I have been asked, “What is a naturalist?” or now, “What did you do before you retired?” as well as “Why were you a naturalist?” and even “Do they teach that in college?” Well, here is how I evolved and FYI: a naturalist is not someone that wears no clothes.
As a youngster I was always interested in plants, animals, weather, rocks and things that have to do with the outdoors. I always thought this would be an avocation, not a career. When I asked my high school career counselor, he had no idea what college to attend or what courses to take, so we finally settled on forestry as the closest course of study he could recommend. After one year in forestry, I knew it was not what I wanted and transferred to botany (the study of plants) and graduated with that as my major, with math and psychology as a split minor.
Strangely enough, when I was job hunting, I interviewed for a position in the forestry department of the Cook County, Ill., Forest Preserve District. During the interview, the superintendent of forestry, Mr. Noel Wysong, made a suggestion that changed the course of my life. He said to me, “I don’t think forestry is the career that you want.” My heart fell, as here was my first interview and someone tells me they don’t want me. He continued with, “We have a department of conservation. They are just down the hall and I understand they are looking for a naturalist.” My first thought was, “What is a naturalist?” So down the hall I went, walked into the Conservation Department and interviewed with Mr. Roland Eisenbeis, and was hired as a naturalist; a job that lasted for 37 years. I learned then that a lot of the successes in one’s life are by accident, being in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time.
I started and finished my career at the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center (hereafter referred to as LRSH), becoming director in 1970. By this time, I had used my psychology background, noting the preferences of the general public and how to satisfy them. They were interested in wildflowers, trees, shrubs and non-flowering plants, but they were not the primary interest of our visitors. People liked birds, so it was birds I studied and by that time, not necessarily by choice, I became a nature “jack of all trades,” studying and becoming somewhat proficient in mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects and other invertebrates. As my botanical training was mostly laboratory-oriented, I also became as proficient as possible in the identification of wild plants, herbaceous, woody and non-flowering. Some of the most common questions asked by the visiting public included, “What is it?” “How do I get rid of it?” “Is it poisonous?” “Does it bite?” and/or “Can I eat it?”
As an integral part of my nature center operation, I had my staff research, design and construct an exhibit for any significant occurrence in the natural world as soon as we became aware of it. By doing this, the LRSH became an information source for most any curious person. When a newspaper, TV or radio station, or just the general public (even our general headquarters) wanted information, they would “call the schoolhouse.” The more we were used as a source, the more we researched and exhibited any current natural phenomenon and the more we tried to be as well-informed as possible so that any information disseminated would be accurate. I am sure that it was this service that helped us to achieve the immense popularity that we enjoyed.
For example, when the 17-year cicada made its appearance, when reports of the Mississauga rattlesnakes were occurring, when the white-tailed deer started to become noticeable and a problem, everyone knew that the LRSH had the most current and accurate information. When Euell Gibbons would visit the Chicago area and wanted wild plants to use for a TV interview, we were asked to provide them. When a strange animal was reported, we were contacted to verify the report. This did not always work to our benefit. One of the stranger reprimands I received was that we were the recipients of “too much media coverage” and we were directed to give the credit to some politician or the general headquarters.
One humorous incident comes to mind: our district police were asked to identify a field of plants a short distance from the center and when we offered our assistance, were told to stay away. They identified a field of beggar’s ticks, a sunflower, as a field of marijuana. The politicians jumped on this and the police were instructed to spray and burn the field. Finally, someone asked one of our naturalists to stop by and after the proper identification was made, we were ordered to keep quiet so as not to cast dispersion on the main office and the police force.
I feel it was the effort to have on hand all sorts of correct information that made the LRSH as popular as it became. When I started in 1957, our attendance was about 30,000 per year. When I left in 1994, there were well over 700,000 visitors using our facility each year and learning about our natural history.
Two of my favorite poems:
” To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter…to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life.” – John Burroughs
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.” -Robert Frost
Peter Dring is a retired natural biologist and phenologist who lives in the Land O’ Lakes area. To comment on this story, visit the “Outdoors” section of StarJournalNOW.com.