In a world driven by technology, being a naturalist is a somewhat rare aspiration.
Most people never think about nature as being worthy of careful study in the same way you might study business or sports or music.
But I was lucky in my teen years to gain some amazing mentors who pointed me in the direction of studying as a naturalist in a more focused way, and it really had a huge impact on who I am today.
So what is a naturalist?
A naturalist is someone who studies the patterns of nature.
Naturalists seek to observe the interconnected relationships between plants, birds, trees & ecology so we can understand the past, present & future of our local and global environments.
While some people are satisfied with this basic definition of a naturalist, I’ve always found it much more rewarding to look deeper.
There’s actually a lot more to being a naturalist than what most people realize on the surface.
This is because observing nature is not a purely intellectual or academic skill. It’s not something you can truly master just by sitting inside and reading a book.
Being a naturalist requires you to use all parts of your brain in a much more holistic way, which can have significant effects on your worldview, self-awareness & overall success in life.
So today – I’d like to share 3 things you probably didn’t realize about what it really means to be a naturalist in the modern world…
1. Naturalists Develop Sharp Sensory Awareness (And Brain Patterns)
Being an effective naturalist depends entirely on your ability to gather information by watching, listening & carefully observing your physical environment.
This is quite different from something like cellular biology or genetics because the only tools required are your own eyes & ears.
Most modern disciplines rely almost 100% on abstract reasoning or microscopic data that gets processed by computers.
Even fields that used to be highly sensory and physical in nature like farming, have now in many ways been reduced to numbers and formulas.
The result of a technology-based society is that almost nobody develops their whole brain capacity for perception with the 5 senses.
Today, we know the human brain is significantly more plastic than was once thought in the past.
Depending on how you use (or don’t use) the different parts of your brain, actually determines which regions of the brain become stronger and which skills become weaker.
And if there’s one skill that suffers more than any other by constant use of technology, it’s your ability to look, listen, feel, and sense your environment.
Sensory awareness is possibly the most significant survival skill that is currently disappearing from human culture at an alarming rate.
Your senses are intimately linked to all the most important functions of your brain:
- Critical thinking
- Emotional processing
- Balance & physical movement
- Decision-making & problem-solving
- Happiness & stress management
This is precisely why people with sensory processing disorders benefit so greatly from having immersion experiences in nature.
And that same therapeutic potential is available for everyone whenever you step outside!
By making real life observations about the growth of plants, trees, birds & animals, it provides unique insight into our planet’s evolution, conservation, and even our own origins as people.
The result is that naturalists think differently, and have greater overall sensory acuity/awareness.
2. Naturalists Develop Real World Common Sense
Have you noticed that a lot of the young people growing up today are severely lacking in common sense?
I know I probably sound like a stereotypical old man reminiscing about “the good old days”.
But it really is crazy to realize there are actual deaths associated with selfies and chasing Pokemon off cliffs, simply because people aren’t paying attention to their surroundings!
In nature, you always have to keep your wits about you and be aware of your surroundings.
- If you’re not paying attention, you get lost.
- If you’re not moving with intention, you could trip and hurt yourself.
- Or you’ll simply miss everything that happens because you’re too absorbed in your own thoughts!
Awareness is a basic human skill that has it’s roots in thousands of years of human history in the jungle.
Nature is an unforgiving environment, and if you’re not paying attention… it’s possible to die, or at least get hurt.
A lot of parents try to keep their kids out of the woods for this very reason, but exposure to bumps and bruises, hazards like yellow jackets, are actually an important part of healthy child development.
In many ways the world is a lot safer now than it used to be when we were living amongst the lions and grizzly bears.
But there are new hazards, and new reasons why everyone really needs to have some basic awareness training.
Skills like wildlife tracking, bird language, and land navigation teach you to problem solve by gathering clues, making predictions, and testing your assumptions.
It teaches long term thinking and patience, rather than instant gratification.
As people living in the real world – these are skills we all still need to learn in order to be successful.
3. Naturalists Caretake & Steward The Earth
There was a time when everyone living on our planet knew the birds, plants, trees and other natural things in tremendous depth…
And because of that deep knowledge, the presence of humans was actually a life-enhancing benefit to the forest.
It’s well documented that native humans have been helping forests to grow stronger, healthier, and more productive for thousands of years.
In sharp contrast to this, most people today associate the presence of modern humans with vast ecological destruction.
And it makes perfect sense why this has been happening!
Just think about it…
How are you supposed to care for the environment when you can’t even see the basic relationships between trees, water, plants, turtles, frogs, and everything else in the balance of nature?
With large scale environmental changes routinely making headlines, a lot of people are concerned about nature… but almost nobody has the necessary skills to actually care for their local environment in a truly restorative way!
It’s only a few thousand people out of billions who still know how to read the forest in the same way our distant ancestors did.
It means that today, there are people who are genuinely doing their best to caretake the land, but they simple don’t have the awareness skills to do it effectively.
We need our naturalist intelligence skills to make a come-back if we’re going to restore the best possible future.
Being a naturalist means you’re developing values that creates empathy and caring about nature.
But even more important than the desire to care for nature, is the actual competence to do it effectively!
This is why naturalists are so important.
The more we can get naturalists living in every neighbourhood, the easier it will be to preserve unique or sensitive ecologies long into the future.
David S. Woodroffe says
Congratulations on the knowledge and wisdom contained on this site.
As a concerned “Nature Stewardship” practitioner, I am interested in learning more, and contributing to development of a Grand Strategy for building of Climate Knowledge Portals and Bastions of Climate and Environmental Security.
Thanking you in advance, and wishing continued success. DSW.
Brian Mertins says
Thanks David, glad you enjoyed!
Great post! Now I can explain to my friends and kids why I want to become a naturalist. Thanks!
Brian Mertins says
Thanks for sharing, I’m glad it was helpful!
Wow I’m impressed with this article . I’ve been a professional Naturalist for over 20 years and most definitions are based only in hard science, biology and knowledge based descriptions. We often forget the Right side (abstract) of the brain when the Left (Order) side takes over. Awareness (5 plus senses) Arts, Music and Emotions are a huge part of being a Naturalist or “in Kinship” with your surroundings. If you can find a Encyclopedia from the 40s you will see a lot more descriptions even involving Philosophy and Religion.
Brian Mertins says
Thanks so much, I totally agree! The best results always come when we integrate both sides together. I love those old school naturalist books. They have so much heart, but it’s also backed by real life observation & critical thinking skills. Thanks for sharing!
Larry Rafey says
Incredible! I was a field Microbiologist and later an Internist but with an intense interest in Ecosystems and the like. But I was never able to get the whole ‘naturalist’ experience down despite my deep interest from the age of seven. Poor teachers and little real practical guidance and, as you mention, no “science of observation” ever communicated from a practical perspective. Currently retired, I am loving this and extend my thanks to this most excellent instruction.
Brian Mertins says
Thanks Larry, these are really great reflections!