by Mary Fox
The live eel is just inches away from my face. I have to make a split-second decision whether or not to touch him, but as I have a live clam in hand, I skip my turn. Many of the others standing next to me do the same; we examine the eel through the clear plastic bag that stores him and pass him on. Max, a young college student, asks if he can take the eel out of the bag of water and hold him.
“Sure,” says the Naturalist instructor. “If you can. He’s almost awake. They’re awfully slippery.”
“Well,” he hesitates. “I don’t want to hurt him. I don’t want to be that guy.”
Amy, a young single mom, smiles sweetly and says, “C’mon Max, go for it.”
Max picks up the eel, and, as predicted, it pops awake and slides from his hands to the ground. He’s mortified; he flushes. Amy pats his shoulder, laughs, and says, “nice try.”
Henry, an ex-marine sergeant standing next to me, says, “Hey, I guess you are that guy, huh Max?”
Max takes the teasing well and besides, the instructor has scooped up the runaway with a net. Already, the eel has swum back downstream. This instructor is accustomed to the shenanigans of her volunteers; she can handle us as expertly as she does the rest of the wildlife in her stream.
It’s week three of Maryland State Master Naturalist training, and I’m a student. I don’t remember what exactly made me want to take this class. Maybe I just saw the sign-up poster in the park and got curious. Maybe I was missing my days of growing up on a farm in Maryland where the woods, rivers, and wilds were minutes away. Or maybe I had seen one too many ‘earth-is-dying’ stories on National Geographic Channel and could no longer ignore the ache to do something good to the earth before I leave it.
For whatever reason, I found myself, a recently retired grandmother, committing my Tuesdays and several more field trip days for three months and eighty-plus hours of volunteer service each year. I knew it had to be a good thing. What I didn’t know was that it would change the way I relate to my planet.
Master Naturalist trainees carry enormous loose-leaf binders. The books come to us about three inches thick and then grow to four or even five inches. They get filled with hand-outs and brochures, of course, and then we add stuff to them: leaf cuts, feathers, little sticks, maybe an insect wing. Those bits that don’t get tucked into the binders end up clinging to us as we head home after the day’s work. Our cars are soon cluttered, too, with sticks, stones, and seed pods. Every day of training sends us on at least two journeys; the intellectual wash-down of information from the guest instructors and the treks afterward in fields and streams to look at samples that will bring to life the mind’s new contents.
I can never decide which of the journeys I love best. I’m a lifelong knowledge gatherer, eager for concepts, rubrics for classification, definitions of bugs and beasts. I adore the little chart that shows things like how eighty percent of my DNA is identical to that of most insects. About half of the class are perennial students like me. We miss that every-September cornucopia of courses and books; we never got enough of school and left it only because there was no pay coming in.
The other half of the students seem to struggle through the didactic material. Their feet start to quiver and tap as lunch time gets close; they can’t wait to suit up and head for the woods. They are the ones always in front or trailing behind. They never travel with the pack; they are outliers looking for something they haven’t seen before, something not in the book, a question the trail guide can’t answer. First out and last in; these are the people from whom I learn the most. I don’t have a brain like theirs, even though I always thought of myself as wide open to experience. It never occurred to me, I admit, to taste a leaf or smell it to see if it was in the mint or poppy family.
I envy that look they wear on their faces; these ‘natural’ naturalists with mud on their boots and eyes open wider than the rest of us. Their faces seem larger, their senses attuned to each channel on nature’s wide-screen show. ‘Natural’ naturalists see more flowers and birds and plant types; they see insects I barely notice; they hear bird calls that are just background noise to me. They might be holding a leaf that smells like mint, scratching it with a fingernail to sniff, but what they say comes from some other direction entirely: “that was a pileated woodpecker; he’s looking for a mate.” I look up quickly, hoping to spot it too, but all I see is a tiny flash of red and then nothing. I’m carrying the best binoculars money can buy, yet I’ve missed the bird, as well the scent of mint.
In the outdoor expeditions, we all accumulate a mishmash of little pieces of the forest, along with a plethora of facts that I’ll forget in a week or hours, or sometimes even minutes. The leaves I can manage to hang onto, but all those exquisite details can’t find a rubric to tuck into when they hit my brain. They have to compete with all the other sights and sounds. They must jockey for a place in the classifications of flora and fauna, invasive versus endangered species, or whether they are pollinators. Despite what I forget, I have assimilated things like coevolution and pollination, habitats and watersheds, habitat loss and pollution. I’ve learned the most important lesson: how things connect.
We all come to love the field trips. It was a gorgeous day when we went to the local stream to assess its health. We were there to count mayflies and eels. We quickly found mayflies and rejoiced; this find alone is enough to mark this as a healthy stream. We’ve learned which ones are the most fragile species, the ones easily killed by invaders and pollution. That day, I wore high rubber boots because our instructor the Naturalist is going to shock the water with a power paddle, stunning everything within a six-feet radius. We stood next to her in our boots, holding nets and buckets. We swooped our nets through the water and dunked their contents into the buckets, then went ashore with our catch to count mayflies, weigh and measure eels, and see what else was in there, such as the tiny Asian clams that are just a quarter of an inch wide yet a serious threat to our freshwater streams. Some of us scooped out the buckets and bagged the critters, while others recorded the markers of stream health, and still others formed lines to return the wildlife to the stream. Like always, we had been careful to put things back when we left the park.
In nearly every class, we all stew over problems with invasive species. One day, I bring in a lovely flower that has popped up all over my yard. I show it to Rebecca, the program director, who says, “I don’t know what it is; ask Ellen. And hey, if it’s a good propagator, bring me some seeds. I need something to fill in at the rain garden.”
Ellen is the ‘flower woman.’ She scratches a leaf, sniffs it, and says, “I think it could be a mustard…no wait. The leaves are scalloped…” She pulls out her smart phone. “Here, let me post a picture in my Google group.”
The lecture comes and goes; the instructor happens to be an edible plant expert. She looks at my mystery plant and says, “Looks like an asteraceae. Wait, it’s more like a ranunculus; if so, it’s non-native and very invasive.”
She means buttercup, but I’ve learned enough today to rule that out; my plant is too tall.
Ellen heads over to me during the break.
“Found it.” She pulls up a likeness of my plant on her smart phone.
“That’s it,” I smile, delighted.
Her face is even more triumphant than mine and then darkens. She says, “it’s greater celandine, AKA devil’s milk or wartwort. It’s difficult, make that impossible, to keep it from spreading like crazy. By the way; it came here from Europe. Sorry.”
I recoil in mock horror at Ellen’s verdict: non-native, invasive. I’m only partly playacting; I now have to go home and yank out all those lovely flowers. I’ve learned, of course, not to call the unwanted plants by the name ‘weeds.’ There are only ‘plants that misbehave,’ whether they’re in planned gardens or untamed meadows. The greater celandine would push out all my Black-eyed Susans and milkweeds, so it has to go.
We worship milkweeds here in this class. We propagate them from seeds in the fall and give the extra seedlings to our friends in spring. Many insect species depend on them as a primary food source. Most important to us are monarch butterflies, since both larvae and adults eat only milkweed.
Not a weed at all, it’s a tall, stately flower with fruits shaped as green pods that fall off, turn brown, and burst open in the fall to let out great tufts of fluffy seeds. We try to grab them as they float off, and we sprinkle them in potting soil for over-wintering. You can’t propagate them as transplants since their roots are deep and interconnected, spreading themselves underground to form a thick colony that quickly crowds out any other plants.
In other words, the milkweed is an invasive plant, but it’s the only food monarch butterflies eat. We love our monarch butterflies here in Maryland, and we’ll work hard to keep them. We are sincerely anguished to learn there’s been a ten-fold drop in the butterfly’s population over the last decade. Some scientists predict the monarch will go extinct within twenty years.
But not if naturalists can help it.
Change the earth back; wipe away the effects of human mismanagement.
Like many of us in class, I find myself revisiting the way I eat, garden, buy things. I find that habits that have seemed innocent to me before, now seem selfish, as for example, growing great lawns of grass that strain the water table.
I have taken on the torch of the newly converted volunteer naturalist, as have most of us in this class, and we are very tiresome to handle—opinionated, unpredictably creative, unruly. We are very different from each other—the housewife, the marine sergeant, that young mom, the college students, retirees, part-time professionals, and paid staff. No matter what our differences, we’ve come to share something profound and permanent. We all wear raincoats, carry binoculars, have magnifying glasses hanging out of our pockets, dress in beat-up hiking shoes and blue jeans, and carry backpacks. And each and every time, the power of our journey takes us individually and collectively to a place where we are becoming bigger and better than our real selves.
Mary H. Fox, PhD, is a psychologist who studied literature and poetry before matriculating to undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology. She was an associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and for 25 years had a psychology practice. She has published a textbook, many journal articles, and a few short stories. She is also becoming a Master Naturalist.