Last fall, I completed training to through the Arlington Regional Master Naturalist program. Throughout the course we studied trees, native and invasive plants and animals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and so much more. Every week our studies included a lecture followed by field work where we would visit various parks, nature centers, streams and relevant locations to experience first-hand the topic of the week.
Throughout the fall and winter, I became conscious of shifts in the way that I was experiencing nature and shifts have become more dramatic and powerful for me throughout this spring. I am more plugged into the life cycles of both plants and animals and the various stages of each. I am more aware of when birds returned, when various trees sprouted their leaves, plants presented their flowers, and when the frogs began to croak.
Sure, I knew about bird migration before becoming a naturalist, but I did not fully appreciate how magical birds are until we studied ornithology. I would hear birds sing in the early morning hours, but most of the time, I was not truly listening. Now find myself tuning in to the calls of birds throughout the day, even as the sounds flow through the car windows as I drive through daily routines. I can now distinguish the sounds associated with specific birds and other animals and am beginning to learn their habits.
For my entire life, I lived in fear of snakes, until I learned that there is only one venomous snake with which we need to be concerned in these parts, the Northern Copperhead, which has a few non-venomous look-a-likes that sometimes strike a panic in those who encounter them. Although other snakes can bite, and some bites will indeed hurt, they are not deadly and are not usually harmful if left undisturbed.
I knew that some plants, like English Ivy, were a bit of a nuisance, but I didn’t understand just how , like English Ivy and the Snakehead fish, are to local land and waters. I know understand that they compete with native species for food and other resources, reproduce quickly and spread aggressively, can introduce disease and predators that native species are not equipped to fight and more. I now cringe at the invasive plants I see everywhere and am now working to go native in our own yard.
One of the biggest shifts for me has been with regard to the weather. Even though I grew up in Massachusetts, which has had its fair share of brutal winter weather, and whose warm season seemed to me to last only for a couple months, I have long been a cold weather wimp. Anything below 75 degrees unaccompanied by a blazing sun had always felt a bit nippy to me.
Over the past couple of seasons, I have been learning to appreciate the benefits of cool weather, and on some days, I even enjoy it. Once upon a time, I would have been unlikely to step outside on some days if the sun was not shining brightly and the air was not steamy. For most of my life, I have preferred hot and sticky, but I have learned that dressed appropriately, even cold weather can be pleasant in many ways.
I have even come to appreciate overcast days, which were even more of a problem for me than cold days. For ages, I lived for the summer, wishing the other seasons away. Now I feel like a kid in some ways, rediscovering the beauty and bounty of the all seasons.
Over the past year or so, I have learned to in new ways. Some of these ways involve significant shifts in what we do and how we do it, like camping and hiking more, for instance. But in many ways, the shifts are small and are based on increased awareness … by observing a particular tree or plant every day to watch as it evolves into its mature self; by pausing to inspect an insect or larvae in its habitat; or by sitting still and just watching and listening to discover what nature offers to my senses.
One does not need to be or become a naturalist to know about invasives, venomous snakes, or birds. But, for me, going through that process is what helped to connect me with the natural world in new ways. And I to learn such things to my kids and their never-ending questions.
Where ever you are on the nature-lover spectrum, keep it Green and Simple: step outside, get curious, and observe. Your connection with nature will grow, naturally!