On Becoming a Naturalist

This piece originally appeared in my Green and Simple column on the Old Town Alexandria Patch.

How pushing through an irrational fear of bugs led me to become a naturalist and connect on a deeper level with the natural world.

For the past several weeks I have been taking weekly classes as part of the Arlington Regional Master Naturalist training program. I have been astounded by the wealth of resources, information and activities available to those who want to connect with nature.
The decision to apply for the program was a spontaneous one. I hardly knew what a naturalist was. I had only even heard the term a few times, but I knew that the science teacher at my son’s pre-school was a naturalist, and I loved what my son was learning. I loved his respect and appreciation of the natural world – and that of his two older sisters, who had also attended the same preschool.

For a person who grew up in a rural area, in a home bordered by a swamp, a cranberry bog, woods and a cemetery, I felt seriously lacking in my knowledge and understanding of the natural world. As a kid, I played outside with my siblings for hours on end, communing with imagined animals in the woods, struggling to escape supposed quicksand in the swamp, and jumping ditches on the bog in the summer and ice skating on the flooded and frozen bog in the winter. We would catch and release frogs and tadpoles, build forts out of sticks, take refuge in the weeping willow, and create currency out of the leaves that had fallen from trees.

While my exposure to nature was great, my understanding of nature was not. Perhaps because of a scare with a spider as an infant (an older brother dangled a plastic spider above me while I rested in my crib; my mother says I was so frightened that my body left the mattress!) I grew up afraid of almost every thing that crawled. I was so scarred by the event that I would strip clothes from my body if I even suspected that a bug was on me.

That fear carried over into adulthood. I only learned to tame, and in many cases overcome it, when I became a mother. I realized that I did not want to raise a bunch of bug stompers. I did not want my kids to suffer the same irrational fear I had of the insect world, so I pushed through it. I created contraptions to safely capture and release crickets, spiders and other bugs that took up residence in our home. I slept with one eye open for three nights during our first camping trip fearing that I would awaken with my body coated in daddy longlegs. I would espouse the benefits of bugs … spiders eat other bugs! Though it felt torturous at times, it did help my kids to develop a healthier relationship with critters than I have had for most of my life.

While I was proud of my personal growth in transforming my fear into curiosity and in developing an appreciation of (some) bugs, I still felt like I was missing an awful lot. And, as the kids developed their own areas of curiosity (and began asking loads of questions) about the natural world, the gaps in my knowledge and understanding became glaringly clear.

Of course, I am not expected to know everything. And, the kids would learn lots at school and through various nature programs. But as they shared what they were learning and asked questions I could not answer, I realized that I, too, wanted to know more. We made frequent trips to the library and bought lots of field guides covering everything from amphibians to trees to learn the finer details. But, nothing beats seeing, smelling, touching, hearing, and tasting, so we also increased our time outdoors. As their curiosity grew, so did mine. And, as my curiosity grew, so, too, did theirs. The experience of becoming a naturalist has been greatly enhanced by our mutual curiosity.

Over the past sever weeks, I have worn waders while standing in a stream catching critters in a net to examine under a scope, stood in a field in the early morning hours watching a woodpecker go at a tree, dissected and studied plants, and even handled a snake!
It has really been quite an adventure and we have several more weeks in store. Although I grew up in Massachusetts, I am a bit of a weather wimp and my tolerance for prolonged cold, wet weather is pretty low. I look forward to seeing how my newly enhanced appreciation for all things natural holds up over the winter months. I know that even in the most inclement weather, there is so much to behold and there are so many ways to connect with nature. I will keep reminding myself of this as the cold weather takes hold.

Earlier this week, when I looked up to find our nine year old, barefoot and perched in a tree with a book, I was tickled to see the nature connection in action. As I stood watching, I was struck by the way in which she integrated two of her favorite activities: reading books and climbing trees. So green, and simple!

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