My current job title is “Director of Science”, which I have to admit is a pretty cool title. It’s almost as good as the best job title I’ve ever held, which was “Land Steward”. I’ve worked hard to get my current job title, but also to shape the job description that goes with it. Specifically, throughout my career, I’ve fought to keep myself in the field, where I’m consistently able to explore and study prairies up close.
I’ve fought those battles because my sanity and well-being depends upon the sense of discovery I get whenever I’m in a prairie or other natural area. I recognize that I’m really fortunate to have been able to shape my career as I have, but even if I had to work outside of the arena of conservation, I’d still find time to be a naturalist. Heck, even now, I’m in the field during the majority of my work time, but I still spend a lot of my off hours in prairies.
I’m guessing most of us in the conservation arena got here because we were inspired by outdoor experiences as kids or young adults. I remember collecting snails in the road ditch across from my house when I was 6 or 7 years old, for example, and regularly riding my bike to the fishing pond across town when I was in 3rd grade. My aspirations for college were to get a degree and become a park ranger in a remote place where I could somehow get paid for exploring nature (like many people that age, I didn’t have a very realistic idea of what jobs are like).
There is certainly a lot more to my job duties than simply “exploring nature”, but I will defend that facet of my job vigilantly. I encourage everyone else in conservation to do the same. Not only does spending time as a naturalist help keep us inspired and energized, it’s how new discoveries and forward leaps in natural history happen. Despite the wealth of knowledge we have about the natural world, there are still gargantuan gaps in our understanding. Many times, we don’t even know what questions need to be asked, let alone how to answer them. As a simple example, I direct you to a short post written by Katharine Hogan, our Hubbard Fellow a few years ago about something I’ve noticed as well. We don’t yet know why all those silken strands sometimes appear in prairies, but I bet the answer will be a doozy when we find it!
Aside from the scarcity of natural areas in many places, it’s never been an easier time to be a naturalist, and it’s a pursuit open to anyone, of any level of experience. First of all, of course, there’s no requirement to identify what you see in order to enjoy finding it. However, if you do want to learn what species you’re admiring, there are now countless digital resources to help you, in addition to the standard books and experts that have been around forever. In addition, not only can you easily share discoveries with friends and potential friends through online communities, your discoveries can contribute to the growth of global scientific knowledge through programs like iNaturalist, Journey North, Bugguide, and many others.
The old adage about stopping to smell the roses applies just as much today as ever. It’s what makes life worthwhile. When I’m working in the field, I frequently interrupt what I’m doing to follow a trail or check out a spider web. I feel no guilt about that at all. First of all, I consider it part of my job to increase my experience and skill as a naturalist – and to pursue opportunities for scientific discovery. And second, it’s a tiny investment in my job satisfaction and energy level, from which my employer will reap many benefits. I would encourage everyone reading this to carve out your own naturalist time, regardless of whether that happens at work or not. Besides being good for you, it will be good for the world too.