My Experience Becoming a Master Naturalist

By Paula Redinger, Cohort 5 Pima Master Naturalist

Last month, a small brown envelope appeared in my mailbox. I knew exactly what was inside: something I’d been working towards since mid-January. After a triumphal Facebook post and associated comment flurry, I thought more quietly upon it. What does it, mean, exactly?

In the simplest of terms, it means that I successfully completed a 17 week course, with its generous amount of associated reading, labs, and homework, as well as the required hours of volunteer work and “advanced training” (a sort of continuing education). I gritted my teeth during “ice breaker” class activities (I’m an introvert), pored over hundreds of pages of books, articles, and scientific papers, sailed through biogeographic zones and desert fauna (mostly), wrestled with geology, wondered in awe at and grieved the Sea of Cortez, felt despair and hope as I learned about our Santa Cruz River, continued my personal journey in understanding systemic racism (this time in a naturalist framework), cursed and celebrated team assignments (did I mention I’m an introvert?), wailed and whined inwardly that I’d nehhh-verrrr be able to identify plants, designed and completed a self-directed capstone project in order to help me do just that, witnessed the phenology (timing) of springtime events in my own backyard, prepared and presented an “interpretative talk” to my cohort-mates, scowled at invasive plants, bemoaned climate change, grew to appreciate our rich cultural history, sketched, photographed, presented, asked, listened, touched, sniffed, tasted, wondered, researched…. and that’s just the class portion.

Towards the completion of my volunteer hours, I counted birds on multiple survey routes, looked for evidence (ie – dead birds) that would indicate migration window strikes, hand watered thousands of native plants destined for county planting projects, climbed mountains and hiked miles to survey the health of wilderness springs, released masked bobwhite quail, helped train other volunteers, attended meetings, presented about my experiences… for nearly 100 hours and counting.

In the name of advanced training, I attended hours of COVID-style webinars (and a few socially distanced guided walks) on various topics: specific bird identification skills, the Bighorn Fire, wild mushrooms, our watersheds, landscape conservation, beaver reintroduction, invasive grasses, as well as training sessions specific to my volunteer tasks. And now, there is the towering spire of relevant books I’ve accumulated since I began this endeavor.

It has been an absolute nature lover’s cyclone. The result of this wondrous chubasco? I am, irrefutably, a member of that “corps of skilled volunteers able to provide leadership in education, citizen science, and stewardship programs to natural resource organizations in the State of Arizona” that our organization seeks to develop. Looking forward, in order to maintain my certification, I will have to fulfill volunteer and advanced training requirements each calendar year.

So now you know what my little name tag means. But do I? I’m not sure. Perhaps I can say that my title of Certified Master Naturalist bestows upon me the dubious honor of knowing a bit more of what I don’t know. My list of questions about our natural world has, curiously, not gotten any shorter. Why was there a 10 million year gap in volcanic activity during the early Cenozoic Era? If ashes are a source of lye, will the fire-then-monsoon-induced slurry that comes down from the Catalina Mountains be toxically alkaline? How can you really distinguish amongst our various oak tree species or Empidonax flycatchers? Why are cold currents found at the western edges of continents? With every question answered, the dragons’ teeth inexorably spring forth. In an attempt at consolation, I say, “Self, you are a lifelong learner!” Going down wormhole after wormhole is both exciting and exhausting. But some days, I really would like to know All the Things. Now.

I also seem to do a lot of noticing of what I don’t notice. I recently realized, with not a small amount of embarrassment, that the volunteer palo verde tree growing in the rubble of my back yard is actually a graythorn bush. Similarly, that mesquite tree in my fiancé’s yard? Whoops! It’s an acacia. I drove back and forth to the Tohono Chul Gardens at least three times this spring, trying to catch their Arizona Rosewood in bloom for a capstone project sketch. Sheepishly, I recently observed one growing a mere two blocks from my own house.

Mostly, I’m learning about patience, trust, and the art of slow observation. The knowledge, experience, and associated confidence will come when it comes. In the meantime, I’ll be content to watch the spider wrapping its pray in the corner of the room, before swatting it out the doorway.

I’m still terrible at identifying plants. Fingers crossed none of my friends ask me about any.

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