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On Becoming a Naturalist

Part Two in the Series

By Julie Reiff

I remember taking a walk in the woods with my kindergarten class— led by Jeff Smith, a local naturalist in my small New Hampshire hometown. I remember the excitement of stomping on a puffball, sending the spores out in a small brown cloud. I remember counting the needles on a white pine: W-H-I-T-E. One of the other girls tried to goad me into picking a lady slipper (but fortunately I knew better).

These memories are more than half a century old but they stayed with me. Somehow I realized that nature was an amazing space to be in, if only we open our eyes and pay attention.

A Northern Amber Bumblebee in the Habitat For All Garden [photo by julie reiff]

And that’s really what it means to be a naturalist, to observe the natural world around us, even in the midst of a man-made environment. To indulge our curiosity: What’s here and why?

It’s easy to get caught up in the naming of things but that is only a stepping stone toward helping me better appreciate those rare organisms that cross my path.

Fortunately that walk was followed by many others. As a hiker I started to wonder about plants I saw along the trail. A five-hour jaunt is a whole lot more interesting for me if I can distinguish what’s around me rather than dismissing it all as the sea of green we call “woods.” When I hike, I pay attention to how the forest changes from the trailhead to the summit—anticipating that moment when I leave the northern hardwoods and enter the fragrant spruce-fir forest.

"It’s easy to get caught up in the naming of things but that is only a stepping stone toward helping me better appreciate those rare organisms that cross my path."

In the Habitat for All garden we have identified several species of bumblebees. It’s enough of course to know that a bumblebee is happily pollinating the garden, but what a treat to come across one that looks a little different now and again and be looking closely enough to recognize the difference. Or to catch a sedge in bloom and realize it’s more than an ordinary grass. The moment of discovery is richer and the reward greater for knowing you’ve come across something special.

This uncommon Long Beak Sedge is only noticeable on the East Loop at Valentine Farm once it goes to seed. [photo by Julie Reiff]

I regularly walk my dog along many of the same paths, too, and I like to look for differences each time. I find apps like Merlin and INaturalist help me record those observations, and yes, identify them. I now have an idea where and when to be on the lookout for some of my favorites. And I’m always learning.

I encourage you to take a walk in nature, to go back to that place from time to time and notice the differences—even if you don’t identify them. Maybe take a few photos to remind you of what you saw.

And if you have young people in your life, why not bring them along—perhaps a lucky kindergartner? You might encourage a future naturalist. And who knows, their natural curiosity might just be contagious.

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