On becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist

In partnership with Pickering Creek Audubon Center and Phillips Wharf Environmental Center, Adkins Arboretum is offering Maryland Master Naturalist training for 2015-2016. Beth Lawton, a participant in the training class, plans to chronicle her experience through a series of essays titled “On Becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist.” The first essay, posted here, was written before the program began in late October.


naturalist blog logoChapter One—Anticipation

I am delighted to have signed up for the upcoming Maryland Master Naturalist training program—a one-year stint of monthly training sessions, some field trips and volunteer time, and a second year of volunteer time combined with additional classwork. About a year ago, I signed up for a “scat” class at the Adkins Arboretum—actually a two-hour session on animal tracks and signs—and was so pleased to find that there were actually other adults on the planet who were just as willing and excited to make sample scat out of chocolate brownies as I was.  One or two of them wore nametags that said “Master Naturalist”—first I had heard of such a thing. Of course, I was familiar with the Master Gardener program from years of gardening and attending 4-H programs and herb fairs in my previous environs of the Hudson Valley in New York State. I didn’t have much chance to learn more about the program at the time, but I jumped on the bandwagon when the Arboretum advertised the 2015-2016 training session.

The program’s parent organization is the University of Maryland Extension Program—lots of information is available at their excellent website. Master Naturalist training is a relatively new program—conceived in 2005, with the first class going through the process in 2010. The program is heavily dependent on the host sites (such as Adkins Arboretum) who provide management, supervision, training, and facilities support. Instruction is specific to one of three physiographic regions in Maryland: the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, or Mountain Region. Based near Tuckahoe Creek, halfway between the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware beaches, I will be learning about the Coastal Plain region. The curriculum will include:

  • Introduction to Maryland Natural History
  • Flora and Fauna: Identification, Behavior, and Taxonomy
  • Fundamental Ecological Principles
  • How Humans Affect the Landscape
  • The Science of Science
  • Teaching and Interpretation

Not only do participants have to clear their schedule for the 60 hours of training the first year (not counting the readings and “homework”), but the program costs each volunteer $250.* I happily completed my application, including contacting three references and filling out a few forms, and participating in a phone interview, and sent off the check when my application was approved. While $250 is a fair chunk of change out of our household budget, I am so enthusiastic about getting the opportunity to learn more about Maryland and nature that it just didn’t seem like a big cost. It’s something akin to buying books or music—in our house, those items are just as vital as milk and bread. I happily buy all my clothes at yard sales and thrift shops, so long as I have funds for learning!

I see the Maryland Naturalist training program as a structure or framework on which I can build this aspect of my “lifelong learning” approach to everyday living. Could I do this on my own without attending the official program? Perhaps. I have a wealth of experience in home education and certainly have done a lot of self-learning in various areas. But I love the idea of letting someone else organize the materials, and I know they will incorporate a breadth of coverage that my personal interests may not have automatically included. And the discipline of meeting once a month will keep me reading, observing, and writing on something of a schedule.

So now I am getting ready for the course to begin—the first session is in a week. I have purchased the “recommended reading” books, but haven’t read them yet. I have reviewed the printed syllabus and the online PowerPoint presentations (trying not to worry in the back of my mind that the instructors may just read them to us—how annoying that would be!). And I find an interesting change to my attitude—I still go outdoors every day, many times a day. I still notice small things like the teensiest little praying mantis, the volunteer zinnias that have come up where I pulled out all the large plants earlier this month, the bald eagle who has returned for the cooler weather. But now it’s almost as if there is a new obligation or responsibility to look up creatures I find—instead of “that cute little lizard,” I dug around online to be sure that I knew it was a spotted salamander.

Photo courtesy of fcps.org.

Photo courtesy of fcps.org.

The huge spider covered with spiderlings was surely a wolf spider. The odd fruit dropping onto our driveway was indeed persimmons, falling from a tree with a stacked-wood look to its bark.  It’s not enough anymore to notice the natural world, now I want better names, clearer understanding, a certainty to what I am seeing and hearing.

The other interesting piece of this anticipation phase is telling others about what I’m about to undertake. Many people ask, “Why do you want to do this? What do you get from the program?” The process of articulating the answer has enlightened me a bit—my primary reason is to learn more, to see if there are aspects of Maryland’s environs that I want to focus on, explore more deeply. I already volunteer with children at the Arboretum, but perhaps this credential will open more opportunities to share my knowledge and enthusiasm with others. I am also looking forward to meeting the other participants and understanding more about what THEIR motivations are, to learn about how else I can incorporate this training into what I love to do. Perhaps it’s a selfish answer, but I mostly just want to do this for me, to support my ongoing love of the natural world.

My plan is to write a brief entry or article after each of the 10 classes—stay tuned and I’ll let you know how it’s going! I’d love to enter into a dialog or answer any questions you may have—another role of certified master naturalists is to answer questions. Comment on this post, and I’ll be in touch.

by Beth Lawton
Future Maryland Master Naturalist

*Note: Many volunteers are able to receive funding for tuition from garden clubs and employers.

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2 thoughts on “On becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist

  1. Beth this was just a marvelous blog. It is well written and well thought out. You will learn all those things and much, much more. I am looking forward to learning right along side of you. Good luck.

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