Reflections on the Naturalist School

Reflections on the Naturalist School

By Becky Colgrove
One spring morning, I was feeling kind of bummed. I was tired from working all night the night before and looking for some inspiration. I came across a post on social media for the Naturalist School at Hitchcock Nature Center. I felt as though I had found a hidden treasure. They only had room for 15 people; could I be one? This was something that I had never done before and thought for sure that I wasn’t educated or qualified, but I took a chance and quickly emailed the contact, Jack Phillips.

 

TNSHNC_FlyerIn my email, I explained my situation to Jack. I had a career but my heart wasn’t in it. I knew that I belonged outdoors and was anxious to learn as much as I could about something I knew you could never really know, but then, I never really knew where to start. I was intrigued by the naturalist courses offered because of the variety of studies and a promise to never be inside (weather permitting, it still has to be pretty bad before cancelled though – which I love!) and thought this could be just the place I had been looking for to get my start. I promised Jack that I would be dedicated and I would try to keep up; He strongly encouraged my attendance and led me to believe that he felt I should be there just as much as I did. I went to the next scheduled class with my notebook, water bottle, and binoculars in tow and every class for six months thereafter.
After my first class, I realized how much information I had been exposed to. I had been scribbling down notes in my small brown journal all morning. I couldn’t keep up with all that was being said, partially because I was listening and partially because I was so engulfed in whatever plant or animal or history lesson that was being discussed or looked at that I couldn’t break away for note taking. It was all so interesting that I wanted to remember every word spoken on that first day.  It brought out a sense of eagerness to learn in me that I hadn’t experienced in a very long time.
IMG_20161019_194536The people in the class were also amazing. They all had their own field of study, their own styles of teaching (which I’m still not convinced that everyone even realizes the extent of knowledge that I have gained from speaking to and knowing them), and their own experiences and  stories. The best part was they were all there for the same reason I was. They were there to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors and be in the company of others that were just as eager to learn from and teach each other as myself. At times, there were 4 generations of people joined together to guide and nurture one another through the awesome experience which was simply a walk through the forest.  It truly felt like an honor to be amongst them.
As my primary mentor throughout this journey, Jack, as principal of the Naturalist School, has furthered my studies of nature and myself by letting me take part in walkabouts and participating in plant surveys, invitations to studies of the effects of wildfire on trees (which inspired me to start studying to be part of the controlled burn team), several lichen, fungi and moss sessions (I never miss one of these. Katie is the best!), sessions about sedges and grasses, writing, birds, water ecology, butterflies and moths, just to name a few.  Jack and Naturalist School have given me exposure to several very interesting, smart and kind individuals that I may have otherwise never got the chance to learn from.
The Naturalist School opened up other opportunities almost immediately. It wasn’t long before I joined the Thursday walkabouts. These were especially interesting to me because I saw people (conservationists, botanists, authors, photographers, etc.) come together and discuss plants, although, we always stopped to take the time to notice the birds and sky and everything around us. We were given a list and were to check off the plants we recognized. I, of course, hardly knew a handful of species. But it didn’t take long after observing and listening to my peers to have several notes taken and even a pretty good grasp of common species and I learned how to tell subtle differences, as well as plant terminology and biology. I remember being with men that have written books about it and hearing them giggle with one another when they couldn’t remember the name of a plant that they themselves documented. They were and still are such an inspiration for me.
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That paper with the list of plants on it sat on my desk. One day I noticed it and had an idea to form my own field guide of sorts. I needed to make a guide that I could create to make the lifelong process of learning about my earth, easier. I needed to familiarize myself with the botanical names of species so I decided I would input all of the information from that sheet into a database. This way I could learn the botanical and common names in relation to each other, whether the plant is native or not, and how particular the plant is about where it grows.
LocoweedI was quickly intrigued and distracted by botanical names. I was able to get glimpses of the books of my peers that would translate the botanical Latin for me. I purchased books of my own (which I would have never known existed if not for my peers at Naturalist School, mind you) and began yet another notebook, starting with “A” on my list of plants and began to translate the botanical names. Doing this made the connection between the plant, botanical name and sometimes common name easier. It is a work in progress, but someday I hope to have a notebook to share with my peers and children that they will appreciate and find useful.
I have a drawer in my cabinet dedicated to those sheets. I save them from every walkabout and input them into my spreadsheet when time allows. I also have lists of new species of plants to add to sections. There is also a hope to add pictures and descriptions as well as the same for fungi, birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects… someday.
Throughout my journey with Naturalist School, I have found a tremendous amount of inspiration. The strong dislike for butterflies I had going into this has dissipated to a small flinch when they get near my eyes thanks to Ted, Sue and Joe for sharing their love and passion for them; A forgotten love of writing has been rekindled thanks to Jack’s encouragement, Joe’s love of sharing and Matt’s guidance; Friendships have been made. Being with the other members is like being with family.
They call me a certified naturalist now, but I can’t say what that means. I had to guide a workshop to get said certification. I did mine on gathering the seeds of a few species that Jack told me would be ready to harvest. I took all the information I had from notes and conversations and put together a small speech to inform the others of the goal of the day. I was nervous, as I have never been good at public speaking and honestly contemplated if that would be what it would take to make me run away from the workshop. I went there telling myself that if I blanked that it would be ok because those there would guide me through, and they did. I came out of the day knowing that someone took some valuable information from what I had taught them and I gained a new confidence when speaking in front of group. It was a good day. We also had a writing workshop that gave me the courage to read my words to others and I was so grateful for the responses of my peers. They were constructive and polite. Again, giving me courage to do and share what I love.
Badger Ridge
I have learned so much from my time with the Naturalist School and continue to be inspired to do new and wonderful things. I’m still rather busy with family, school and work, and I don’t often have the opportunity to spend the time I wish I could on my projects, but that’s one thing about it, I signed up for every Saturday for the rest of my life so I’m not feeling  too rushed!
So, as far as being certified, I’m still not sure, but I have reached several milestones, milestones on a journey that will be my lifetime. I look forward to the company, guidance, and resources provided to me by the Naturalist School to accompany me on my journey. I have each and every member to thank for my progress and for continued inspiration. I feel as though our paths have crossed for a reason and I love that we are starting our journey further south down the Loess Hills together.
Click here for more information and to register online for The Naturalist School at Hitchcock Nature Center Spring Field Season.