Michiana Chronicles: Rookie Naturalist

Dec 28, 2018

Credit April Lidinsky

By the time you’re a grown up  — and woe betide you if that’s all you’re aiming for — it’s pretty easy to stick with what you already know. When I was in a funk about just that state of being earlier this year, my clever friend, Rosie, offered me a book that I in turn offer to you. It’s titled, Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty —an NPR name, for you longtime listeners. Among the book’s takeaways for “living exuberantly” is this gem: “At every stage of life, you should be a rookie at something.” It’s timely advice for the new year.

My own rookie nerves rattled when I signed up myself and my amiable spouse for the 11-week Indiana Master Naturalist course this past fall, offered though the St. Joe County Park system. The first night, on site at Bendix Woods, began with name-tags, an ice breaker for two dozen shyly chatty students, and a stack of handouts beginning with the mission: “ .. to bring together natural resource specialists with adult learners to foster an understanding of Indiana’s plants, water, soils, and wildlife, and promote volunteer service in local communities.”

We plunged right in, led by a park interpreter who introduced principles of taxonomy while stoking my affection for the particular breed of geekiness that scientists exude. Maybe it’s the combination of ernest enthusiasm, nerdy specialist vocabulary, and multi-pocketed utility pants, but I found myself crushing out — innocently enough — on every different instructor, every class.  Knowledge is very attractive.

I haven’t sat in a science class since the mid-80s, so even though I can’t remember if I locked the back door, I was pleased to discover that somehow my 7th grade study of Linnaean classification stuck in my brain, and that first night it flowed from my lips by rote like a secular creed: “kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species!”

That shard of science cred meant little, though, as we galloped on to entertain big questions that confirmed what a rookie I am, starting with: What exactly distinguishes a plant from an animal? Every class, raised more questions:  What are stabilimenta for, as they zigzag their glossy way through orb-weaving spider webs?  How big can a hellbender salamander grow? (Here’s a hint: you’re going to need a bigger breadbox.) How many species of fish are in the St. Joe River, and what does it feel like to have a lamprey, eel-shaped and wiggly, suction-cup its horror-movie mouth onto the back of your hand?

As an English major, I gulped in the naturalists’ poetic vocabulary: Forests with their “understories" and “overstories,” and trees with their “heartwood” strengthening their core. I was weirdly charmed by the “sucking stomach” of spiders, which poor Wilbur found so disgusting in Charlotte’s Web.  I cultivated awe for our Northern Indiana aquifer and appreciation for alluvium, whose deposits fertilize our soil.

My eyes sharpened, too. Trotting after an arborist along ferny trails for even a couple hours taught me to see what I’d been missing on hundreds of hikes — the invasive tangles of multiflora rose and autumn olive, the outsized understory foliage of the Paw-Paw (our own “Indiana banana”), and how a sassafras tree has three different shaped leaves that, with a little imagination, look like a knife, a fork, and a spoon.

There’s so much more! Did you know there are more organisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on planet Earth? Or that you can get an approximation of how a snake senses vibrations with lengths of yarn, a metal hanger, and fingers plugged into your ears? If you pulled up a chair, I could go on and on, about Devonian shale, bird migration, and tips on leading an effective nature hike. My rookie brain is thrumming with all that I now know I don’t yet know.

At the end of an 11-week Master Naturalist course, no one pretends the students have “mastered” this knowledge, but we certainly met the goal of cultivating respect and enthusiasm for nature’s diversity, and knowing whom to ask about almost any natural world question.

If you sign up for classes, yourself, through the Department of Natural Resources website in your area, I guarantee you’ll also discover another priceless natural resource — other rookies. Our class taught me their own enthusiasms as teachers, birders, professionals, retirees, and world travelers —all of us, as classmates, amateurs. And what is an amateur but a rookie fueled by love?  

If you need a place to begin, I recommend standing in silence amidst the old-growth beech tree forest in Bendix Woods. Tip your head to follow the smooth, grey trunks, rising like columns holding up a soaring cathedral ceiling of interlocking branches — stark and glorious this time of year. Then, open your rookie heart, and learn.