I can’t quite explain my want to become a certified naturalist. I do not intend to make a career of it. Rigorously studying flora and fauna might make me a better volunteer. It might even make me a more rounded and informed citizen of my community, nation and planet. All that sounds great but, really, I enjoy going all-in with like-minded, equally interested and engaged students. I simply love the academic experience and that feels like justification enough.
So, in May, I ponied-up the tuition for my first course in the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate Program (SANCP) hosted by the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont (GSMIT).
The SANCP curriculum includes 7 core courses:
- Interpretation and Naturalist Skills (February)
- Birds of the Smokies (May)
- Plants (May)
- Aquatic Natural History (June)
- Reptiles and Amphibians (July)
- Southern Appalachian Ecology (September)
- Mammals (November)
Core courses run from Friday evenings through Sunday afternoons and are scattered throughout the year from February to November. Students can take classes at their leisure and in any order that they see fit. One of my classmates for the 2017 Plants course had begun his naturalist journey in 2012 and was in no hurry to wrap things up. The Birds of the Smokies and Plants courses occur over the same weekend in May each year, meaning that students cannot complete the course in a single calendar year.
Tuition and What Your Dollar Gets You
Tuition for these courses is a steal. Your $347 covers lodging (either in a climate-controlled dormitory or a large tent), three meals/day (usually a hot breakfast and dinner as well as a sack lunch), seemingly endless coffee and tea, learning materials and some other goodies. For the Plants course, I received a 3-inch binder that included dividers pre-labeled for each course, a field journal in a waterproof sleeve, a copy of Great Smoky Mountains Wildflowers: When & Where to Find Them, a copy of Ferns & Fern Allies of the Smokies, a copy of Nonnative Invasive Plants of Southern Forests: A Field Guide for Identification and Control, a laminated dichotomous key for identifying trees and another for identifying violets, and copious reading material to fill my binder and brain. None of these were expected or guaranteed and different courses may offer different extras or none at all.
Things kicked-off Friday evening with a somewhat awkward, family-style dinner in the GSMIT cafeteria. (“Awkward” because I was the only newbie present in either the Plants or Birds courses being taught that weekend and everyone else seemed to be catching up with friends.) I quickly made acquaintances of an engineer turned park ranger and an Ohioan turned Tennessean. I also met a restaurant owner from Kentucky who grew-up in Tomball, TX. Being a native of Cypress, TX, myself (both Tomball and Cypress feed the beast that is Houston) we hit it off, talking the Houston of our childhoods. We mostly reminisced of the Killer B’s era of Astros baseball (Biggio, Bagwell, Berry and Bell) and those damned Oilers (how we loved and hated them, how they broke our hearts). Small world.
Our instructors were GSMIT’s School Programs Coordinator, Jennie McGuigan, and writer/gardener/botanist Margie Hunter (author of Gardening with the Native Plants of Tennessee: The Spirit of Place). Friday night consisted mostly of lectures on plant parts — a crash course in botany. I appreciated how GSMIT’s Plants course focused on the structure and ecology of plants and not rote memorization (though we did employ flash cards to help us memorize plant families). If there is one naturalist skill that I am shamefully lacking it would be plant identification. I’m no hopeless dunce but I certainly had a lot to learn.
The wealth of knowledge shared by our instructors was unspeakably impressive. For me, some lectures felt like sipping water from a fire hydrant; I’m sure a lot got past me. But our instructors were open to questions and patient enough to repeat themselves when asked. I was reminded of my schooldays when teachers imparted wisdom through simple, unforgettable rhymes, like Margie’s, “Sedges have edges. Rushes are round. Grasses have joints when the cops aren’t around.”
After breakfast on Saturday morning, we packed our sack lunches and paired-off to practice using our dichotomous keys to identify trees on campus. This exercise quelled the one reservation I had about taking the course. I don’t live in or near the Smoky Mountains. I’m a central North Carolinian. The trees (especially the pine) that I come across are noticeably different than those found in the cove hardwood forests of southern Appalachia. Yet, the skills and experiences gained in this program were less about recognizing species and more about recognizing patterns and making the best use of available resources.
Our next stop was White Oak Sinks where we searched for herbaceous plants but we could not venture all the way in. The park has restricted access to this critical wintering habitat for hibernating bats. Local bat populations have been declining due to “white-nose syndrome,” a fungal infection that can wake bats from hibernation. Bats that wake from hibernation burn more energy and may deplete their fat stores before spring. So, we kept clear of the caves but still observed and discussed trillium, wild ginger, pink lady’s slipper, bishop’s cap, mayapple, jack-in-the-pulpit, mountain laurel and so much more along one of the most diverse trails I’ve ever traipsed.
Education and outreach are among the tools of the naturalist. So, as we explored, we were tasked to teach. The previous evening, we had been assigned a homework assignment that asked each student to research two plant species. Whenever we came across someone’s assigned species, that student would share all he/she had learned.
The most fascinating discussions centered around survival and reproductive strategies. Take, for instance, Vasey’s Trillium and other plants that display dark-reddish or maroon petals and exude a foul or pungent odor. Many of the flowers that exhibit these characteristics first occurred before the evolution of specialized pollinators like bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. These plants, instead, are pollinated by ants and flies, leading to the common belief that dark-reddish, pungent flowers mimic rotting flesh to attract pollinators that would otherwise be attracted to carrion to feed or to lay eggs.
That night, we reviewed what we had learned and made hand salve using wild plantains plucked from the brush around campus.
We began Sunday with breakfast and packed another sack lunch. Meals at Tremont were pleasantly surprising in that we ate real food served fresh. I guess I had expected gruel, tang and little smokie sausages but this wasn’t summer camp. It was fun like summer camp — playing in the dirt and under the sun, making fast friends — but we got a little spoiled at Tremont. And there is nothing wrong with that.
For our final excursion, we carpooled in a GSMIT van to an area west of Curry Mountain called the Sinks (not to be confused with White Oak Sinks). Here, we would observe and identify various ferns and take our final exams. Walking through a cluster of ferns among dead leaves and alongside a dribbling creek, Jennie warned, “This is perfect copperhead habitat.” To which the park ranger attempted to ease our nerves, “Copperheads don’t usually strike, and if they do, they’ll probably just snag your pants.” This, I fear, is horrid advice coming from a park ranger. I generally live by the mantra, “Wildlife won’t until wildlife does.” (And for snakes, especially poisonous snakes, “I am far more afraid of them than they are of me.”)
The best observation that I’ve ever read regarding wildlife-human interactions was penned by Barry Lopez in Of Wolves and Men. Lopez noticed how his contemporaries tended to compartmentalize wolf behaviors often in terms of human behaviors while ignoring the unique ticks and personalities of each individual wolf. Lopez rebuts, “Wolves are not men.” This observation may seem simplistic but such a high-level comparison betrays the complexity of animal behaviors and our inability to accurately define or predict those behaviors. Outdoorsy gurus like to decree, “Wolves won’t attack humans unless starved or rabid,” or, “Sharks don’t see humans as food,” or, “Black bears don’t bother humans unless threatened.” Such generalizations are so broad and sweeping yet confining that they almost feel like bigoted stereotyping. Don’t generalize. Wildlife can be stubbornly idiosyncratic. So, “Copperheads don’t usually strike and… they’ll probably just snag your pants.” Usually? Probably? How about we all just be extra mindful of where we place our boots?
The Dreaded Exam!
The written exam was long, tough and comprehensive but doable even for a newbie like yours truly. We scattered among the Sinks and found dry-ish places to sit and scratch our answers. Afterward, we went over the exam as a group and reflected on the spectacular weekend that we had just shared. And like so many things, the weekend passed before I even realized that it was slipping away.
In all, I learned more in one weekend with GSMIT than I likely would have learned in a year of independent study and I’m not exaggerating. I’m still a noob but I feel far more confident in my ability to observe, visually dissect and accurately identify a specimen than I did before this course.
Next up (for me, anyway) is Reptiles and Amphibians. Good thing I’m not irrationally, pants-wettingly terrified of any and all things snake and snake-like. Oh, wait! That’s right. I am. Like I said, I’m far more afraid of them than they are of me… Wish me luck!