Be a Naturalist, Find a Bigger World

Dwarf Fireweed blooms in the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes in Kobuk Valley National Park. This weird spot is home to species of plants found no where else.

Dwarf Fireweed blooms in the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes in Kobuk Valley National Park. This weird spot is home to species of plants found no where else.

Over Fourth of July weekend, my partner Amy, our dog Maddie, and I headed down to the Denali Highway for a quick overnight backpacking trip. We kind of detest the noise of this summer holiday and opted, as usual, to replace fireworks and gunshots (and the fear of associated wildfire and falling bullets) with a big piece of empty country.

We aimed for a lake we’d eyed but never visited. Amy is a botanist with an encyclopedic knowledge of the traditional and medicinal uses for the wildflowers and plants that bloomed along the trail. I know a bit about the birds, and Maddie was good at finding them. Together, we moved at a comfortable pace, the conversation, when we felt the need to speak, revolved around the flowers that still bloomed, the birds singing, and pondering the unknown answers to questions about geology, aquatic ecology, and the weather. These few miles fit right in with the many thousands we’ve walked together. Amy and I, working together, have a pretty good grasp on the places we visit. And we have the curiosity to ask the questions that will lead us deeper into the landscape.

These questions are, in my opinion, more important than the facts. I talked briefly, a few posts ago, about my first trip of the 2015 guiding season, a packrafting trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I had one client on the trip who was full of questions. They came in a steady stream and encompassed about everything we saw or discussed: geology, wildlife, flora, weather, climate, culture, etc. It was awesome. I’ve never had a client who was so curious. He may not have had the knowledge about the arctic but, by god, the man was a naturalist. Together, we discussed the topics I understood something about, and considered the subjects I didn’t. (A couple of the posts I’ve written here (this one and this one), are based on questions he asked.)

Questions are not the end of the road. There has to be follow-through, either through observation, or research. You have to find the answers to your questions.

Years ago, I was working one of my first positions as a field tech on a nesting study of songbirds. I loved birds, but had no idea what I was doing. My job was simple enough on paper: find nests. In reality, it was much more difficult. I spent several days wandering aimlessly through the study plots and finding absolutely nothing. Finally, I shuffled frustratedly up to my boss, and asked how to find nests. He smiled kindly, and said one word, so simple, and so painfully difficult: “Watch.”

And so I did. The next day, I found a bird, and simply watched it. It was a male White-crowned Sparrow, singing from the top-most branch of a ten foot shrub. A half-hour later it was still there, throwing out it’s twittering song. Getting bored, I glanced down for a moment at my field notebook. When I looked up, the bird was gone.

You don’t always find your nest, so to speak. But I’d learned my lesson. Later that day, a female Dark-eyed Junco led me right to her nest of young chicks. I’d spotted her carrying some insects in her beak, and watched for just minutes before she flitted to the ground, and disappeared under an overhanging shrub. Moments later she reappeared, empty-beaked. I’d found my first nest. And become a naturalist.

All of the curiosity, questions, and answers lead to seeing the world much more deeply. The planet becomes a richer place when you know the name of the flowers, the songs of birds, and why a female caribou has antlers. The landscape becomes more than scenery, it becomes a web of connections: Shorebirds bound to glaciers, permafrost to species richness, and on and on.

Become a naturalist. Pursue your curiosity. And watch the world get bigger, and far, far, more fascinating.