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Becoming a Naturalist

Mushrooms on a Decomposing Log

For many years, my primary motivation for hiking and backpacking has been to experience a form of meditation practiced by Buddhists called walking meditation. This differs from sitting meditation because the practitioner is moving outdoors with their eyes open, paying close attention to their experience of walking. This level of concentration is remarkably cleansing, especially over the course of a multi-day backpacking trip, because it gives you a break from thinking about the clutter of everyday life and work. I always return from my trips refreshed and calm, even satiated, by the simplicity of my experience.

But this year, things changed. I started to become much more interested in nature on my trips and the interaction of the environment, geology, animals, and plant life with one another. This came to me as a surprise. For years, I’ve backpacked with people who can name every tree or bird they see in the woods, and while I’ve appreciated their enthusiasm, I’d never felt it myself.

So I was surprised when I felt myself beginning to take a keen interest in my surroundings during trips and I and started to spend much more time observing and photographing the plants, trees, animals, and fungi that I saw on my expeditions. When I’d get home, I’d research what I had observed and began to teach myself natural history, biology, geology, and botany. Then, I started to write about it, as much to share it with others, as to cement what I had learned in my mind.

In doing so, I seem to have stumbled into a new hobby, being a naturalist. A naturalist is a person who studies the natural world, often as a generalist, combining interests in botany, geology, animals and the environment. Historically, some of the world’s greatest thinkers started out as naturalists, including Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, John Muir, and Henry Thoreau. But my goals are far more modest. I am content to observe and learn, slowly, and to take great pleasure in doing so, on the trail and when I get home.


  1. I like that a lot. It makes sense to gain as much from our trips into the wilderness as possible. Nature makes a great class room.

  2. My oldest daughter (8) had a great time on our hike, last weekend, finding some huge buckeyes (we have buckeye trees in California? they look like buckeyes)and some big sugarcones. It's exciting to see the kids take an interest in the natural world.

  3. One of my friends/hiking partners was a botanist for a NP. I always learn a lot when we hike together. It is like having a plant nerd with me ;-)

    One thing I do is take photos of any plant or other thing that catches my eyes. Then I can do research at home if unsure. Better, posting the photos and getting feedback. For example, I had never seen a Gall Wasp before and saw this really cool sphere laying on a Oak leaf. Well, it was neat to find out that it had a wasp in it. How cool was that?

  4. The stuff out there is amazing. I wish everyone knew how much fun it is to learn nature's secrets and inventions.

  5. I like both the ideas of walking meditation and being a naturalist. I've been exploring the idea of meditation recently and it has occurred to me that I may be doing it while hiking. I'll read up more on that.

  6. This is one of my favorite topics! Try searching on "walking meditation" using google.

  7. this is very interesting

    and at my school I am a naturalist trail guide


  8. Good luck in your pursuit of nature. My morning walks have become a spiritual discipline for me. We learn much about the whole by studying the minute. Thank you for your photos and thoughts.

  9. ~ I like philosophically bound discussions.

    ~ My parents were older when I came along, and thought of me as a strange thing. To them, voluntarily sleeping outdoors was a form of mental illness. Tents were merely devises used to cope only with most dire circumstances of poverty or natural disaster. I have to concede, there is nothing practical or constructive or conservational or healthful about backpacking. We can only hope to preserve our bodies with dead food and inappropriate technology while we navigate trails through dangerous lands, hostile weather, and diseased waters; doing as little damage as possible.

    ~ Therefore, the only possible benefit we can derive from backpacking is the expansion of our senses and minds.

    ~ "Becoming a Naturalist"

    ~ I like that as an embodiment of a rational process, rather than the possession of knowledge. When I started with the Outing Club at school, most of the members were studying biology. Lucky for me they were also naturalists. This gave chemists, such as myself, a chance to join the fun. They helped to expand my mind into the realms of ecology and planetology. Decades later, I remain conscious of my footsteps crushing the soil matrix, killing nitrogen-fixing bacteria, stunting the flora, and starving the fauna.

    ~ Sustaining our lives always leaves a trace. With wilderness recreation, there are no mitigating circumstances; it's pure self-indulgence. To pretend otherwise is at best blindness, and more likely deceit. With eyes wide open, we have a chance to at least learn something.

    ~ … naturalists, including Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, John Muir, and Henry Thoreau.

    ~ Interesting choices, those men of letters. Few people will ever recognize Lavoisier, Gibbs, Galton, Tesla, or Borlaug as natural philosophers, yet they each did more to sustain life on Earth than the sum of all biologists.

  10. Helen – I am enjoying your participation and comments on the blog immensely. As a long trail mentor myself – I wish you a great, tremendous, and enlightening hike on the LT. It is a hidden gem and door to the spirit you will never forget.

  11. This is how I hike and it makes everything so much better. I love to know about my surroundings!

  12. I'm in exactly the same space. I've developed this overwhelming passion to call things…all things, by their one true name. Certainly my reading of Muir has intensified this desire but something tells me it comes from a deeper place. I recall stopping for a break just atop a hill while working my way up Sassafrass Mountain on the Foothills Trail and recognizing that I was sitting amidst a patch of galax aphylla. I had just happened to see the sketch in my trail guide and looked down to see the very plant illustrated on its pages. I can't explain the thrill of being able to call this one small thing by its true name. Yeah, I'm hooked! A blog/ podcast is brewing in me on this subject as well.

  13. swami krishnananda

    i worked with a project called gorukana 170 kilmeters from bangalore city karnataka india and was facinated with the naturalists and i am interested to become a naturalist. kindly let me know whether i can learn through distant education

    god bless you
    uttarkhand state
    north india

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