Gratitude for Naturalists

"Paralyzing Berries"
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
“Paralyzing Berries”
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

Janet Ross & Shannon Rhodes on the San Juan River, 2022
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer Janet Ross & Shannon Rhodes on the San Juan River, 2022
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

Once upon a time my family met what we now call ‘paralyzing berries’ on a hillside hike. I still don’t know the common name, let alone the scientific one. I sure could’ve used Naturalist Jack’s plant identification and probable warning not to taste those tart wild berries that day. I’ve had the good fortune though to spend time with Wild About Utah’s Jack Green discussing the Wilderness Act walking among the Mt. Naomi wildflowers and along the Lake Bonneville Shoreline. It reminds me of a scene Kenneth Grahame wrote in “The Wind in the Willows” that captures the relationship between a naturalist and a naturalist’s companion: “Absorbed in the new life, the scents and the sounds and the sunlight…it was so very beautiful that the Mole could only hold up both paws and gasp, “O my! O my! O my!” Water Rat was paddling and chattering on as one extremely familiar with, yet not desensitized to, the magic of the place. Sometimes now I find myself a Rat because I was once a Mole.

Let me explain. Three years ago I wrote a page in my nature journal and a related Wild About Utah piece titled “I Notice, I Wonder” as I sat soaking up the smells and the sights sitting alone in the Cache National Forest. Although I was able to in solitude concentrate on wellness amid the pandemic, I wonder how much more rich my experience might have been with a knowledgeable naturalist guide at my side. The third part of this beloved “I Notice, I Wonder” awareness activity outdoors is “It Reminds Me Of…”

Passing some wild berries just this week reminded me of the afternoon 30 years ago my friend Allan Stevens, biology professor at Snow College, taught me about dwarf mistletoe and led me to research the difference between it and witches broom rust in conifers. I’ve never enrolled in one of Allan’s courses, but that’s the best part of having connections to naturalists. They teach you even when you are just out for a drive in the canyon. They have invested time to know how to read nature, they know the names and relationships in an ecosystem, and they usually have the answer to any question you could ask. Dozens of times since then I’ve answered that same question about the thick-growing growth in the trees as others have looked to me for clarity.

Similarly, looking at the berries reminded me of the day Utah Master Naturalist’s Mark Larese-Casanova taught me the term krummholz effect, from the German words “crooked wood,” that describes trees deformed from fierce winds. He did this as we stood atop Big Cottonwood Canyon, gazing at lopsided trees’ persistence in adapting to harsh conditions. That memory reminded me of cruising along a lazy stretch of the San Juan River on a raft with another legendary naturalist named Janet Ross. Just before the Eight Foot Rapid, she taught me to notice the holes we were passing. She said that besides the usual stick lodges, a beaver will build a den in the sandy river bank. Fascinating facts from fascinating people. I’m grateful for these and other naturalist mentors in my life.

So, who unlocked the mysteries of nature for you? Was it a relative, a summer camp leader, maybe a teacher? In this season of gratitude you might consider how to better be Rat for the Moles in your influence as you notice, wonder, and remember other illuminations in the wild. Boldly share as a growing naturalist what you know about plants, animals, and wild relationships with others as you encounter them together.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Shannon Rhodes.


Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Additional Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver
    Courtesy & © Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio
    Courtesy & © Anderson, Howe, Wakeman
Text: Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

BEETLES and The Regents of the University of California. I Notice, I Wonder, It reminds me of. 2020.
and ​​

Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. 1908.

Rhodes, Shannon. I Notice, I Wonder. Wild About Utah, August 31, 2020.

Ross, Janet. A Place Called Home: Quilting a Life of Joy on the Colorado Plateau. September 13, 2023. Colorado: Lost Souls Press.

Strand, Holly. Kissing Under the Dung Twig. Wild About Utah, December 20, 2012.

Schwandt, John. Fir broom rust. 2005.

U.S. Forest Service. Broom rusts of spruce and fir. 2011.

U.S. Forest Service. Mistletoes.