Confessions of a Curious — if Dubious — California Naturalist
Let me jump right into my first confession: I am a “big picture” kind of person. Throughout my career I’ve left details and data to other people while I come up with the “big ideas,” the overarching strategies. This is not a truth I’m proud of: the world needs both high-level and detailed thinking. Yet this truth is one I had to contend with when I pursued my California Naturalist (CalNat) certification two years ago, through a program offered jointly by the University of California and Lindsay Wildlife Experience.
I hoped that becoming a California Naturalist would strengthen the knowledge I could share with Lindsay visitors and community members. As president of Lindsay’s board of directors, people ask me all kinds of questions — detailed questions! — about wildlife in addition to questions about Lindsay’s strategy. Wouldn’t it be good, I thought, if I could do more than talk at the high level? Besides, I love to learn, so I applied and was accepted to the CalNat program. I was excited!
In class week after week, my CalNat instructors covered a lot of information: the various habitats comprising the Mount Diablo region, the area’s geology and watersheds, the basics of flora and fauna taxonomy, the multitudinous types of local fungi, and about seventeen-million facts that made my head hurt. That the information often made my head hurt is the second thing I have to confess. Don’t get me wrong: I loved the class! I would be lying, however, if I said that much of the detail stuck with me. Have I mentioned that details are not my strong suit? I emerged from the program a “Certified California Naturalist,” but a fairly dubious one, if it were specifics versus “big picture” concepts that were needed.
But then a novel coronavirus came along. Suddenly, my “big picture” thinking had to SIP (shelter in place).
That’s when a funny thing happened. To avoid going stir-crazy in my house, I started spending a lot of time with my camera in my garden, neighborhood, and nearby parks. Wow. It didn’t take long to get what my CalNat instructors had been trying to tell me: that incredible biodiversity and wonder could be found right outside my door!
Within just a couple of weeks of SIP, I met an astounding array of birds, bugs, and other critters with whom I had been living without even noticing. An arboreal salamander taking refuge under my herb planter box! Nesting dark-eyed juncos in my bay tree! A Nuttall’s woodpecker with an affection for my Monterey pine! Great Horned Owls calling from treetops on the next street! Butterflies whose names had I never heard — fritillaries, checker spots, hairstreaks, and cabbage whites —all flitting from plant to plant! Who knew all this wildlife was just on the other side of my window?
Venturing to the regional parks and open spaces near me revealed even more cool creatures. Terns, Godwits, and Sandpipers along the bay shores; coyotes and their young in the East Bay hills; brush rabbits (my personal favorites) just about everywhere they could be; garter snakes and gopher snakes stretched out on sunbaked paths.
Which brings me to the third thing I must confess: I have become increasingly curious, in the “odd or strange” sense of the word as much as in the “marked-by-a desire-to-investigate” sense, I suspect. I spend time nearly every day researching questions such as: how can I tell the difference between an Anna’s Hummingbird and a Rufous Hummingbird, both of which (I’ve learned from “real” naturalists) hang around my front yard? Whose birdsong is emanating from my neighbor’s oak tree? Just how many spiderlings might this wolf spider on my patio be carrying on her back? How exactly did this tiger swallowtail butterfly locate this lone fennel plant in my garden, on which she laid her eggs?
I have, it seems, grown to appreciate details — details about both common and unusual creatures, in all their uniqueness, who share this neighborhood with me. From White-tailed Kites to yellow-faced bumblebees; from California ground squirrels to American sand wasps; from Great Blue Herons to common buckeyes…they all have come into focus and become far more amazing to me as I’ve taken the time to look closely.
So perhaps this shelter-in-place has been the CalNat-continuing-education teacher I required. When this horrible pandemic fades, I hope I will show myself to be a more proficient naturalist. Perhaps my new appreciation for details will enhance my ability to form and communicate “big ideas.” Or maybe – just maybe – my excitement at what I’m learning will inspire someone else to take a closer look at the wild and wonderful life that surrounds us and join me in wanting to protect it.
I confess that one of my most secret hopes (and it’s a big one!) is to get my friends to call me Dr. Ranger Rosie because I do love titles! More importantly, though, I hope I can help move us just a little closer to realizing Lindsay’s vision of vibrant and healthy habitats. Not only for us humans, but also for all our wildly incredible neighbors on this planet we call home.