Becoming a Master Naturalist Changed How I See the Trail

This originally appeared in The Trek.

Update 10/30/2020: The article originally stated that there is no Master Naturalist program in Georgia. There is in fact a program through the University of Georgia.

I had been stressing for about an hour already. The mid-afternoon sun was beginning to turn the dark yellowish color that signals sunset is an hour or two away, and I couldn’t find a campsite.

I was hiking solo on the Lone Star Hiking Trail near Montgomery, Texas, and all I could see on either side of the trail were dense mini-forests of short palmetto trees that provided no clear space for a tent. The official guidebook for the trail (authored by Karen Borski Somers) describes the vegetation in this particular section of the Lone Star in exquisite detail:

“In this hardwood bottomland grows a variety of vegetation: dwarf palmettos, oaks, and hanging vines. A lone mature pine rises a hundred feet above scattered river cane, one of three temperate bamboo species native to North America.”

When I tried to write about my hike later, I found I lacked the ability to describe the trail as specifically and vividly as Somers. I wished, for instance, that I could name the thorny vine growing in the patch of ground I finally pitched my tent on. It acted as a kind of fortress, blocking strangers’ view of my Big Agnes Copper Spur. I was camped only a few yards off the trail, and although I had seen no human being all day I was nervous about being so close.

But I couldn’t say much about the foliage or what kind of owl hooted above my tent all night.  I didn’t know that the “puppies” I heard yipping and barking in the middle of the night were actually coyotes.  I experienced nature but I was inept at describing it.

A couple of days after that trip I searched online for a way to remedy my ignorance and landed on the Texas Master Naturalist program.  I applied, enrolled, completed the initial training. Now I’m just 1.5 hours from the 40 volunteer hours I need to become certified.   

What is a Master Naturalist?

A Master Naturalist is a person who is dedicated to maintaining, restoring, and teaching about the environment, especially local ecosystems. We also dedicate ourselves to continue learning about the natural world. (In addition to volunteer hours, a certain number of advanced training hours is required to maintain certification.)

Master Naturalists are trained in subjects such as local natural history, ecology, and science communication. We are not by definition experts in any area—although some are, whether through their experience as a Master Naturalist or through degrees in fields such as botany, biology, or ecology.  

Some of us end up in a particular niche. For instance, I naturally gravitated toward outreach and education.  I serve regular hours at a local nature preserve as a trail guide in training.  I also write and blog about topics as varied as the moon, mosquitoes, coyotes, and the great horned owl.  True to my original intention, I am working on learning and sharing the names and natures of plants and animals.

The Appalachian Trail

Benton MacKaye, the visionary who dreamed up the Appalachian Trail, reflected on the ultimate purpose of hiking. “There are three things,” he said. “To walk, to see, and to see what you see.”

This simple quote is perhaps open to diverse interpretations, but I am personally inspired by the double emphasis on seeing.  It could serve as a description of what it means to be a naturalist: first write, draw or photograph what you see; then gather information about its name, taxonomy, habitat, behavior, and role in the ecosystem. 

I spoke with Rob Lamar, an ecologist and Master Naturalist with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Center, headquartered in Vienna, Virginia.  Among other roles, he oversees a pilot program to preserve native habitats along the AT.  The project is done in partnership with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Among other tasks, program volunteers remove invasive species to enable native plants to survive.  

He encourages hikers to learn as much as possible about the natural world in the area they hike through.

“The more you know, the more you appreciate about any trail,” he told me. 

PATC volunteers remove invasive plant species adjacent to the Appalachian Trail in northern Virginia (photo courtesy Rob Lamar).

Of course, as he notes, taking the time to smell metaphorical roses may be more useful for day hikers who aren’t on a schedule than thru-hikers with a limited window of time. But hikers don’t have to be Master Naturalists to get involved. For instance, anyone can volunteer to preserve native habitats on the trail by removing invasive species that threaten the AT’s native plants.

I asked Rob what resources exist for hikers to identify flora and fauna they encounter on their treks.  His number one recommendation was Peterson’s Field Guides.  Illustrations are better than pictures for identifying plants and animals, he told me.

Many Master Naturalists and other nature enthusiasts use the app iNaturalist, which draws on a crowdsourced database of descriptions that a user can match to a photo of what they’re trying to identify.  I use it and have been really happy to be able to call the red-headed lizard I found outside my house by its correct name, the brown anole.

Becoming a Master Naturalist

Will a Master Naturalist program benefit you? It depends on your interests and goals. I view the major benefits as:

  1. The opportunity for continuous learning (made greater by increased opportunities for online education since the pandemic began).
  2. The sense of community with others who are dedicated to environmental preservation, restoration, and education.

There are time and money commitments. The cost can range from $140 to $400, varying by state and content of the curriculum. Programs may be structured somewhat differently, but most include at a minimum two to three months of classroom instruction combined with field experiences, although work in the field has been impacted by coronavirus-related restrictions. 

Most programs require a minimum number of volunteer hours and continuing education. In the Texas program, 40 volunteer service hours and eight advanced training hours earn you a one-year certification. This renews when you complete the same minimum amount of service and training the following year. 

Here is a list of Master Naturalist programs in every state. 

Notably, there are Master Naturalist programs in every state the AT traverses. If specific areas of the trail appeal to you, it’s likely there will be a naturalist program in that area.

My first day of master training with the Galveston-Bay Area chapter.

Since becoming a Master Naturalist, I look at the natural world in a way I never did before.  For instance, I don’t automatically recoil when I see a bug or a spider. (OK, to be honest, I jump a little, but then I look again to see what color it is, how it moves, and where it’s going.) If I have the chance, I might snap a photo and post it on iNaturalist.

Living in Houston, I don’t get out to the AT often. And with the pandemic, I hesitate to travel right now. But whenever I get back there I plan to stop and smell the wildflowers (and the trees), and to journal about the animals I encounter, from orange salamanders to rattlesnakes.  It will be a richer experience than it would have been before I became a Master Naturalist, and I can’t wait.


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