On Being a Naturalist


waterfront panorama - Historic Blakely State Park

Waterfront panorama

IMG_1974What is a naturalist, anyway?

“A naturalist is someone who studies the world around them and is in awe of what they find there.”   Rudy Mancke
Several years ago while attending a conference in Charleston South Carolina I heard Rudy Mancke, naturalist, writer, and the creative force behind the acclaimed public televising show,  NatureScene, state the above. Of all the definitions of the word “naturalist”, I like Mr. Mancki’s the best. I love this definition for what it does, and what it doesn’t suggests. First, there is the implication that something is required of us. Yes, study!  We prepare ourselves to enter into a relationship, one that like all healthy relationships is reciprocal in nature. We aren’t merely drinking in the scenery, we are opening our hearts and preparing our minds to give the necessary time, attention, and care.

photos spring and summer 2010 021

What may start out as causal affair, blossoms into a full-fledged commitment. We fall in love. We become passionate in our desire to understand more about our beloved. We take time for the intimacy needed to discover the treasures previous hidden in plain sight. We may find ourselves reading odd but exquisite journals on natural history subjects that can range from bryology, to zoology; from comparative anatomy to plant physiology. We may begin to carry about field guides, notebooks, sketch pads, magnifiers, binoculars, plant presses, sweep nets, and various other accouterments of the field. We may research on line, book marking credible and useful sites.

IMG_4443But mostly we spend a lot of time tromping about in woodlands, creeks, meadows, marshes, weed lots, or strolling attentively along lake and sea shores. We are awed and delighted by discovery. We see a painted bunting, hear the haunting spiraling song of a veery echoing from the valley, or find a spicebush caterpillar in its ingenious disguise, and our eyes widen in wonder. Or sometimes we stand in the place where history was made, perhaps where civil rights were defended,  and the same sense of awe captures our imaginings, and moves us to learn more, sometimes to be more.

spicebush larvaAs our love grows so does our desire to protect that which we love. Make no mistake, this is not a thornless rose. This love affair, like any passion, supplies its share of heart break. The disappointment of the naturalist who realizes that the meadowlarks once a familiar sight and sound have nearly disappear from his or her rural landscape…or watches as a woodland containing yellow lady slipper orchids destroyed for another strip mall exemplifies this heart break.

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Mankee ‘s definition does not suggest that humans are separate from nature. He invites us to study the world as a part of it. From this perspective, human history, culture, and the rest of nature create  the matrix that inspires and informs a more holistic approach to loving and protecting the planet.


Yes, Rudy Mancke, I couldn’t agree more. Being a naturalist involves studying the world around us, and being in awe of what we find there.


Categories: General | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “On Being a Naturalist

  1. Dawn

    Well written! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Emily P.

    I was so fortunate to be able to take a class with Prof. Mancke in college : The Natural History of SC. He gave us that definition of “naturalist” during that class, which was probably the final thing that tipped me into becoming a naturalist. And I really haven’t looked back!

  3. Laura

    This is a great article Wren. I’m inspired to get out and take a hike in the woods.

  4. Beautifully written article. Love the imagery of a love affair, for that’s what it is. Great job, Wren!

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