Who was it that said you can make naturalist into a scientist, but it’s almost impossible to teach a scientist to become a naturalist?
Darwin, the author of the “Theory of Evolution,” was a naturalist. The term naturalist, meaning one who observes and studies nature, has been around since at least 1587. The word scientist, one who practices science, didn’t come into vogue until about 1834. Darwin, if he were alive today and referred to himself as a naturalist on his curriculum vitae, would have a hard time finding a job in a credible college or university. Naturalists paved the road to modern science, but don’t refer to yourself as one while at a gathering of academic biologists, chemists, biophysicists, biochemists, ecologists, physicists, geologists, meteorologists, climatologists, astrophysicists, botanists, and nano physicists, etc., etc.
Yet before the Big Bang theory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, or Stony Brook University came along, it was the naturalists on Long Island that described our flora and fauna, our aquatic and marine life, our weather and our firmament. Interestingly, these 19th and early 20th-century lovers of nature were driven by curiosity, not by grant money or academic advancement. When a professor of science retires, he or she is given the title of professor emeritus, when a naturalist passes on — naturalists never retire — he or she is referred to as the late so-and-so.
Naturalists never used the higher education bromide “publish or perish.” That’s because they were never given tenure, they never practiced their art for money, yet many naturalists, say, Henry Thoreau, published and published. Our own East Ender Roy Latham, who continued to observe, collect, and write about Long Island’s natural history into his late 80s, even after he became legally blind, was one of them. When I recently visited the State Museum in Albany and saw how many of the thousands of plants there he had collected, identified, and neatly pressed (transporting them all the way from his home in Orient to the state capital), I was flabbergasted. Each pressed plant had its own ID tag pasted below giving the species, date of collection, place of collection, and other important information which is part of every natural history museum’s tradition.
At times I call myself a scientist, at other times, a consultant, but deep down I am a naturalist, following my nose, as was and still is the naturalist’s modus operandi. Now two individuals have come along and, in a kind of revival, have created a school for naturalists with courses and a certificate of graduation at the end of it. They are hell bent against letting the art of the naturalism die. Mindy Block is a longstanding Long Island naturalist, author, and the wife of the late Ray Corwin who, himself, was a naturalist, and did such a wonderful job running Long Island’s Central Pine Barrens forest for so many years. She and a partner, Tebbe Butler, have put together the Quality Parks Master Naturalist Program, a series of all-day Saturday classes beginning in April and ending on June 2.
The classes as they appear in order cover the following topics: Long Island explorer, Long Island wildlife, Long Island geology and plant communities, trails, greenways and living sustainably, and marine ecology. There will be longstanding naturalist instructors in addition to Mindy and Tebbe conducting the courses, and at the end, diplomas will be awarded during a graduation ceremony. Registration information can be found at qualityparks.org.
Yes, the Island has been raked over from the East River to Montauk Point and Fisher’s Island many, many a time by birders, herpetologists, mammalogists, entomologists, botanists, ichthyologists, invertebrate zoologists, and geologists, but by my accounts, we have only scratched the surface. As climate changes, so will the biota of Long Island.
Many, many habitats Island-wide are sick and dying. They need the green thumbs and observational powers of trained naturalists to heal them and make them well just as doctors and nurses heal sick patients so they can re-enter society, function, be good parents, and make a living. Habitats were here first. They even preceded the Island’s various Native American groups. It wasn’t these early aboriginals who laid waste to the environment and its many wonderful natural creations, it was us. Master naturalists can help heal not only their environment, but themselves, while also looking out for the future of the natural world.