I grew up in the East Bay area of San Francisco, content to spend my childhood days exploring the small plot of grass between ours and the adjacent apartment building. That patch of grass was my source of endless wonder. I would spend hours at a time, poised with my inherited digital camera, waiting for butterflies to land on the dandelions or clovers that dotted the grass. Once a butterfly landed, I would snap a photo of the insect with its wings outstretched in perfect formation to add to my treasured collection of photos of living things. Upon returning indoors, I would spend the rest of my time scouring the internet for photos of species that looked just like the ones in my photographs. Grabbing my notebook, I would write down my cherished discoveries: Common Buckeye from yesterday morning. A skipper moth from later in the afternoon.
As time went on in my California upbringing, I began to explore my backyard less and less. Photos of butterflies were replaced with pictures of Fall Out Boy and Green Day clipped from magazines. My time spent searching for the next discovery outside on the lawn was replaced with time spent walking downtown with friends. My love for nature didn’t have a shared place among my peers, so it lay dormant. Dismissing it as just a hobby, I convinced myself in high school that I was destined to become a veterinarian to bring myself closer to the animals that I loved observing as a kid.
When I arrived to college, eager to delve begin my Animal Science major, I quickly found that memorizing the names of the hundreds of muscles and ligaments that are in your standard livestock animal was not where my heart was.
A fortuitous chain of events led me to the Cornell Raptor Center, and later, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Shoals Marine Laboratory. It wasn’t until I came to these institutions that I learned that there was a name, and a career, for people who did exactly what I was so happy doing during my childhood. There were actually people who spent their days immersed in nature’s wonders, observing and detailing the living things around them. I soaked up the new vocabulary word and ran towards its ideals: naturalist.
My life would never be the same. Ever eager, I picked up heaps of field guides at the library and at local book sales. I jumped at every chance to explore this way of life and the community that came with it. No longer was I a solitary child poised on a lawn back in California. I was now a member of something much bigger, alongside people who had spent their own childhoods cultivating knowledge of their own backyards and beyond. Drunk on new facts, new species identifications, and a newfound belonging to a group of people that loved nature just as much as me, I found a home. That belonging, where my passion for nature was allowed to burn wild and blaze a new path for me to wander, carried me to new places to witness many new wonders.
After returning to California as a graduate, I was eager to re-discover my state with my new enlightenment. I now know that California is one of the most species-rich places on Earth, with hundreds of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals and thousands upon thousands of plants. The coast redwood became even more special to see after discovering that it only grows in California. Monarch butterflies now had even more reverence once I learned that the delicate beauties make annual migrations hundreds to thousands of miles.
I believe that there’s a kid searching for discoveries in every one of us. Although people’s love for nature may vary in its strength, it is difficult not to feel the excitement of learning new facts about other species, or be humbled in the presence of giants when standing in a grove of giant sequoias. It is my goal to point others down this trail to new discoveries in California and beyond. It is also my goal to cultivate a sense of belonging for everyone in this community, so that each person may find their own path that leads them to appreciate the natural world.