The Naturalist Room

by Katherine Hale

Every naturalist I know has some sort of variation on The Room. You all know what I am talking about, even if yours isn’t technically a room. Sometimes, it’s a bookshelf piled high with tattered field guides, a closet by the door stuffed with muddy gear, an old-school cabinet of curiosities tucked away in a corner. There is no one sign, no one ingredient that makes a Naturalist Room—they are as varied and interesting as the people who use them. Yet there are certain traits and tendencies that pop up over and over again, certain tells that make you sigh in recognition, “ah, my people.”

In fact, while there is no telling what you might find in a Naturalist Room,  you will recognize one immediately when you encounter it. Perhaps there are skulls on the windowsill, lined up in taxonomic order or not depending on the whims of their organizer, juxtaposed with the detailed topographic maps and atlases lying about. Perhaps there are pine cones and rock fragments everywhere (only some of which seem to be labeled), and pressed autumn leaves glued in colorful patterns to index cards stuck to the walls. Perhaps there are feathers dangling on strings from the ceiling, a perfect intact turtle shell on display, and the dried frost-killed seedheads of common weeds crammed into dusty vases or shoved into a makeshift press.  

There may the buzzy hum of aquarium pumps as fish or tadpoles (but never both at once) swim lazily in circles, or snakes and lizards basking under the steady warmth of artificial lights. There may be spiders (alive or dead) in jars, and plants on the window-sill, soaking in the ambient light. Binoculars, shovels, pH kits, measuring tapes, and bright-orange flagging may be piled in the corners, often bearing a freshly applied coating of mud and leaf litter. There will almost certainly be a magnifying glass or a microscope on the desk somewhere, and a stack of notebooks and writing utensils.

And there will be books—mostly field guides and technical manuals, ranging from the absurdly general and vague “Mammals of the World” to the absurdly specific “Distribution of Unionid Mussels in the Chewacla River Basin.” There may also be piles of printed papers and journals, colorful posters on the wall, or even a mounted turkey specimen, just to liven things up a little. A Naturalist Room has the same calm and measured feeling engendered by a library, though its contents are typically muddier and more battered, and the books bear the evidence of their intense use with quiet dignity and even pride. More than anything else, scanning the bookshelves in a Naturalist Room will tell you almost everything you need to know about who works there and what they value.

When I saw the FNEP version of the Naturalist Room at UVM—what my colleagues and I referred to jokingly as “the lounge”–I knew at once I had come to the right program. When harried by the pressures of higher education (or battling an imposing academic deadline), the lounge was our refuge, a place where we all could hang out and talk and joke or study intensely in silence if the situation called for it. The contents of the room reflected our needs and interests, and simultaneously grounded me, reminding me who I was and what really mattered  when I needed it most.

I have my own Naturalist Room at home now in a corner of my bedroom, in desperate need of organization as the papers, field guides and rock samples pile up and topple over, flanked by potted orchids with an erratic watering regime. But I also find great inspiration in the excellent Discovery Room at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, where you can pet a wolf-pelt, watch dermestid beetles eat the flesh off a bear skull, or study the diversity of tropical insects tucked away in cabinent drawers. The children’s classrooms at the local botanic gardens also bear striking resemblance to Naturalist Rooms and this is not a coincidence. The tools of a serious naturalist overlap with those of childhood exploration and discovery – so does the sense of wonder, the most important tool of all. The more Naturalist Rooms I encounter, in all their infinite variety, the more I am inspired to maintain and expand my own. I would do it anyway—I can’t help but do it, anyway—but it’s nice to know I am not alone.  

“All of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room in solitude,” the French scientist-theologian Blaise Pascal famously opined. At its best, a Naturalist Room offers a counter to Pascal’s pessimism, a refuge of stability, order and beauty in an increasingly coarse and fragmented world, where one can indeed sit quietly alone for hours and be quite content. A Naturalist Room is a place for introspection and reflection, where all the raw observation of experiences in the field are distilled down to their core, where patterns emerge, where the best humanity has to offer meets the best and beautiful of the natural world. In a Naturalist Room, one is inside and yet out; removed from the rest of the world, and yet completely, unreservedly, a part of it. In a Naturalist Room, we are all all exactly where we need to be, right here and entirely at home.

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