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Becoming a Certified Naturalist |

Becoming a Certified Naturalist

Fossilized brachiopods and crinoids which lived in the sea that covered the state of Tennessee 450 million years ago

A few days ago I was kneeling alongside some middle school children on a hillside in a rural park as they searched through rock-filled bins for fossils in an Archeology Day festival.

When one little boy found a fossil he looked up at me and said, “So, I’m holding 450 million years in my hand?”

I assured him that yes, he was. “Wow,” he said.

His excitement was exactly what the sponsors of Archeology Day wanted children to experience.

In the past 13 months I’ve had numerous experiences like this, experiences that are enriching, encouraging and fulfilling.

Since April, in addition to fossil hunting at historic Ft. Negley in Nashville, I’ve been assisting in a project to monitor and record data on Monarch butterflies at Owl’s Hill, a local nature sanctuary.

A migrating female Monarch butterfly feeding on fennel blossoms.

We’ve recorded the types and density of milkweed, monarch adults, eggs, larvae, temperature and rainfall to add to a national database on monarch habitat, survival and migration.

I’ve participated in another citizen science project to collect leaves of red maple trees in spring and fall to understand how leaf traits vary in this species in response to strong environmental gradients.

A chikapin oak that is old enough to have witnessed Civil War battles.

I’ve hiked with a trail manager through bush to a chinkapin oak that is probably old enough to have at least witnessed Civil War battles around Nashville, and perhaps events much earlier.

Located at the crest of a steep hill, it’s easy to imagine a time when Cherokee hunters could rest under this magnificent sentry, long before white people crossed the Appalachians from the east.

It’s also easy to feel a sense of the sacred under its massive limbs.

I got to help construct nesting boxes for near-threatened hellbender salamanders and to see the hellbender research facility at the Nashville Zoo.

I learned that the Great Smoky Mountains are the world’s capital for salamanders. More varieties live here than anywhere in the world. The three-foot-long hellbenders are among 30 species, some of which exist only in the Smokies.

These choice experiences are the result of a course I began in August 2018, to become certified as a Tennessee Naturalist. The program is designed to introduce the natural history of Tennessee to interested adults and encourage them to volunteer in various ways.

We spend 40 hours in class lectures and field education, and another 40 volunteer hours for certification.

Additionally, we are encouraged to continue our education and to volunteer to:

  • Help state and local government agencies monitor and maintain the quality of our native ecosystems in a variety of citizen science projects;
  • Work with nonprofit organizations in preserving and maintaining our natural heritage;
  • Assist with public interpretive programs reaching school children and others across the state.

I received my certification in mid-September and I’m on the way to completing the next level of continuing education and volunteer hours.

I’ve combined this education with an intense commitment to nature photography to capture the beauty of our natural environment, beauty that is threatened virtually every day by the loss of habitat, pollution, pesticide overuse and climate change.

As we face a sixth great extinction and an environmental crisis that looms as an irreversible threat if not addressed quickly and meaningfully, each of us is challenged to learn more about the natural world, planet Earth and the species with whom we share life—and do all we can to protect and preserve.

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