One of my former Baja students wrote, just last week, with two exciting bits of news. First, now that she finally has a real job, she is buying a house in Billings, Montana. Second, she is pursuing certification as a master naturalist. I wrote her back immediately.
Although it’s always exciting to learn that former students are acquiring mortgages and the other accoutrements of adulthood, I was intrigued by the news that she planned to become a master naturalist.
I must confess that, despite having taught natural history courses at the university level for a dozen years, I had no idea what qualifies one as a master naturalist. I got on the internet and searched for master naturalist programs, pleased to discover not only that such things exist, but that there is a fledgling organization, the Alliance of Natural Resource Outreach and Service Programs, ANROSP, that networks naturalist and/or master naturalist training programs in 29 states.
In the days of yore my mother earned a bachelor’s degree in interpreting natural history at the University of Colorado. Does that sound a bit old school? These days, one interested in such things might pursue a course of studies in environmental education, and I know of at least one master’s program in that subject offered by Western Washington University. But even there, the question might be asked what qualifies one as a master naturalist.
In my recent book, Coves of Departure: Field Notes from the Sea of Cortez, I mention that Harvard’s E. O. Wilson, one of the foremost naturalists at work today, writes of having once been instructed that he couldn’t call himself a naturalist until he had identified ten thousand species. Yikes. But even if Wilson’s counsel had been offered tongue-in-cheek, it dabbles with a real question of whether one can actually master natural history.
Experts could argue that the master would need such breadth of knowledge that it would take a lifetime to achieve sufficient depth to achieve mastery.
In my next book, Nature Beyond Solitude: Notes from the Field, I make the case that we are just now entering into the golden age of natural history. Many will argue otherwise, however, because less and less natural history is being taught at the university level. This is especially true in biology departments, where expertise in organismal biology is being replaced by interests in molecular & cellular biology. At the same time, citizen science is producing a wealth of data related to natural history that could never have been collected, let alone processed, as recently as when I earned my bachelor’s degree. And now we have programs like the Montana Master Naturalist Program!
Even if I’m wrong about a forthcoming golden age of natural history—you’ll have to read the book to decide on that—it must be stipulated that natural history is occupying vibrant new niches everywhere one looks.
Here in Seattle, just a few days ago, more than 5,000 Amazon employees signed off on an open letter to the company’s board of directors that identified climate change as an existential threat. I doubt that many of the signatories of this letter would identify themselves as naturalists, let alone master naturalists, and yet the letter itself, which can be read HERE, is informed by a sophisticated understanding of ecology and natural history. I am encouraged by the shared belief, articulated in this letter, that “climate impact must be a top consideration in everything we do.”
Natural history relates directly and unambiguously to climate change. Indeed, the American Museum of Natural History recently opened a permanent display on climate change. The exhibit covers everything from corals to glaciers, forests to polar ice caps, and that’s a lot of natural history. And now what we need are a few more master naturalists to help us understand where we’re going with nature.
John Seibert Farnsworth, who recently moved to the Pacific Northwest, is fast becoming a serial author with Comstock Publishing Associates. His first book, Coves of Departure: Field Notes from the Sea of Cortez, was released this past November. His second, Nature Beyond Solitude: Notes from the Field, will be published on March 15.