Who is a Naturalist?

You are! Look:

Erika Zavaletta 

erika zavaleta's faceNaturalists are people who define natural history as the observation of organisms and processes. They know that being able to understand nature means knowing a few organisms deeply, insead of being able to categorize each organism they encounter. Even though I am an ecologist by trade, my natural history life feels pretty separate from that. When I do my own research, I get deeply familiar with the organisms I am working with, and I love that part of science, but I think knowing Santa Cruz County, and knowing this place as a home is from doing outdoor activities and mostly from informal spending time outside. I think if we look past our preconceptions of what naturalism is, I definitely am someone who pays a lot of attention to nature and it shapes every aspect of my life, and it makes me a naturalist in a different way.

Justin Luong 

justin luong in grassNaturalists are you and me. They are anyone who makes observations about their surroundings or interactions they see between different organisms. Just enjoying what’s around you and questioning why certain processes happen is naturalism. The best way to start your naturalist career is to go outside or look out the window and write down the observations, or sketch if it helps with your process. Urban ecology and urban naturalism is often discounted which can exclude a whole group of people, but there is nature in urban environments and cities are a valid place to be a naturalist.

justin identifying a plantThe largest challenge I had to overcome in my naturalist career was a lack of representation which bred less than ideal work environments with constant microaggressions, unrealized those who use them. The naturalist community is only beginning to recognize its own barriers and addressing it, which excites me for how amazing and expansive the naturalist community can become in the future.

Mike Westphal

mike with gopher snake

naturalist is someone who spends time outdoors, records observations, and develops a knowledge of nature while being interested in, and observant of, all taxa. Santa Cruz County is highly conducive to being a naturalist with an abundance of nature on all sides. I have divided my time between the redwood forests, the rocky intertidal, and the sandy beaches -- all wonderful, surprisingly intact biomes for a naturalist to explore. 

Mike with a turtle

People who explore a lot might have noticed a general trend to discourage animal handling and to observe from afar, which is certainly a good thing.  But there is something about actually holding a newt or a snake or a wiggly frog in your hand that really seals the deal on your own self-recognition as a naturalist. I don't know why that's true but I think it is. To keep naturalists relevant it’s also good to practice other naturalist skills besides holding frogs. Being diligent about making good species identifications; learning how to take proper (or at least good) field notes. Speaking up, speaking out. Not getting discouraged. Nature is definitely under attack but we haven't lost yet.

Jessica Correa

jessica correa at younger lagoonA naturalist is anyone who uses their naturalist skills everyday and everywhere. It can be simple. Someone who observes clouds, watching birds or journaling about what they see is a naturalist. Being a naturalist is a lifelong process and everytime you go outside you may discover something new or overcome a fear. 

I was terrified of snakes for most of life and when I started to go hiking and camping regularly I would always lose my breath when I’d see a snake. While doing Natural History Field Quarter (NHFQ) I held a snake for the first time and I was petrified, but the more I interacted with them I became less scared and more intrigued. It's been a rewarding experience to see yourself grow and learn to love something that once terrified you. Whenever I find snakes now I see them as a sign of luck and a good reminder of my personal growth.


Alex Jones

alex jones with a childNaturalists are tied together through an impassioned attention to the world around them and inquisitive minds that propel them to keep observing and communicating what they find. I don't want to let my short time on Earth slip by without forming relationships with all this life - both the nature around me and the people in it.

Stay involved or help others get involved by finding other people who share your interests. Go into the field with them, but also make sure to find some way to be in nature alone. Not everyone feels safe or even is safe in that kind of setting, so finding some way--whether just observing from a window, front stoop, or backyard--and forming a practice of doing this will be really helpful. Keeping a journal of your observation radically increases your learning. But also just talking about what you have seen will help you grow as a naturalist. For example, there was a golden period when my son was 3 where he would ask me every day, "what did you see at work today, Papa?"

Rick Flores 

rick flores by a lake

There is a wide range of who a naturalist could be. Classifying people as naturalists based on their identification skills or by their outdoor gear or equipment can be misleading because there are amateurs and professionals and being new or interested outside of a career doesn't make anyone less of a naturalist.   Naturalists strive to create a diverse and inclusive community of people who respect the health of the natural world. With people from different backgrounds and viewpoints we are able to teach better ways to take care of the environment. It's important to remember that humans are not separate from their environment, but are actually another component. When we separate humans from the environment and create an idea of pristine "wilderness" more environmental problems may arise due to a greater disconnect with humans from nature.  

Tatjana Beck 

tatjana's face

A naturalist is someone who plays a key role in conservation. They use their observation skills to help support and protect not only species in need, but all organisms. In order to know how to conserve a species, we must truly understand how they function. That’s where naturalists come in. As observers, naturalists often know a great deal about an animal's taxonomy and behaviors. With that knowledge they’re able to help make decisions with the organisms best interest in mind. Deep knowledge of a species leads to better conservation practices. 

tatjana as a child by a stream

I believe there should be a naturalist present at every decision that changes the natural world around us. Large corporations often cleverly bypass some environmental impact issues and we can’t continue to let them make decisions that negatively affect certain habitats. A naturalist has the power to sway opinions and shift goals to create a  more encompassing and inclusive environment.  

Azucena Lucateo 

azucena's faceA naturalist is anyone who dedicates time to identifying species and constructing a familiarity with a certain group of organisms so that taxonomy speciality doesn’t become a lost art. I think it is less common for people to identify as a naturalist rather than a scientist is almost becoming less common, even I don’t readily apply the label to myself. For me one of the barriers is that it seems to require so much expert knowledge that is built up over time, and I always wondered if my experiences with insects was enough to call me a naturalist. 

Growing up in the city I never went camping, but I would read a lot of books about wildlife in nature and watched a lot of wildlife documentaries, and I knew I would always want a career with wildlife. I feel strongly that urban nature is still nature. Now I know that with my deep relationship with insects and identifying them I am both a naturalist and a scientist therefore keeping both practices relevant and important. 


Lee Summers

lee summers in rain gearA nature interpreter provides accurate information to satisfy an audience’s curiosity, but also endeavors to touch their heart and promote a deep emotional connection with the natural world. That being said, interpretation is hard; you have to reach deep to uncover, not only the facts, but also their meaning and what they reveal on an artistic, philosophical, psychological and even spiritual level. It strives to satisfy the logical, fact-based mystery of truth as well as gratify the creative, imaginative, emotional yearning for beauty.

Interpreters try to help people create a connection with nature, but you can do this on your own as well with nothing more than developing your curiosity. Once your curiosity is sparked then it can blaze into an appreciation for the diversity of life’s form, color and texture; the patterns of seasonal change; and the detailed nuances of interconnected relationships. That love can ignite never-ending discoveries in which you venture beyond your yard to expand your experience and open new doors of inquiry.

Eilise McKenna

eilise in a white suit in the forestNaturalists are people who recognize challenges, but overcome them by learning with others through teaching exploration skills, and understanding nature beyond the surface level. One of the challenges I have encountered is the feeling of imposter syndrome. When you’re sitting in a lecture hall with a bunch of other students who seem to know so much more than you do it’s hard to feel like you fit in and that your opinions are valid since we’re so often ‘thrown into’ classes. It’s important to remember that when we feel like this there are probably a bunch of other people experiencing the same emotion. We’re all learning together and your fellow classmates often want to support you and need support themselves. Our whole lives are one learning journey and I hope to continue to learn for the rest of mine as I hope to go through grad school for plant sciences and have a career in ecology, forestry, or farming. 

Aldo Lopez 

aldo on the coastA naturalist is someone who gives back to the people by providing a healthier natural environment. A naturalist is also someone who strives to inspire others so they get enthralled in the natural world. One moment that stood out to me was when I took out a local high school group to help restore a red-legged frog habitat in Santa Cruz Land Trust property. I explained to the students the benefits of restoring red-legged frog habitat and as a group we began installing native plant cover. One of the high school students mentioned to me that because of this experience he would like to pursue a career in restoration and better his naturalist skills.

Moments like these are something every naturalist wants to hear. Being able to see the next generation of naturalists grow is something special. I am excited for what advancements to restoration and natural sciences they will develop.

Tim Hyland

tim hyland looking sultryA naturalist is someone who pulls nature and people together; a connection created by our innate need to be outside. I work for California Parks as the senior environmental scientist, but I started off my career doing vegetation management in the field. The more time I spent outside learning about plants and meeting other naturalists I realized how important this community web is. One of the most important things I could do was to get more people outside to experience the natural world and meet the people who love it. 

tim hyland in the sun with a wide-brimmed hatWith parks it’s hard because we have to walk a fine line of preserving nature, but making it available to the public. But parks provide a resource to people that may not be available to some people otherwise. It gives people a place to find health, inspiration, education, all while being outdoors. There is a richness that we need that’s beyond an office and screens - it’s nature which can sometimes be found right outside your door.