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.
Your insights, and you sharing them, richly bless my life and spirit. Thank you.
You are the best!
I saw a bumblebee feeding on spiderwort this past week at Springbrook Prairie in IL. Surprised me!
Thank you for your observations! These days, I’m dying to speak with another naturalist…
We are lucky you are willing to share your knowledge. Thanks for all you do and the inspiration you spark.
Lovely post. Being out in nature keeps me going also.
I rediscovered something interesting today. I was brushing the ripe seeds of Senecio into a bowl. After I finished and looked in the bowl I noticed all these green insects, small beetles, and tiny spiders. The most interesting find of all were these tiny orange-yellow inch worms. It made me think of your meter plot photography project. I began wondering how many more things you might have discovered if you had shaken the plants over a piece of paper.
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I began exploring the natural world only a decade or so ago, and with every passing year have become more deeply engaged. I have yet to spend a day — or even an hour — ‘just looking’ without finding something that’s interesting, puzzling, or delightful. That day may come, but I’m not holding my breath!
It’s one of the aspects of my job I have always loved…and always felt guilty about doing. I don’t get to do it very much (hardly at all) any more. Most of my day is either teaching or on the computer. How sad is that?!? I need to make the time to get out and explore more often. HAHAHAHA.
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