Are you a Naturalist?”
Recognizing the value of our surroundings through the eyes of a photographer
by Jack Whitacre, PhD student in UMass Boston’s IGERT Coasts and Communities Program

What is Naturalism?
Many don’t know how to define ‘naturalism’ but enjoy experiences outdoors. Whether flying a drone high in the sky, watching a stream’s flow, or looking to the drama in the skies and oceans, certain pursuits lead people to being in places at just the right time. Imagine receiving an unexpected call on a rainy night to photograph a rare species of mole salamanders making a misty journey to their breeding pond. These types of sights and sounds are what naturalists savor: things that most people in Massachusetts miss their whole lives despite being right in their backyard.

The Value of Experience
“Nature can accommodate so many approaches. No one is particularly correct.” -Tom Palmer

Some photographers like Tom Palmer enjoy the “depth and mystery” of what you can find at home in Massachusetts. Even when you know a species name and location, Tom explains, “you still don’t know how it goes about being itself.” A photo from someone like Tom creates a record and shows more than a lengthy description, of say green crabs scrambling across a dock. The photograph validates experience. Tom is not the only one who photographs and “IDs” living species in Massachusetts, however you’d be surprised how few species have living photos and identifications online.

As Tom says, “The world is very deep and you don’t have to go far to find things that stump you.” Even the flies on the back porch contain a myriad variations when viewed under a macro lens. He’s identified over 50 species and while his wife says she’ll smash them in the kitchen he still insists, “you don’t know flies ’til you see them.”

Massachusetts’ Treasure
Tom has access to a resource and a mysterious economy. He puts clues together about tides, berries, and how certain species survive and sprout near railroads. These days it’s out of the ordinary that he sees a plant without knowing its name, so when he does the only thing that happens is he gets excited to learn it. People respect this sort of knowledge but as Tom says, “it’s not marketable like someone who works on air conditioning or cars.” And yet in a world that’s increasingly digital, society may soon start to revalue what’s real and unplugged. Such a shift is evident in the amount of capital flowing in to the state from Massachusett’s National Park Tourism (estimated to be $521,600,000 in 2016 according to U.S. National Park Service).

The benefits of hidden market place can do wonderings by sparking thoughts, creativity, happiness, and design. On a deeper level there is a certain power as Tom explains in “knowing nature was not made by anyone”. So before taking a vacation out of state, it would be wise to appreciate the treasures surrounding us here in one of Massachusetts’ 15 state parks and to engage with the people who really know this landscape.

A perpetual student with years in the field, Tom finds comfort in knowing that “we’re embedded in a deep network of other living organisms.” In the end we might not have a definition of ‘naturalism’ and we might not currently be able to completely calculate the happiness or potential economic energy in the Massachusetts ecosystems.However, if someone has a habit of curiosity with nature that’s how they become a naturalist. Is that how you are?