I am a master naturalist. The title makes me a bit nervous. “Masters,” to me, are those who achieve such proficiency in their field that any top-ten list has to include them. David Allen Sibley, Yo-Yo Ma, George Carlin, Meryl Streep are masters of their trade. So when I say, “I am a Texas Master Naturalist,” I have a 30-second elevator speech in my back pocket to explain that I am a citizen scientist, a student volunteer who wants to understand and improve this amazing world we live in. Most everyone, myself included, hears the word “naturalist” and thinks “science” or “technical.” Indeed, it is a considerable thing to think like a scientist and try to get one’s head around the unfathomable complexity of our natural world. But there are other things to learn out in the field. It has surprised me this year that, after all, I am mostly focused on one particular species: Homo sapiens. And of all the people I have encountered, I have honed in on the study of one specimen in particular: me.
Volunteers planting native grasses
The study of Tim is ongoing. In one significant episode, my uncle gave me the compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) when I was in grad school, studying English and British Literature. It was two hefty volumes with print so small you needed a magnifying glass to read it, which was included by those ever-thoughtful Brits. Language has always fascinated me, and the history of language tells us much about our social evolution.
One of the words that got my attention was “respect.” The etymology (the study of language, always confused in my mind with entomology, which we TMNs know to be the study of insects) of respect is Latin: re = back and specere = to look at. So, “to look back at.” But I like to think “to look again.” This is a bit different than how we normally think of the word to mean admire, esteem, honor, revere.
It is a small but powerful reminder to hold my first impression at bay and exert some mental effort at catching something valuable that may have bounced off the filter of my bias a split second before I even realize it. It happens so quickly, these internal conclusions.
I got free tickets to see the Indigo Girls at the Myerson several years ago. Two stunning women who were dressed to the nines took a seat nearby and I immediately thought two things: I am under-dressed, and I wonder what their boy-friends look like. As the evening went on it was apparent that these ladies did not have boyfriends – they had each other. In this case, the truth was apparent with very little effort on my part. But I had to question how I missed the clues for even a moment. Let’s see, I am at an Indigo Girls concert. These two fabulous musicians were among the first artists to be publicly out as lesbians 40 years ago. A large majority of the audience is gay. But because I am a hetero man, and because they didn’t fit my stereotype image of what lesbians look like, I had to admit to myself that this was a clear case of sexual objectification that comes from a deep place, a bias that is innate and conditioned by years of social messaging. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t beat myself up over this deal as no harm was done. Rather, the incident made me aware of how difficult it is to “check my bias.” How can you check it if you don’t see it?
I have been challenged lately by an acquaintance who is a climate change denier. That is, he does not believe that global warming is caused by CO2 emissions, or at least not to the extent that we really need to do anything about it. This person is far-right in his political DNA and I would dismiss him out of hand were it not for the fact that he is a career scientist. He pointed me to Dr. Roy Spencer, a qualified and well-spoken climate scientist with a solid pedigree. I have now spent quite a few hours researching the “other side” of the global warming debate and it has not been fun. It’s easy to call myself “open-minded.” But the work of actually studying data and theories that oppose my long-held opinion about human carbon emissions is hard. I would much rather be sweating in the heat out on the prairie. Yet, I think this kind of mental work is exactly the kind of “respect” I am trying to develop. It is almost painful to admit that I am suddenly uncertain about a conclusion that I have been supporting for years. This is the problem with conclusions. So be it. I can almost hear my mom saying those words that I hated so much as a child: “It’s good for your development.”
This, in part, is why I joined a science-based organization. I wanted to team up with a group that holds objective truth as the guide-post for any effort to add value to the world we live in. What, after all, is the purpose of science if not to promote a method to remove bias as we search for the answers to how this universe really works?
My Favorite Species
Yet, time and time again, my encounters with people seem to pre-empt my focus on the inner workings of the prairie and the forest. We had a young man, a high school senior, volunteering out at LLELA this summer. He did not fit the profile of the normal volunteer. He wasn’t associated with any group, but rather was volunteering because his parents insisted. He was intimidated by the entire experience. Clearing a prairie is a loud, hot, hard undertaking, and it was apparent that he was utterly new to this kind of work. However, he showed up week after week. What impressed me is how the group took him in, watched over him, brought extra water for him, and talked to him about his life and his plans. We all admired his grit and told him so. I felt like it was just an extension of the work we are doing to create a prairie. It occurred to me that we are also growing people.
Ken Steigman, director at LLELA, hosted a group of Chinese college freshman one hot afternoon this year. They were on a two-week trip here through the auspices of UNT. We had language barriers with the group but what was apparent after a while is the fact that these young folks had never really been in nature. The forest was intimidating to them. They had zero experience of gardening. I left the preserve that day in a kind of shock as to how something like this was possible and I have been thinking about it since.
One of the thoughts is the idea of “being in nature.” The phrase begs a question: “When or where are any of us not in nature?” I recall the photo “Earthrise,” from Apollo 8. The only people not in nature at the moment of the photograph were the three astronauts in the space capsule. All of the billions of the rest of us in 1968 are in the picture, breathing oxygen created by plants.
Half of the enjoyment I get from being a Master Naturalist is the community. I did a bit of volunteer work before I retired, but showing up for work on a regular basis at my home base, LLELA, has connected me to some really cool and interesting people. There is a lot that needs to be done to keep a 2600 acre preserve healthy and safe for visitors. The TMN volunteers documented nearly 5,000 hours this year at LLELA. This is only a fraction of the total effort. This, and really all the other parks and preserves we support do not exist except for the hands-on contributions of a large and passionate volunteer core. We seem to have the regular spectrum of personalities, but all tied together by a common thread: the desire to actually do things to improve the natural world around us. What to do about the sad state of this earth, our only home? How about planting native species, talking to folks about conservation, creating a prairie so students have a real research lab and people can walk through the real thing? I was listening to the radio the other morning on my way to LLELA. It was a house debate on the impeachment hearings. I was so glad to get to the greenhouse, put on my gloves and get to work with a team of eight who spent two hours on a cold, rainy morning hauling, digging, potting and generally cleaning up the aftermath of the big UNT planting day that happened the prior weekend. When we left, the house was completely restored to order. Nobody mentioned politics.
Processing Basketflower seeds
Tim the Interpreter
Why a Texas Master Naturalist? My answer to this question during our first class session was that I wanted to learn enough to become a decent interpreter and eventually do some trail guiding. So in the spring of this year I was privileged, and not a little nervous, to have a crack at leading a couple of prairie tours at LLELA. Lisa Cole gave me some encouragement (note the word “courage” embedded there) when I confessed to her that I really didn’t think I knew enough. She advised me to talk about what I did know – the hands-on job of restoration. I would love to have a comprehensive knowledge of all the plant names in my back pocket, but I felt like showing the foundation grasses and talking about how fire plays such a critical role was much more valuable.
Still, I did spend a good amount of time trying to get about 20 forbs under my belt. Even better was a personal prairie walk with Ken Steigman and Carl Patrick. Mentors. What would we do without them? Between Lisa, Ken, and Carl I had about a century of experience to draw on.
So early on a perfect Saturday morning, I met 10 adults and two kids at the river parking lot and after a brief history of this rare piece of land that is LLELA, we set off. I had one person who certainly challenged my knowledge base. While most of the group was very content to wander amidst the riot of flowers, she was asking, “What is this?” about flower after flower. I knew the first three. On the fourth, I had to respond “That’s a good question.” Most of the time, a teacher will say this when the answer is known. But to me, the very best questions are the ones yet to be answered. We resolved the issue with the iNaturalist app and she was delighted to have a tool for this and future “What is it?” questions.
I felt like I did my job. What I wanted for these visitors was to experience a feeling. Lots of folks know that milkweed is essential for monarchs. But how many have actually seen those caterpillars chomping away on the plant? We did. The kids loved it. Heck, the adults loved it. And we all had a moment to wonder about a creature that would eventually morph into an international traveler.
This is what I was aiming for. The relationship between milkweed and monarchs is fascinating all unto itself, but it is only one chapter of a much longer and complex adventure. And even at that, it is but one animal among the thousands that stop by, or live on the prairie. So what is this place that I have been working on for so many days? Calling it an ecosystem is somewhat like checking off a box on a test sheet. It is a home, a traveler’s inn, a breeding ground. It is an arena for a life and death competition. It is a laboratory for students who are chasing questions that take years to answer. It is food. It is life.
I intend to keep the idea of “respect” at the forefront of my thinking. My initial plan for 2020 is to sign up for an art class and start to sketch these plants I am having so much trouble remembering. I have told myself, for some reason that I cannot explain, that I am not an artist. I’m going to take another look at that conclusion, because several folks have told me it’s an excellent way to learn the flora.
Maybe this spring I can do another interpretive walk on the prairie. I’ll have a better grasp of it, no doubt, but I still won’t have the kind of subject matter knowledge I had when I taught computer classes or ESL. Every time I go out there I get surprised. The grasses that I had nailed down in the summer have all changed shape and color. So does this mean I have to sketch them three or four times to understand and identify them with confidence? Apparently. I guess if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Look again, Tim. And again, and again.
Master Naturalists Carl Patrick (L) & Tim Trosper (R)