Unlock a New Way of Seeing the World as a Master Naturalist

November 9, 2016

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Fender's Blue (Icaricia icarioides fenderi) is an endangered subspecies of butterfly found only in the Willamette Valley of northwestern Oregon. Fender's Blue butterflies are completely dependent upon the threatened plant species, Kincaid's lupine (Lupinus sulphureus kincaidii). Photo © Matthew Benotsch/TNC

Becoming a Master Naturalist is easier than you think. You don’t have to enroll in years of coursework or explore the world a la Darwin. In fact, there may well be a comprehensive naturalist class near you.

Working at The Nature Conservancy, I’m used to being around people with all kinds of nature knowledge. Many of my colleagues are hardcore birders, from those that are relatively new to the sport  to those who have seen 5,000 bird species in a lifetime. And my editor, in addition to an interest in non-traditional angling, participates in the up-and-coming, but more daunting hobby of mammal watching.

All of these pursuits require a detailed knowledge of nature, often going beyond knowledge of birds, fish or mammals to knowledge of their habitat, prey and life history. Inspired by my coworkers’ fascinating knowledge of nature and natural history, I’ve learned there’s a word for them – they’re naturalists.

For many, the word “naturalist” evokes an earlier time: think Victorian-era explorers collecting species in the tropics. But the naturalist tradition is alive and well today. And I am about to embark on a class devoted to improving those skills.

How to Become a Naturalist

 Many people become naturalists through rigorous self-study. Observing nature around them, taking field notes and reading field guides and natural history books. Many influential scientists, like Charles Darwin and John James Audubon were naturalists in this sense.

While improving my observational skills & talking to colleagues, I learned that there is another way to improve your knowledge of the natural world: Master Naturalist programs offer courses (usually through a university or state agency). These courses are open to adult learners with an interest in learning more about the environment.

Check to see if there is a Master Naturalist program in your state.

Field notes taken by forest guards examining flora and fauna in the Wehea forest of Kalimanta, Borneo, Indonesia. The Wehea forest is the site of continuing forest research by The Nature Conservancy. Photo © Bridget Besaw
Field notes taken by forest guards examining flora and fauna in the Wehea forest of Kalimanta, Borneo, Indonesia. The Wehea forest is the site of continuing forest research by The Nature Conservancy. Photo © Bridget Besaw

A Whole New World

I couldn’t resist this opportunity. Who could resist the title “Master Naturalist”?

I set out to become a Master Naturalist in my recently adopted home state, Oregon, and, just a month into the course, I am already learning more than I ever expected. Before studying wildlife and ecology (things I think of first as naturalists’ pursuits), we started with the basics of ecoregions, geology and hydrology.

For instance, I discovered that the amazing variety of landscapes in Oregon is the result of geological processes that have taken place over millions of years and continue to be relevant to life today.

Practically, learning about geology has made me far more aware of the disaster risks in my state, including tsunamis along the coast, earthquakes in Portland (and beyond) and volcanic eruptions in the Cascades. Furthermore, I am more aware of the connection between geological features and the life they support. For instance, the fertile soils of the Willamette Valley were deposited by the glacial waters of the Missoula Floods during the last Ice Age. These soils make the Willamette Valley more suitable for ecosystems like oak forests and for agricultural development.

Sandhill cranes flying over the Wisconsin River at Cactus Bluff in Sauk County, Wisconsin. Photo © Steve S. Meyer
Sandhill cranes flying over the Wisconsin River at Cactus Bluff in Sauk County, Wisconsin. Photo © Steve S. Meyer

Similarly, the study of watersheds has changed the way that I think about the landscape. Particularly in Portland, I can see how the lack of permeable surfaces influences pollutants in the water and the flow of streams (water is channeled via stormwater drains and ditches directly into streams and rivers rather than sinking in as groundwater first and slowly recharging lakes and streams — these changes increase risk of flash floods).

Many areas have a local watershed council and volunteer opportunities to make changes (like planting native plants or creating rain gardens) that can restore permeable areas for groundwater to recharge and improve water quality. These projects are essential in a world where water crises are a present and growing threat.

On the journey to become a Master Naturalist, you will also learn about wildlife management and have the opportunity to study local ecology in-depth. Volunteer hours are often a requirement for maintaining your Master Naturalist certificate and you will be connected with opportunities to volunteer in citizen science, restoration, environmental interpretation and more.

If you want to make a difference for the environment, to inspire others with a love of the outdoors, or simply to learn more about nature in your area, consider looking for a Master Naturalist program in your state.

The Nature Conservancy's Panther Knob Preserve in West Virginia. Photo © Kent Mason
The Nature Conservancy’s Panther Knob Preserve in West Virginia. Photo © Kent Mason
Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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  1. about the link…it’s from 2009 and the info for WA is out of date. links are no good. email no good. Poor Washington…of all the states that you think would have a decent MN program it would be this one. alas- nothing worthy. what a shame and an embarrassment.

    1. Hi Teresa, Thank you for the note! I looked for a more up to date list of MN programs and was unable to find one. I have put in a request that the page I linked to be updated.

  2. I would be interested in contacting any naturalist involved in studying invertebrates animals of still and flowing waters . An example what I’m looking for can be seen at the following links.


    John Lavelle

  3. Hi Lisa, The link for California appears to be a deadend. Any ideas? Thanks!

  4. Same result as the others on the link. I am in Maryland and the University off Maryland apparently never started the naturalist course? If you have a link, great. Otherwise I am a journalist and will dig it out as I am supposed to.

  5. I think another way to inspire adults to think about this is to offer one or two of those classes to include children. Like a parent/child activity. As a child I did have an interest in learning about insects, birds, minerals and sea life, but had no one to inspire me or take interest with me and eventually I just moved away from it. It’s a shame really because I find myself online looking for species of birds, sea life, and flowers/trees I’ve never seen before and posting what I find on facebook for others to see. I have a few followers who really enjoy these posts. If I wasn’t a disabled senior I’d be trying to expose my grandchildren to something like this but I am also house bound and can’t get out to explore with them. Think about it, encourage adults to link with a child and spread the knowledge. That child will probably find a friend who will become interested too.