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.

A Modern Day Phoenix

“Phoenix,” an immature Golden Eagle
Aquila chrysaetos
Courtesy Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah (

Elk Bath
From a 2000 fire in the
Bitterroot National Forest in Montana

Courtesy Wikimedia &
USDA Forest Service
John McColgan, Photographer

Hi, I’m Holly Strand.

You may have heard about the golden eagle nestling that was badly burned during a recent Utah wildfire. Its nest was totally destroyed, but the little eagle had fallen to the ground and survived. After the fire, he was found by Kent Keller, a volunteer for Utah’s Div. of Natural Resources, who had banded the young eagle a month before. The eagle was dehydrated—his feathers, face, and feet were badly burned. So Keller obtained a permit from wildlife officials to intervene. Now in the care of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah the eagle is recovering rapidly. Even so, it will take a while for the damaged feathers to be replaced by healthy new ones. Phoenix–as is he was aptly named–won’t learn to fly for at least another year.

With this and other fire-related stories in the news, I‘ve been wondering about the fate of animals caught in wildfires. Scientific observations of animal behavior during fire events are rare. But by conducting post-fire surveys, and comparing results with unburned areas, some researchers have been able to piece together an idea of who survives, who dies and who thrives.

Obviously, faster and more mobile animals have the advantage. Birds can fly away and most mammals can outrun the spreading flames. Spring fires can be disastrous, destroying birds who haven’t fledged –like Phoenix– or mammals who are still too immature to escape. Fortunately, fires are more frequent in mid to late summer when little ones have matured.

If a fire moves through an area quickly, without superheating the ground, dormant animals or those hiding in burrows can survive. The surrounding soil provides plenty of insulation. Soil also protects most soil macrofauna and the pupae of many insects.

Animals that live their lives totally or partially in the water may not suffer at all during a fire. However, smaller bodies of water, such as streams, can quickly heat up fairly quickly. Oxygen loss is a problem as well. And fire-fighting chemicals dumped from the air can end up in water, killing fish, frogs and other animals.

Indirectly, the alteration of habitat by fire can also restructure animal populations. Interestingly, there are quite a lot of animals that benefit from post-fire habitats. For example, the insect population above ground may plummet during a fire, but then increase above pre-fire levels when fresh young plants start to grow back. Burned trees are attractive to certain beetles as breeding sites. An increase in beetles is a windfall for the woodpeckers that devour them. Swallows and flycatchers use burned dead trees as perch sites. They survey from on high and then swoop to catch their insect dinner. Seed eating birds like Clark’s Nutcracker, gobble up conifer seeds when cones open in response to fire.

Among mammals, ground squirrels, pocket gophers and deer mice generally increase after severe fires. Even large herbivores such as pronghorn or deer may benefit from the increased food and nutrition on recent burns. In turn, predators of these creatures enjoy a bumper crop as well.

For images of Phoenix the recovering golden eagle and a link to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah go to

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.


Images: Courtesy Wikimedia, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Gavin Keefe Schaefer and Dave Menke, US FWS
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

Baker, William L. 2009. Fire ecology in Rocky Mountain Landscapes. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Bradley, Anne F.; Noste, Nonan V.; Fischer, William C. 1992. Fire ecology of forests and woodlands in Utah. Gen. Tech. Rep. INT-287. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station.

Hutto, RL. 1995. Composition of bird communities following stand-replacement fires in northern Rocky-Mountain (USA) conifer forests in Conservation Biology Volume: 9 Issue: 5 Pages: 1041-1058

Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah