Archived Mountain Voices

What’s a naturalist?

What’s a naturalist?

Trying to answer that question, the first source I resorted to was, of course, the Oxford English Dictionary. Therein I encountered the following clues, none of which seem unlikely:

1612 R. Carpenter — “Those blasphemous truth-opposing Heretikes, and Atheisticall naturalists.”

1825 S.T. Coleridge — “I am here speaking in the assumed character of a mere Naturalist, to whom no light of revelation had been vouchsafed.”

1859 C. Darwin — “Every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of a species.”

1864 — “They are a small semi-educated sect of men calling themselves ‘Naturalists’, or ‘Secularists’.”

1985 — He was primarily a geneticist, statistician, mathematical theorist, and eugenist, not a naturalist or bug-hunter.

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“What do you do?” people ask just to break the ice at social occasions. “I’m an expert in computer design,” I’m tempted to reply. But I have learned the hard way that it’s generally the best policy, whenever possible, to tell the truth, so I answer: “I’m a naturalist.”

There will be a pause, while he or she wonders if I operate a nudist camp. Then he or she will smile and nod and ask: “What’s a naturalist?”

“I’m not sure,” I reply.

This is also true. And Darwin was right again. I would have a hard time defining species with any degree of certainty.             

“Oh,” I say, making an attempt at humor, “a naturalist is someone with a magnifying lens and an L.L. Bean vest that has lots of pockets — the more pockets the better the naturalist.”

When in a more reflective mood, I respond that a naturalist is someone who delights in all aspects of the natural world.

A person who identifies himself or herself as a naturalist usually doesn't have academic credentials in the natural sciences. My formal training on the undergraduate and graduate levels, for instance, was in language, literature and methods of research. Those long-ago studies have, by the way, stood me in good stead as a naturalist.

A naturalist is often one who collects things pertaining to the natural world… butterflies, pressed leaves or entire plants, seashells, fossils, rocks, animal skulls, butterflies, bird nests, or whatever. This species of naturalist, which I am not, usually gets started collecting as a young person and sometimes becomes the curator of a small natural history museum. In other words, he or she likes to arrange items systematically and exhibit them.    

Another species of naturalist, like yours truly, prefers to write about the natural world. We like to keep journals and lists. This second species often winds up writing a natural history column for his or her local or regional newspaper. All across this vast country, in almost every county and certainly in every region, there are at this very moment naturalists scribbling away in order to meet their weekly deadlines.     

Yet another species winds up trying to teach others about natural history. They often conduct workshops for the community college serving the area in which they reside. Elderhostels are a natural haven for naturalists.

OK … let's cut to the chase. I never tell workshop participants this because I want then to figure it out for themselves. What a naturalist tries to do is get himself and others to “slow down” so as to pay closer attention to the natural world because precious time is passing away.

That’s it.

(George Ellison is a naturalist and writer. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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