How naturalists changed our relationship with the wilderness

Marion Fernandez

Believe it or not, you have most likely met a naturalist, and, also likely, you may be a naturalist yourself. While the term may bring many different things to mind, the real definition is a person who is a life scientist or a wildlife expert. Many parks employ them as educators to inform visitors of the nature that surrounds them as well as ensuring that the wildlife is kept safe and habitat maintained well.

But naturalists have not always been so accessible or wide spread. Our relationship with nature has taken a different turn over the past last two hundred years, learning to be in it and experience it in ways that we had never before really thought about.

Let’s take a look at what the naturalists have taught us over the past two centuries.


The first and perhaps the most important lesson that we can take from naturalists is the concept of conservationism. Even back in the 18th century, the interest in conserving nature came to the attention of enthusiasts of natural science. There was a Swiss naturalist named Peter Kalm, who visited North America in the 1700s, who witnessed and commented on the carelessness of colonists on the available natural resources. Not many years later, another naturalist named John Bradbury made the same observation. The concept of ensuring that there are enough resources to keep them around for generations to come was born at this time.

Planting a tree
Planting a tree

Today, there are still battles over the idea of conservationism, but its importance continues to show itself. The conservation movement encompasses sustainability as well as the preservation of wilderness and biodiversity. The idea of conservationism is thrown around a lot in the world of politics, but the respect and hope for preservation has been installed in the outdoor lovers of the world regardless of political sway.

Study of Insects and Flowers

Of course, humans have always studied flowers and insects, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that we really started to get it right. Maria Sibylla Merian studied the insects and flowers of Suriname in a way that had not been previously done. Where artists had constructed how flowers look in their imaginations, they were highly inaccurate and far from scientific. Because of Merian’s devotion to the life sciences, we were able to study botany and entomology in a way that actually leads to insight about the nature of plants and insects.

Studying insects
Studying insects

Thus, today, we have a deeper understanding of plants and insects. Of course, we no longer rely on drawings to understand the details of botany and entomology but can use photographs. But our early understanding of how plants and insects operate goes back to the naturalists like Merian who knew that there was more to see and think about than was originally thought.

National Parks

One of the greatest legacies that the naturalists have brought us is our national park system. Through the love of outdoors and the push toward conservationism, the naturalist movement gave us the parks that we are able to walk through, camp in, and enjoy for hopefully many years to come. Most of us have enjoyed a national park at one time in our lives, something we can look back on and thank John Muir for. Muir is commonly known as the Father of the National Parks, pushing toward not just a protection of their wildlife, but also an area set aside that allows citizens to enjoy nature.

Parks are still around now and something we can all enjoy, provided they remain as protected lands. Having the land set aside means they are kept clean, the animals are kept in sustainable, healthy numbers, and visitors are able to have a getaway from the mayhem that is all too often the reality of city life.

Timber Hollow landscape
Timber Hollow landscape

Beyond everything else, we can thank naturalists for making our relationship with nature a more meaningful one. They have given us and continue to give us the opportunity to enjoy nature while helping it stay that way for generations to come.

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marion-fernandez is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival