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A (b)log of Natural Resources Info

What is a naturalist?


By Guest Author and Wisconsin Master Naturalist participant at Trees For Tomorrow, Hannah Keizer 


When you hear the word “naturalist,” what comes to mind?

Do you imagine a retired botanist who leads hikes at her local nature center?

Do you picture historical figures like John Muir and Aldo Leopold?

Or do you think of children catching frogs?


A group of 14 nature-lovers recently gathered at Trees for Tomorrow to participate in a Master Naturalist training, a program coordinated throughout the state by the University of Wisconsin–Madison Division of Extension. Upon finishing the week of classes, these participants left as certified Master Naturalists.  The purpose of the week was to help participants grow and feel more confident in their own abilities as a naturalist so they would feel empowered to volunteer across the state.


All smiles after surveying aquatic plants (Photo credit: Megan Husband)


But the question remains—what is a naturalist? And why would these folks spend a week in naturalist training? 

I set out to find out some answers to these questions, and who better to ask than 14 naturalists in training?


The 2023 Master Naturalist cohort at Trees For Tomorrow (TFT) worked together to identify dimensions of what it means to be a naturalist. They agreed that all naturalists are interested in and value nature. Naturalists actively learn about nature, focusing especially on relationships between different organisms and the natural forces and features that affect them. Naturalists inspire others by sharing their knowledge about nature and are involved in stewardship efforts.


While there may be overlap between being a scientist and being a naturalist, this cohort also identified a few key differences. Scientists try to remain objective in their work; naturalists are more comfortable with a subjective or emotional element in their interactions with nature. Scientists employ the scientific method (which involves experimentation) and try to control variables, often working in a lab setting, while naturalists tend to learn through observation in natural settings. Scientists tend to have extensive knowledge of a single subject, while naturalists strive for a broad, integrated perspective.


Naturalists love learning in the field (Photo Credit: Megan Husband)


And while being a scientist typically requires formal education, anyone can be a naturalist! In fact, Howard Gardener, a professor at Harvard University, identified naturalist intelligence (the ability to identify organisms and recognize patterns in nature) as one of the many human intelligences[1]. This suggests that everyone—including you!—is born with the capacity, or even inherent ability, to do what naturalists do: observe, interact with, and care for nature.


Still, like a seedling, this intelligence must be nurtured to grow. Luckily, the cohort had plenty of suggestions if you are interested in growing as a naturalist.


Follow your interests. Connect with someone or a community in your area that you can learn from. Stay curious and ask questions. Be humble. Volunteer. And most importantly? Just do it! There is no substitute for spending time outside, whether in your backyard or in the woods, simply observing and appreciating the world around you.


There is so much to learn from nature (Photo Credit: Hannah Keizer)


If you are ever interested in receiving more specific naturalist training, Master Naturalist courses (offered at various host organizations through UW-Extension) prepare participants to serve in their communities as educators, citizen scientists, and stewards and are offered around the state each year. Visit to learn more.