Alicia Daniel, Director of Vermont Master Naturalist, reflects on the origin of VMN. It starts with her own journey to become a naturalist. Alicia also works as a Field Naturalist for Burlington Parks, Recreation and Waterfront.
No one becomes a naturalist by accident. It doesn’t happen because your guidance counselor suggests it’s a good idea. Ask any naturalist. Blazing their own trail will be at the heart of their story. My “career path” began in the forests, fields, and riversides of Montana, with me watching beavers while my dad and siblings fished for trout or fell into the stream. It took another 20 years to arrive at anything resembling a trail head. It was a winding path with no map and plenty of dead ends.
And yet miraculously I woke up as a naturalist on an island in Bear Track Cove, Alaska, the summer I turned 28. I was tired because in the middle of the night I turned that the shush, shushing of my eyelashes brushing against my sleeping bag into the sound of a bear walking around outside my tent. I hiked down to the beach in search of mud, because when the tide goes out it leaves a great flat plain for registering animal tracks. I’d traveled to Alaska to track black bears. I was, at best, a novice tracker. But when I came upon a set of large pawprints with the mud gooshing up between the five toes, I knew they were fresh and I knew they were bear. I looked out across the mudflat that now connected me to the mainland to discover a) I was not on an island, and b) the bear tracks led right to a black bear. Backlit by the rising sun, a halo of fur glowed around his head. I stood up, shook off my jacket, and waved it up and down, as I’d been told to do. He started walking toward me. Black bears in Glacier Bay, Alaska defend their salmon streams against brown bears, which is to say they are big. Clearly there were safer places to be right now than here.
My journey to Alaska actually began a year earlier. After landing my dream job in Austin, Texas, with Bat Conservation International, I’d helped them move from Milwaukee to Austin, overseeing the installation of the phones and watching with pride as workmen bracketed bookshelves to the field station’s freshly sheetrocked walls. I loved the perks of field work, like a trip to Bracken Cave where 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats emerged at sunset like a black tornado. But it was my first day in the new office and I now had an in–person boss and the honeymoon was over. I was sitting at my desk feeling cooped up and claustrophobic, when I heard a metallic rending sound above me that made my hair stand on end. A fully loaded shelf of books torn off the wall, one end hitting a filing cabinet to my right forming a triangular cave with the floor. As I threw myself sideways into this shelter, a thousand pounds of books and shelves crashed down where I had been sitting. I rose up out of the rubble with sudden and sweeping resolve: I was not going to die at a desk slipstreaming behind some famous naturalist. I was going to be a naturalist—or at least die trying.
Every 27 to 29 years, the planet Saturn returns to the sign it was in when you were born. In astrological lore, Saturn is the great taskmaster. He breaks you down, makes you lift heavy weights, so you can get into fighting shape. In my 28th year, I left Bat Conservation International, leapt from an English degree into a Master of Science program, crawled through a flooding cave for my “interview,” moved to Vermont where I figured out how to dress in winter layers (not one big bulky sweater), learned to cross-country ski to the amusement of my peers so I could follow moose through willow thickets in Wyoming, fended of unwanted advances from men who were hired to teach me, and much more. By the time I met up with that black bear, I was in fighting shape. As he stared me down, I slipped quietly into the forest. But later my friend, Michele, and I came back to steal one of his salmon for dinner.
After my encounter with the bear, I got married and spent the next 29 years as a mild-mannered university lecturer raising two children and working part-time as a naturalist. Then, one day when I was walking in the Vermont woods with students, we came upon a black bear skull. By this time, I had found porcupine skulls, beaver skulls, deer skulls, seal skulls, mouse skulls, raccoon skulls, coyote skulls, fox skulls, and even gull skulls, but never a bear skull. As we turned it over, a long canine tooth fell out of its jaw. I felt a premonition. I took the tooth home and strung it on a leather cord around my neck. Things were about to change. My older daughter was already studying and working in Boston, and my younger daughter was headed off to college, too. My teaching at UVM was drying up under a new budgeting model. Saturn was returning. I needed to get back into fighting shape.
I dreamed of migrating my naturalist teaching out of UVM (keeping ties only to the Field Naturalist Program) and into Vermont townships. So I started the Vermont Master Naturalist Program. I registered this “school” as a business because I am too old to listen to a board of directors, be routinely audited, write lots of grants, or even complete the necessary nonprofit paperwork. Every step of the process was a bear, from finding insurance to negotiating deals with partners. I quickly discovered that I don’t resonate well with business culture. In my new business–owner role, people either want to sell me things or teach me how to sell things. (Wear red! Be confident! Hand the person you’re talking to your phone so they can’t walk away from you!?!) None of this felt natural or worthwhile to me.
I wanted to find people who dream of being naturalists, create a path for them, help them meet other naturalists, and put them to work on saving nature in their towns. I wanted them to understand that being a naturalist is a practice. It is how you spend your time, not how much you know. People often don’t grow up to be naturalists even when it is their heart’s desire. Now for over 200 people and counting, the Vermont Master Naturalist Program is making that dream come true. If you want to be a Vermont Master Naturalist, new programs will be starting in the fall: https://vermontmasternaturalist.org/
On a recent Saturday, I went tracking with Vermont Master Naturalists at a granite quarry where bobcat, coyote, porcupine, and fisher tracks mapped out their travels from the talus to the icy edge of the quarry pool. I am, at best, a middling tracker. But I delight in spending time with people who want to be out in the woods. When I see something magical, I want to turn to a kindred spirit and whisper, “Look!” I have a couple of decades before Saturn returns next time. In the meantime, I will be out in the woods enjoying myself.