What is its relationship to other plants or creatures nearby? This is leading to a whole new level of discoveries. Just recently while looking at a patch of aster in my field I discovered an indigo bunting chirping angrily from a bramble nearby. I was too close to its late-season nest. Just fifty yards away while looking at a patch of goldenrod, I heard the same urgent chirping deep in the high grass. It was another indigo bunting nest. How had I not seen these birds before now?

Downy rattlesnake plantain, a native orchid

So, these are the lessons I’m learning as I slow down and become more observant about the world around me. Here is an experiment I’m trying for the next two weeks. I’m planning to take 10 minutes a day at roughly the same time to sit on my front porch. I’m not bringing a book. I’m turning my phone off. I’m going to resist the temptation to daydream. My goal is to look and listen to what is happening. Which birds get upset when I come out? How long does it take them to stop fussing? What insect sounds do I hear? How do I describe what they sound like? What else do I notice about the leaves, needles, cones, and bark of the trees? What colors do I see? What do I smell? I don’t know what I’ll discover, but I think I’m going to learn something about the plants and creatures that are living right under my nose.

I invite you to join me. Take on this 10-minute challenge. Find your own spot. Visit it regularly and just observe. I promise you will discover something new. You also might find you too are starting to live like a 12-year-old!

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