Confessions of a Naturalist

By Amy Renfranz (

Article Published: Aug. 9, 2012 | Modified: Aug. 9, 2012
Confessions of a Naturalist

Stump the ranger questions can be frustrating for this young naturalist.

Photo by Emily Melton | The Appalachian

A few days ago, I found myself in a phone conversation with a distant relative who lives in New York City. She asked me what I was doing with my life. I responded with, “Well, I’m a naturalist.”

After a brief moment of silence she told me that she could never understand how people could feel comfortable being nude in public. Even more, she was surprised that my parents were OK with me throwing away my college diploma, so that I could “lay out in the sun all day.”

I never realized that the words “nudist” and “naturalist” were one and the same in some people’s minds.

I dedicate today’s column to truth-telling, so that all may understand a little bit more about this wonderful profession and hobby of studying the natural world.

Naturalists are not nudists.

We’re usually not even hippies, although that does happen. Fully dressed in cargo pants, boots and earth-toned T-shirts, we brave the great outdoors with field journals in hand.

Sometimes we carry a camera. Other gear could include nets, binoculars, GPS device, identification books and maps. The well-off hobbyist might even have a smart phone in their backpack.

We use this equipment to make observations about the natural world, to study it for the sake of science and for our own personal enjoyment. Furthermore, my job on the Blue Ridge Parkway requires me to help other people to make connections with their natural and cultural history. And I do it all with clothes on.

Naturalists do not know everything.

I would like to be able to identify every constellation, every plant, know every trail like the back of my hand, and understand completely every cycle in nature. But I do not. It’s an ongoing, learning process.

In honesty, the words “I don’t know” come out of my mouth much more than I would like them to. It is humbling. Usually, I can whip out the right map or identification book to answer the question. In this way, I learn something new every time a visitor has a question that I cannot immediately answer.
Some visitors like to “stump the ranger” on purpose.

For the professional botanist who asked me a complex question about the energy cycle of plants and the wildlife biologist who recently demanded to know the incubation period of the turkey, I forgive you. You were probably traveling the parkway with your mother-in-law and she always makes you feel horrible about yourself. You needed to take your frustration out on someone. Glad I could be there for you.

Naturalists have varied interests.

Due to the unlimited subject matters in nature, naturalists usually pick a handful of interests to focus on. They can become very passionate about their area.

Some are birders. Some are amateur geologists and biologists. Some join an astronomy club. I like to follow the cycles of wildflower and fungi as the seasons change.

I ask you, reader, what are your interests? What could become your passion? Now, get out there and enjoy it.

Some people might not understand why you are so interested in your subject, and so excited to get outside to study it. You might not be able to answer every question right away, but you’ll try. You might not even have the right equipment in the beginning, but you will feel a stronger connection to your natural world. And believe me, that is worth all the misunderstandings and “stump the rangers.”

If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email ( All of your questions will be answered. One will be featured next week. See you on the trails.

Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.

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