On becoming a California Docent Naturalist

Poppies and Lupins on Skyline Ridge Preserve

This past week, I had my first two lectures of what will be a three-month course in becoming a certified California Docent Naturalist. This means that I get to learn about the natural history of the Bay Area, ecology, biotic communities, plant life, wildlife, climate science, etc, and how to be a guide in nature.

It’s volunteer-based, and the admissions process included an application and an interview.

I will admit that my initial motivation for taking this course was simply so that I could know more about what I was looking at while out in nature. This program is unique in its docent aspect; unlike other CalNat programs, I must give 6–8 guided tours in the first year after the course ends. I was a bit intimidated when I first learned this, but it might be a blessing in disguise and a good opportunity to practice leadership and public speaking skills.

Day 1: Evening Lecture

Thursday nights we have lecture. Saturdays are lecture + field studies out in a preserve around the Bay Area (mainly the Mid-Peninsula area).

For our very first course, we met our primary instructor, Diane. Diane is sweet and personable, and she’s intentful about creating connection. It’s clear from the outset that this course will be friendly and interactive. She’s a biologist and outdoor educator who even hosts fully immersive “nature exploration” trips abroad — how cool is that?!

There are about 25 students in the course. I learned that many of them have already been outdoor educators for some time. Some are biology teachers who want to get their kids out in nature more. Some have already been docents. Most grew up hiking and camping. And then there are a couple of students like me, who have no formal training in biology or natural communities and who didn’t grow up spending time in nature. We just want to learn more.

There are a few things I’ve observed so far, throughout the interview process and lectures, about the program’s messaging around the role of a docent:

  1. We shouldn’t feel stressed about being nature encyclopedias (whew!), and
  2. Our role is to inspire. To teach people how to interpret nature and how to feel connected to nature. That the world is in a “nature-deficit” and people are now coming out in droves, but are unsure of how to interact with nature.

We heard,

Docents are not a sage on the stage, you’re a guide on the side.

I like this framing.

Diane also shared a quote with us that she heard from a colleague at a nature conference:

In the end, we will save only what we love;

We will love only what we understand;

And we will understand only what we have been taught.

Baba Dioum, Senegal

The role of a docent, I am understanding, is to encourage people to appreciate nature through connection. Only when people feel connected and create their own story with nature, can they feel more empowered to save it.

Day 2: Field Study, Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve

We meet on Skyline Ridge on Saturday morning and start with a two-hour lecture on the Principles of Ecology–the relationship between living things, adaptability, niches, roles, community, systems, matter, energy, and the main point of it all: in nature, everything is connected.

I haven’t taken biology since high school, and at a certain point, a lot of terms, like allelopathy, and edaphic, are flying over my head. But here are a few things I learned:

  • Of the 100% of solar radiation that comes down to the Earth, only 0.023% is used for photosynthesis, which is responsible for all life on Earth.
  • “Trophic” means related to feeding or nourishment
  • Redwoods have fire-retardant bark
  • Neither matter nor energy can ever be destroyed; they are converted into something else. It is a scientific fact that when we die, our parts do not cease to exist, they are transformed into other matter. (I’d heard this before, but I think I needed to hear it from a biologist to finally believe it.)

Diane then took us on our first guided nature walk. It was a bit meta–we were learning the content she was teaching us, but we were also learning how she was teaching us, as that is what we will be doing as docents.

We stood in the forest. She asked, what do you see around you? Trees, a pond, flowers. What do you smell? What do you hear? What do you feel? There is sunlight dabbling through the forest. The wildflowers are there in the shade.

We walk ten feet.

Suddenly, we’re exposed to heavy sunlight and there is no canopy. What do you see now? What’s different between now and ten feet ago? There’s grass now. There’s no flowers. The poison oak is glossy, but back there, it was matte.

We learn how to observe and what factors determine change.

In shade, for example, poison oak has bigger leaves, because they’re stretching out to look for sunlight. In the sun, it’s glossier, because the sun helps it produce more resin.

We come across a small deserted shack.

Who lives there? Diane asks. Is it for chickens? No, the doors are too large. How about for cows? Too small. We look for clues. Turns out it was an abandoned shack for pigs. Doors fit just right.

As we continue our walk, we learn other questions to think about when observing nature.

How much sun is there? How much wind? Water?

What color is the leaf? How about the other side? Are the edges toothed, or rounded? Is it smooth or fuzzy?

All of these have meanings, I learn.

Take Houndstongue for instance–the flower adorably named because its oval petals are reminiscent of a dogs tongue:

Source: Calscape

Houndstongue, as you can see on either side, is born pink or purple. As it ages, it turns blue, and then it turns pink again near the end of its life. This has meaning. The blue phase of the flower is a visual cue telling pollinators that it’s ready for them.

Or, for example, a Cooper’s Hawk. The wings of a Cooper’s Hawk are smaller and rounder than other hawks, so that it can fly through trees easier. This is because unlike other hawks, a Cooper’s hawk eats other birds, and so needs to be amongst the trees to feed. With its smaller wings, it doesn’t gliiiiide up in the sky like a Red-tailed hawk. It flap flap glides, flap flap glides.

And speaking of a Red-tailed hawk, how about its beak? The way the top juts out over the lower mandible, that’s specifically for tearing and dispatching its prey.

And so our lesson continues for the next couple hours. Observing and touching and smelling and listening. Everyone in the class is friendly and excited to help each other learn. I don’t feel hesitant to ask questions that everyone else seems to know the answers to. We’re showing each other sage and wild cucumber, lupins and milkmaids.

And as we wrap up back in the classroom, I’m approached by a student dazzled by something they found and want to gift me– a rock!



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Social scientist in User Research. Formerly in international affairs. Kind and curious.