I should have known that I would grow up and end up working in the outdoors.  When we moved to the farm when I was 11 years old, I loved learning so many things just by going outside and running around in the fields, hills, quarries, rivers, and barnyards all around me.  After a 35-year diversion in the aerospace industry, I’m back outside for a living.

In high school, in Spring Green near the Wisconsin River, some of my favorite courses were in the sciences – geology, biology, and astronomy.  I was learning to fly small airplanes at the local airport, and I remember being able to see so many examples of things we were learning in geology by flying over the countryside nearby.  For example, oxbows are small, comma-shaped wetlands where a stream has changed course and cut off a small section.  The cut-off wetland creates a fantastic ecological feature that supports all sorts of amphibians and snakes and insects and plant life.  They were readily apparent while flying a Cessna at 3,000 feet.

What an imprint that left on me – read about something in a book, talk about it in class, and see dozens of examples flying over the countryside that afternoon.  Science wasn’t ‘just’ an abstract thing to learn about other places or exotic ideas, it was right here all around!

Astronomy was another class I loved.  We would meet in the evening with school telescopes, behind the football field, and view the moon and the planets and the stars.  Eventually I got my own small telescope, and have continued with astronomy (and aerospace) my whole life.

Ecology, as it was known then, was great, too.  Weather, glaciers, and the natural history of birds, animals, and amphibians.  I remember seeing my first bald eagle.  It’s not so unusual now, but back in the late 1970s they were pretty rare around here.  On our school bus going to school in the morning, I would see egrets along a small stream edge and marvel that right near where I lived these fabulous birds were doing their thing, stalking little fish and crayfish.

I am so fortunate that I’ve kept that wonder and awe of nature, and I try to continue to learn and share it with others.  One way I’ve done that is through the Master Naturalist Program.

The Wisconsin program was launched in 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Extension, and their mission is to support a network of well-informed volunteers and instructors dedicated to conservation service, leadership, and lifelong learning.

In short, I like to tell folks that the Master Naturalist program trains people to appreciate and understand nature, share it with others, and work to protect it.

It was modelled on a system that was pioneered in Texas back in 1997 and is similar to the Master Gardener Program.  Nationwide, Wisconsin is a leader in the program, and in 2019 Wisconsin won the Program of the Year award from the Alliance of Natural Resource Outreach and Service Programs!  So far, over 1,400 individuals have been trained in Wisconsin alone.

A naturalist is someone almost by definition who knows a bit about a lot of different things – so the class work is similar, with sessions on geology, weather, insects, watersheds, birds, amphibians, mammals, plant life, astronomy, and humans – almost anything you can observe in the natural world is the purview of a master naturalist!

The requirements are to attend 40 hours of training, which includes classroom sessions, guest experts, field trips, and a training project.  The courses are offered across the state, and each offering can be unique in its structure.  Some of the sessions are a solid week of full days; some are 10 weeks long for 3 hours once a week; some are a hybrid, such as this year’s 2024 course at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, with seven day-long sessions, along with some field work.

I learned about the program when my wife read about a Master Naturalist training session in a nearby town.  I thought about it for a while, registered, and loved it.  In addition to all the natural world knowledge I got from the classes, it was so great to meet other people with similar interests and to learn about the organizations in the area that were doing conservation and outdoor work.  It really opened my eyes to how many great groups are out there doing good work, and they could almost all use a little help.

I remember an early volunteer effort where I went to northern Minnesota and helped the DNR catch and tag sharp-tailed grouse so they could monitor their nests.  It was so much fun – getting up at 3am, driving an hour to a small blind, and crouching there in the dark for hours waiting for the birds to arrive at sunrise.  While we sat there, I chatted with the young DNR field biologists, and was impressed with how knowledgeable they about nature, but also the relationship to people and society they had.  They spoke a lot about DNR work being just as much about interacting with people and building trust and relationships with humans as it was about the wildlife itself.

The Master Naturalist program is about that, too – as much about sharing and teaching about nature, and how we as people live in it, as it is knowing about nature.

In addition to the basic course, some years later I also took the Wisconsin Master Naturalist Instructor training to become an instructor – it wasn’t just more learning about our environment, but different teaching and learning skills to use.  It’s helped me build the confidence to lead many different kinds of nature walks where I don’t need to be an expert, just have some knowledge.  Most times, someone in the audience knows more about something specific than I do!  My idea is to share what I know, encourage curiosity and interest, and help show people where to look for more information if they want it.

An excellent book on our early Wisconsin naturalists was published a few years ago, Afield, by Sumner Matteson, with each chapter focusing on a different naturalist.  Some of the more famous folks include Aldo Leopold, Increase Lapham, Frances Hamerstrom, and Sigurd Olson.  Each had their own style and approach, showing there’s no ‘one-right-way’ to learn and teach.

When you become a Master Naturalist you’re asked to keep track of your volunteer hours.  There’s a website where you list the organization you’re volunteering with and what you did.  My personality loves to track things – so I’m able to log hours and effort and see what impact I’m having.  I like to track almost anything – how many birds I see, species of bats I hear, miles I’ve walked, acres of seed planted – almost anything.  It’s great to see it all add up, and at the end of a year I can look back and hopefully see some benefit to my effort.

One of the beauties of the Master Naturalist Program is that if you have any interest in almost ANYTHING in the natural world, you can volunteer for it.  Whatever you like to geek out on, there’s an organization out there doing the same thing and seeking volunteers to help them in some way.

You don’t even have to go into the field.  Anyone with skills of wood working, planning, being on a board of directors, digging holes, staining wood, staffing tables, filing taxes, designing brochures, managing social media, all will be needed!  Almost anything you can think of or have an interest or skill in, a volunteer opportunity awaits, and someone needs your help.

You can see the breadth of tasks is pretty vast, so even if you’re not a trained naturalist or outdoor person, VOLUNTEER!  There are many area groups looking for all kinds of help.  Here’s just a few:

  • Valley Stewardship Network and Crawford Stewardship Project both need folks to sample streams
  • Kickapoo Valley Reserve and Wildcat Mountain
  • The Friends of Vernon County Parks and Forests
  • Your local 4H chapter
  • The Wisconsin Bat Program, a project of the DNR
  • This summer a local group will be monitoring chimney swifts regularly at many chimneys and will need a lot of evening help watching for birds
  • The Prairie Enthusiasts

My advice is DON’T WAIT!  You don’t need to be an expert, just enthusiastic, so get out and volunteer.  A year or so ago, I was looking around on the DNR website at bat data, and I noticed on the maps of where data was available that Vernon County had some big gaps where no bat data was available.  Without knowing much about bats at all, I reached out, learned how to do bat surveys, got the equipment needed from the DNR, and did half a dozen or so bat surveys in our parks and public spaces, and even a few private rural places.  In the process I learned so much about bats, helped provide a little data for the DNR scientists, and started building and installing bat houses to help the bats!

I’m so glad I didn’t wait to become an expert first!

So how do you become a Master Naturalist?
Sign up for a volunteer training course.  You can find out what local trainings are coming up near you at their website, wimasternaturalist.org.