Pinau Merlin is living proof that any passion can be turned into a source of income. Merlin has one of the more, well, unusual interests… she studies holes. According to a recent article in National Wildlife magazine, the naturalist turned author spent months “trying to figure out exactly which fly, bee, beetle, or rodent made which holes, and how the animal uses subterranean habitat to live in the desert’s brutal environment.”
Figuring there must be others out there who share her sense of curiosity, Merlin took what she’d learned and turned it into a book. A Field to Desert Holes was one of the top four selling books on Arizona at Amazon.com and a book signing at a Tucson Barnes & Noble was standing room only. Her guide is now in its fourth printing. I was intrigued by Pinau and her passion, so I decided to do a little digging.
In an earlier interview for Smithsonian magazine, Merlin explained her interest in holes this way. “The more you know about what you see, the more you come to appreciate the intricacies of life, and the fantastic ways that animals have evolved to live in specific environments,” Merlin says. “And looking at holes is a great way to get to know the neighbors. You see rabbit fur by the kit fox hole, and it’s like reading the morning paper. Who was out last night? What were they doing?”
This got me wondering about what it takes to become a naturalist. Come to find out, anyone can be a naturalist. Although some naturalists have scientific backgrounds in botany or environmental science, the National Park Service defines a naturalist simply as a specialist who studies and/or teaches about nature. Professional canoeist, kayaker, and writer, Tamia Nelson, defines a naturalist simply as someone who takes an interest in the natural world.
“Imagine,” she says, “telling a roomful of casual acquaintances that you’ve decided to become a naturalist. They’d probably laugh. Ours is a world of specialists, after all. Anyone who’s curious about the natural world is expected to have a narrow focus of interest – to concern herself only with comets, say, or birds, or mushrooms. And ours is also a world of professionals. If we’re not being paid to do something, it’s ‘just a hobby,’ on a par with watching daytime television or collecting postcards.”
Nelson goes on to cite numerous famous nineteenth century “amateur” naturalists. People like Charles Darwin, career civil servant turned naturalist Alexander von Humboldt who put the put the Orinoco, Rio Negro, and the headwaters of the Amazon on the map, Henry David Thoreau (a surveyor by profession), and children’s book writer Ernest Thompson Seton. “Except for Humboldt, who worked for a time as a mining engineer,” says Nelson, “none was ever a professional scientist. Yet each left his mark on biology, geology, and anthropology.”
Not everything you love to do has to be a paying gig. If you have a love of the whales and a flexible schedule consider signing on for the Cabrillo Whale Watch Program in San Pedro, California (CabrilloWhaleWatch.com). This comprehensive training runs Tuesday evenings starting October 2005 through March 2006. After completing a three month training course and passing a final exam, naturalists serve as volunteer guides on whale watching boats, give lectures in classrooms prior to their fieldtrip, and give presentations in the local community.
But what if you do want to get paid for your knowledge and passion for nature? As a naturalist you can work for the park service, at nature centers, and as trip guides. You can always go for some kind of college degree. For example, degrees earned by the staff at Durango Nature Studies in Durango, Colorado range from English to Biology to Environmental Biology (DurangoNatureStudies.com).
That’s where I learned about the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, Minnesota (Wolf-Ridge.org). If you love the idea of teaching kids, the center offers a Certificate in Environmental Education with 18 credits toward a Masters of Education degree at the Center for Environmental Education at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Like the Wolf Ridge program, the Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center also offers paid internships. This private, non-profit, accredited school dedicated to “fostering awareness, enhancing respect, and promoting personal responsibility for the natural world” in Lanesboro, Minnesota is currently seeking interns for paid participants for the Professional Naturalist Fellowship program. As one of 12 participants in the fellowship, you’ll develop teaching, interpretive, and public relations techniques, plus many other skills related to residential environmental education. Learn more at Eagle-Bluff.org
If you want to work in a beautiful place, but not necessarily as a naturalist, there are a number of sites that specialize in outdoor jobs. CoolWorks.com can point you toward over 75,000 seasonal job or careers including summer jobs in Yellowstone, Yosemite, or another national parks, jobs as camp counselors, and a range of opportunities at ski resorts, ranches, theme parks, tour companies and more.
At ColoradoGuide.com you can search under categories like executive, administrative, computer/technical support, conservation, travel/hospitality and more. For example when I clicked on the category “Guide Services,” I discovered a company in Snow Mass, Colorado with an opening for a fly fishing guide/right hand man or woman. Qualifications include knowledge of entomology, great people skills, die hard fly fisher.
If, like Pinau Merlin, you’re a nature lover who also enjoys writing, why not build on Merlin’s success by writing about holes in Maine, Hawaii, Kansas, Alaska, England, Spain, Nigeria, Pakistan or wherever you live or visit? But what if you’d love to write a book but nature just isn’t your thing. If Merlin’s success has taught us anything, it’s that if there’s a market for a book on animal holes in Arizona then there’s simply no end to the possibilities. Just ask Kendall Crolius. Crolius is the author of a wonderfully off-the-beaten path how to book called Knitting With Dog Hair: Better a Sweater from a Dog You Know and Love Than From a Sheep You’ll Never Meet.