Yesterday on the plane I finished the book I’d been reading, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. I’ll probably write more about my reactions to this book in the future, because there was a lot of good stuff in it, but one quote from near the end has been rattling around in my mind ever since I read it. One of the final chapters deals with the connection between nature and spirituality, and Louv quotes a rabbi he interviewed as having said, “To be spiritual is to be constantly amazed.”
As part of training for my job, one week we had a conversation about what it means to be a naturalist. Of course, the simplest definition of naturalist is a person who studies natural history. A big part of that is just knowing the names of things, as in, this plant here is called spicebush, the bird in that tree is a Wood Duck. Hopefully you also know a little bit about the ecology of the things you’re naming; spicebush is a native shrub that’s had to deal with competition from invasive honeysuckle, Wood Ducks are unusual among ducks because they nest in tree cavities. Typically a naturalist takes a special interest in the place they actually find themselves in. As fascinating as tropical rainforests may be, I can tell you a lot more about temperate deciduous forests, because that’s the ecosystem I live in!
In addition to knowing about the natural world, the other big part of being a naturalist is sharing what you know. I’m lucky enough to have a job that consists mostly of taking children on hikes in the woods and pointing out cool stuff to them. I also write a blog. But, you don’t have to work in outdoor ed or post your writing on the internet to share your passion for what you love.
That quote, though. “To be spiritual is to be constantly amazed.” To me, the most basic and essential requirement for calling yourself a naturalist is just keeping your eyes open and being aware of the wonder of the natural world around you. Knowing the name of a bird or a flower can come later; the first, most important thing is noticing it and wondering about it and remembering it. Being amazed by it. Amazingness in nature isn’t limited to the far-away places you see on TV, where grizzly bears catch salmon in pristine mountain streams and lions chase zebras across the savannah. Amazingness is also in your backyard.
To be a naturalist is to be constantly amazed.