By Rob Rich
Orange is a rare color in the Swan Valley forests. On certain slopes in fall, the leaves of mountain ash will sometimes cast this tint. But it wasn’t fall. It was winter, and the color that caught Laura’s eye was a tawny feather, bright against the snow. As she got closer and confirmed what it was, she was seized by the sudden curiosity to know who had left it there, and why.
Have you ever been out walking, and found yourself consumed by questions like this? It doesn’t have to be a feather – it could be a hole in a streambank, a bone on the roadside, or spring’s first flower – any old curiosity will do. Curiosity is the key word, that hallmark of being a naturalist. If you feel intimidated by a name ending with an -ism or an -ist, that’s understandable. But Swan Valley Connections (SVC) is here to say that a naturalist is an honorable role that anybody can aspire to, and one that is filled with learning, inspiration, and fun. In a new effort for place-based, inquiry-driven conservation education, SVC is proud to offer a Master Naturalist certification program that will set you down this path.
Being a naturalist is not new. From today’s Montana Naturalist magazine to the journal of the Lewis and Clark expedition (over 200 years ago) to the ten-volume tome Naturalis Historia (from nearly 2,000 years ago), the practice of observing, describing, and interpreting nature is deeply etched in our written record. And it’s far older than anything a pen could record, for nature is wrapped in our nature, wired in our DNA. The first Salish people who followed the last glaciers (10,000 years ago) to this place we now call the Swan Valley, who learned that the best berries follow fire? They were naturalists. The Neolithic seed savers (12,000 years ago) who learned to propagate lentils? Naturalists. The Paleolithic hunters (2.6 million years ago) who learned to hunt mammoths with knapped stone spearpoints? You guessed it. They were naturalists, too.
And naturalists are alive and well today. Look no further than Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California…and Montana! We are among the 45 great states where master naturalist programs have emerged across the country, each unique in approach to funding and curricula, but united by goals to build knowledge, skills, and habits that forge closer relationships between people and the natural world. The Montana Natural History Center in Missoula initiated programming in our state, and the course has since spread through certified partnerships with the Glacier Institute, Montana Audubon Center, Montana Discovery Center, and Swan Valley Connections.
Modeled after the master gardener programs that sprouted in 1973, SVC’s master naturalist course is meant for adults seeking greater awareness, understanding, and stewardship of the Swan Valley. You will come out of this class with the ability to identify diverse species and the connections between them, and you will have hands-on skills to make informed decisions to protect our shared environment. While this course will be rooted in the Swan Valley’s ecosystems, you can maintain your certification through volunteer service wherever you live, making you part of an inspired corps that applies and grows your naturalist skills to conserve the place you call home. Our curriculum doesn’t aim to churn out experts who can instantly see answers to everything, and you certainly won’t graduate with a PhD. But we do hope to cultivate head-scratchers, jaw-droppers, and question-askers – people unafraid to say “huh?” and “wow!” and learn how to see nature with an open mind and sharpened senses.
Take Laura’s feather, for example. Diverse resources were available to help her explore the possibilities of its origin and function – like print and online field guides, the iNaturalist app, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Feather Atlas. Our master naturalist training shares these and many more tools, each which can help you interpret and appreciate the complexity of your natural curiosities. But, like many naturalists, Laura learned a lot about her feather simply by drawing it, which gave her an intimate sense of its color, size, texture, and symmetry. By the end of her observations, she not only had a personalized understanding of this feather, but she could also appreciate why it was a contour feather, the base of which provides downy warmth close to the breast of a bird. The barred pattern and the color led her to believe she was holding what had once been attached to a ruffed grouse, an offering that might have been shed as the bird exploded from hiding under the snow.
So please, heed the call of the curious and join us from July 11-16, for the chance to be part of SVC’s first class of certified master naturalists. Our Field Program Coordinator, Lindsay, is ready to sign you up (406-754-3137, firstname.lastname@example.org). Whether you’re into flowers, skulls, feathers, tracks, or something else entirely, you’ll belong here, and you’ll befriend other naturalists with new ways of seeing the world. And more than ever, the world needs you to see it. We can’t conserve what we don’t know exists, but together we can see that a feather is more than a feather. It’s part of a bird that flies.