Naturalist’s Notebook

On Being a Naturalist by Don Lane

Many years ago, in a pre-Google world, I was leading a hike for a group of elementary students at Elachee.  I walked up to the group, introduced myself and told them I was an Elachee Naturalist. After I explained to them where we would be hiking, what we were going to do along the way and laying out some rules to be followed, the teacher asked: “Mr. Don, will you explain to the students what a naturalist is and how a naturalist is different from a scientist?” 

I gulped, took a deep breath and said after what seemed fifteen minutes but was likely less than fifteen seconds:  “A naturalist observes and often records what they experience in nature.  A scientist develops a hypothesis, tests the hypothesis, and reports on either accepting or rejecting the hypothesis.” 

Being able to think on one’s feet is a helpful skill for an Elachee Teaching Naturalist. Earlier, I used the term “pre-Google” because, as I was writing this, I “Googled” the “difference between a naturalist and a scientist.”  There was a myriad of hits.  I am pleased to report that my ad-lib those years ago was close to the results of my present-day search. 

We humans are born with a curiosity of the world around us. The next time you get a chance; observe a human baby, puppy, kitten, or nearly any young animal ambling about. It’s investigating and learning things about its environment by using all of its senses of sight, sound, smell, and taste. Human beings are explorers, and we are fortunate to live in a complex and fascinating natural world. Some of us remain intrigued and excited by everything about the natural world from the day we become aware of it until the day we die. I consider myself to be a part of that group of humans.

I’ve been lucky to have had interactions with many animals; dolphins, manatees, wolves, bears, and monkeys-all in the wild. I cringe when I hear someone say something like “yuk” when looking at a plant or animal that they don’t find appealing. All creatures are part of the natural world.  True, I don’t want a rattlesnake in my bed, nor do I want a shark to take a fish I am reeling in. 

I was fishing in Hawaii and hooked what turned out to be a nice size Mahi-Mahi when, suddenly, the line went limp. I looked up at the first mate and all he said was “shark.” All that I had on the end of my line was the head of the fish. While it is easy to fear or revile the shark or the rattlesnake, they are, none-the-less, as much a part of the natural world as we are.

Naturalists are lucky people in two respects. First, naturalists enjoy every aspect of the world around them and have a more enriched life than people who have little or no interest in the natural world. Second, naturalists can ply their pastime by watching birds in the square in Gainesville, for instance, or marveling in the splendor of a fall day in Chicopee Woods.

Humans have always had an interest in the plants and animals with which we share the planet.  Early humans were forced to be observers of the natural world as a means of survival. To our early ancestors, plants and animals were either helpful or harmful, food or predator. Sometime around 20,000 years ago humans began domesticating animals and plants. It’s theorized that the wolf became a partner of early humans by helping them hunt waterfowl, likely geese. Wild cattle were domesticated as well as plants such as corn and potatoes. Through domestication of wild plants and animals, humans evolved from a hunter-gatherer, nomadic lifestyle to more settled way of life.

Golden Age of Naturalists

Fast forward to the nineteenth century. A time that is, arguably, the golden age of naturalists. Naturalists of this era were educated people though not necessarily in the natural sciences as we define them today.  Some were what we refer to in modern time as “college educated” while others served an apprenticeship under an older, educated mentor.

Of all the nineteenth century naturalists, one name stands out among all others. He was a young Englishman, the fifth of six children of a wealthy doctor and financier. Because of his family’s standing in British society, he was asked if he would like to sail on a voyage of discovery aboard a Royal Navy warship called the HMS Beagle. That young naturalist was Charles Darwin.

Darwin was the consummate naturalist. He was observant, patient, ever curious, and both a meticulous and assiduous note taker. He observed and recorded many interesting things during the voyage of the Beagle. However, it was only when the ship arrived in the Galapagos Islands in 1835 that a relatively unknown ship’s naturalist begin formulating a work that had more impact than any other to date in our understanding of the natural world.

During his time in the Galapagos, Darwin’s naturalist mind saw a similarity between selective breeding by humans and selection done by natural processes. In his native England, elites were desirous of various shapes, sizes, and colors of domesticated animals, from dogs to pigeons and even rats. Domesticated or “fancy” rats were kept as pets by some of the ladies of British society. English pigeon breeders created all sorts of pigeons, both functional and decorative, such as the show racer, English pouter, and English fantail. All of which were selectively bred for specific traits from the rock dove, or common pigeon.

Observing finches found on various islands and habitats in the Galapagos, Darwin noticed that the finches had different shaped beaks. Further study and observation of the various beak shapes as well as the habitat in which the bird resided led Darwin to conclude that, over time, the finches’ beaks changed due to natural selection because the Galapagos finches ate different foods. Darwin further postulated that all of the Galapagos finches evolved from a finch species found on the mainland of South America that was blown to the islands during a storm. Upon returning to England, Darwin put pen to paper.  The result was the seminal work: “On the Origin of Species.”

Unknown to Darwin at the time was the work of an obscure Austrian monk. Gregor Mendel worked in his monastery’s garden. He conducted experiments with peas. Mendel was interested in finding out if the seed produced by a certain plant resembled the seeds from which the plant itself grew. He cross-bred plants hundreds of times and took copious notes of the type of seed that came from the cross breeding of the pea plants. Approximately forty years after his work with pea plants in the monastery’s garden did science recognize the significance of his efforts. Mendel theorized that plants and animals inherit characteristics from their ancestors. His work is the foundation of the science of genetics.

Both Mendel and Darwin were naturalists. The revolutionary work of Darwin came from his travels all over the earth. Mendel’s revolutionary work came from his monastery’s garden. From Darwin the world traveler and Mendel the monastic monk, we can learn an important lesson: one does not have to travel the world to be a naturalist, there is plenty to discover close to home.

So, what is a naturalist? Or, what about the person taking a hike in Chicopee Woods makes them a naturalist? Recall my earlier response to the elementary students that “a naturalist observes the natural world.” Both Darwin and Mendel did just that and from their observations and meticulous notes where able to come up with theories that dramatically changed how we view the natural world. 

One cannot be a naturalist without, first and foremost, have an inquiring mind. Second, a naturalist should have keen powers of observation. In the book “A Scandal in Bohemia”, Sherlock Holmes tells Dr. Watson: “You see, but you do not observe.” Third, a naturalist should be interested in many things in the natural world, but can specialize in such areas as birding, plant identification, or other subjects. True, not many of us who call themselves naturalists will go on to develop revolutionary theories like Darwin and Mendel, but just sharing our knowledge and passion of the natural world with someone else could be just as important.

The great naturalists like Darwin and Mendel likely gained their appreciation of the natural world as children wading into a stream and turning over rocks to see what lay beneath, looking closely at the structure of a leaf, looking at a drop of water through a microscope, or closely observing the natural world around them-both large and small-while hiking. Naturalists are ever fascinated by the natural world they encounter whether that encounter is half a world away or in their backyard garden. 

My plan for subsequent Naturalist’s Notebook blogs is to share with readers some of the things in the natural world – both big and small – that fascinate me. Hopefully, by doing so, it will help you to become a (or a better) naturalist.