How to Become a Naturist...errr Naturalist

by Lorna Salzman

To become a naturist you have to take off your clothes. But to become a naturalist you must put on your clothes and go outdoors to find the creepy-crawlies, slimies, stingies, scratchies and smellies. All these things have names but they are in Latin, not English, so first you must take a course in Latin. After you have done that you are ready to become a naturalist and can now read the rest of this article.

Nature is everywhere. It is in your backyard, in your cellar, sometimes in your car if your kids or pets deposit organic matter there that turns into mushrooms, in your kitchen, and definitely on your body parts such as your eyelashes (eyelash mites, Demodex folliculorum), between your toes and in other delicate places.

Your job is first to find nature and then name it. Actually, YOU don't get to name it unless you discover a new species because most living things are already named, thanks to a smart Swede named Carolus Linnaeus who lived in the 18th century and was very upset that there were so many nameless living things around him. Not all people in the 18th century cared about nature like Linnaeus. Samuel Johnson said he hated to go out into the country because the air was full of so many uncooked birds. If nature had been left to Dr. Johnson, it would have all been eaten before it was even named and we wouldn't have any bird watchers today.

Anyway, Latin names were given to living things because Latin was the secret language of priests and because Linnaeus figured that every school child would do nothing but study Latin all day long. So we are stuck with Latin names for everything now, including computer software and cars like Lexus, Nexus, Taurus, Isuzu, Hyundai, Toyota and Honda (any word that ends in a vowel or in the letters "us" is probably Latin). Also, with the population now living much longer than in the old days, people's conversations now are mostly about diseases, most of which have Latin* names such as coronary thrombosis, rigor mortis and coitus interruptus. And the younger generation is picking up Latin again and talks only about Tyrannosaurus rex. Truly, Latin has again become a universal language. (*sometimes combined with Greek)

But I digress. Now that you have learned Latin, put on your clothes and gone outside the house, you are ready for your first naturist - sorry, naturalist - lesson. Most life forms are actually invisible and you really don't want to look at those anyway; who wants to see eyelash mites under a microscope? That's not something you want to be aware of for the rest of your life, is it? So let's concentrate on visible life forms, mainly because you can always crush, flush or otherwise dispose of these if they are really gross, like slugs, leeches, tarantulas, ticks and salps. Actually you wouldn't normally come across salps (Salpa sp.) unless your boat had sunk far out in the ocean, but in case that does happen, you will know what those jelly-like floating white blobs are even though at that moment you may not recall their Latin name. If you survive long enough, you may find a new species and can name it after yourself!

There are always lots of Next Big Things happening in natural history such as important conventions of scientists who get to decide what is an animal, plant, fungus, virus, bacteria or algae. They don't always agree. The scientific community is divided into two parts: Lumpers and Splitters (that's much better than male and female). Every couple of years one or the other side gets the upper hand, mostly because lots of elderly scientists on the other side have died in the interim, so they get to have a ball Lumping or Splitting as the case may be. Some years ago the Lumpers went after the Baltimore Oriole and it went extinct: it was lumped with Bullock's Oriole (whomever he was; probably just a corruption of the declasse British curse "bollocks") and they both became the Northern Oriole. You can imagine how this pissed off people in Baltimore. THEY knew a Baltimore Oriole when they saw it and NO WAY was it a Northern Oriole. They fumed for many years until a few years ago when, lo and behold, the Splitters got the upper hand and announced that yes, there really IS a Baltimore Oriole after all. Whew! That was a close one. Splitters have more political support than Lumpers in the bird watching world because they help bird watchers add new species to their Life List of birds without ever leaving their living room.

Nature is endlessly fascinating, complex, beautiful, mysterious and definitely wet and dirty. That is why most kids love it until their parents decide to get rid of the insect specimens their son is collecting (daughters don't collect insects; they collect CDs, phone numbers, nail polish and fluffy stuffed animals) .

To find nature, just go outside and take a walk. As you walk under a tree with funny leaves and smelly white fruits, you may have the misfortune of slipping and falling on its fruits. Before the emergency team packs you up into the ambulance, grab for some samples from the ground. You have just identified not a pellet of dog vomit but Gingko biloba, of Oriental origin (only the Orientals would prize such a smelly tree). It's a very historic tree and the last of its family. So no nasty remarks about its smell.

Unfortunately the advent of computers is giving science a hard time. Every kid now talks about "carriers" and "viruses", but what do they know? I mean, we don't mean America Online but Aedes egypti and Rubeola. Oh well. This is a small price to pay when you realize that natural history makes you do interesting things such as learning Latin, attending conventions, voting for or against pretty birds, floundering around in the ocean, collecting smelly fruits and carefully examining body parts.

But I digress. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about nature is that it is mostly edible. Of course we now know what is edible but once upon a time humans had to eat nature to find out what was good and what wasn't. This was natural selection in action. One caveman ate that beautiful pure white mushroom on a long stalk with a ring around it and pure white gills; the other didn't. The one who ate it dropped dead. The other went home and quickly sent out word on the net (whatever the net was in those days). This guy also fathered lots of children and over the fire on cold nights in the cave he told them how his friend died from eating a pure white mushroom (Amanita verna or virosa; I wasn't there so I cant be 100% sure which species it was). That is why today little old Polish ladies who learned about mushrooms from wisdom passed down by generations of their ancestors and who pick and eat pure white mushrooms drop dead immediately, while smartass naturalists who study textbooks survive. Natural selection still goes on.

Well, I guess I gave the game away: you can learn about nature from books, which means you can take off your clothes, sit back on your sofa, open a can of beer (made from hops, Trifolium sp.), and thumb through a book of pretty pictures with Latin names under them. No sweat, no slugs, no smell, no slime. We should give thanks that so many people slogged through bogs, jungles, mountains, deserts and Arctic mosquito tribes, pulled out their books, looked up the names of what they found and passed on the information to us. Being a naturalist is really fun today!

October 1997

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.