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BEACON Senior News

Living the dream of becoming a certified naturalist

Mar 22, 2021 03:39PM ● By Ellen Cochrane
Silhouette of man sitting near the edge of a rock cliff overlooking a view at sunrise

On a dark, June night our steps crushed a bloom of bioluminescent dinoflagellates, also known as glowing sea plankton. The footprints behind us shimmered blueish-green, proclaiming the creature’s annoyance. I trudged in a line of naturalists on the edge of California, reveling in the fulfillment of a lifetime dream.

Naturalist school

For years I was determined to place myself back into nature, and not just as an occasional visitor. Twenty years of teaching in an urban, public school had not erased the push of the Pacific wind from my thoughts or dried up the smell of sunbaked oat grass.

I was looking for a chance to nudge my inner child back to Mother Nature. And I had a sense of urgency—being older made me aware of the tick-tock of time. 

I realized my dream by going to naturalist school.

Just after sunrise in Heart’s Desire Park, a sheltered cove in the Point Reyes National Seashore, I began naturalist adult camp. For one week, 25 people of all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds practiced survival skills and studied redwood ecology and the Coho salmon watershed. We studied, camped, ate and drank beer together. 

Naturalists learn facts. For five or so hours a day, we studied in the classroom. Scientists, non-profit conservation program directors, volunteers, authors and other naturalists schooled us on local flora, fauna and geology. The remainder of the time we learned outdoors. 

A twisty path curled through the redwood forest. We stopped to watch our guide unwrap a tissue, examining what looked like a tomato seed. Interest turned to astonishment when she pointed to a giant of the forest. The minute dot was a redwood seed.


We walked creek trails alongside salmon spawning grounds and learned the breeding cycle from biologists. Later that same day, we helped repot native plant seedlings and redwood sprouts with a botanist. A few days later, we were immersed in the world of mist nets and tagging native bird species. We took notes, kept journals and sketched—all staples of the classically trained naturalist.

My most emotional moment came when we examined a washed-up female blue whale on the Bolinas Duxbury Reef. It was impossible not to feel pity standing next to the lifeless body of the largest species on earth, most likely hit by a ship. We learned later that she was part of a research project and her migration from Alaska to Mexico had been tracked for 18 years.

By the end of the week, we had developed strong bonds and a network of colleagues, and were ready to volunteer. Having earned our chops, we could join the nationwide movement of building cadres of like-minded people who want to share nature in a positive way, not focusing on conflict resolution or policy battles.

Multiple studies point to the benefits of volunteering, especially later in life. But becoming a steward of the earth, supporting environmental programs and introducing the young to life-changing adventures is not just volunteering—it’s a passion. Most naturalists find their calendars packed and some are much busier volunteering than when they worked. However, this commitment is a calling more than another career.

Volunteer in nature 

For those interested in naturalism, the start of your journey is just a click away. The Alliance of Natural Resource Outreach and Service Programs’ website,, assembles information on nationwide trainings, including a directory of states that currently have programs. To date, 27 states offer instruction and more join every year.

Universities and state agencies oversee the classes, and budding naturalists train 40 hours or more with local environmental partner organizations or instructors who are experts in the immediate geographic area. Students learn about flora and fauna ecosystems and conservation, as well as broader environmental issues.

Some courses are taught in a classroom setting with field trips. Others, like my class, are 24/7 immersion courses in nature. After you complete the course, you’re ready to work. Some do use the training to seek out encore careers, but others feed their souls by finding the perfect volunteer niche.

University of California Program Director Adina Merenlender observed that naturalist training brings together people from all walks of life, including those who wouldn’t normally interact. 

“It’s important to engage youth and older people to find their path around sciences, outdoors and the environment—to find their life’s work,” Merenlender said. 

I found my path and fed my soul when the moon set on Heart’s Desire Beach.