The Naturalist in All of Us

Cornell University’s Master Naturalist Program

Situated in a remote, hilly area of Chemung County in New York’s Southern Tier Region, Arnot Teaching and Research Forest is comprised of 4,000 acres owned by Cornell University. It is a mix of environments that, according to the school’s website, includes “2,400 acres of mature forest … some 100 acres of open land (grass and goldenrod); 1,345 acres of old field, saplings, brush and pole timber; 170 acres of softwood plantations; 40 acres of sugarbush; 20 acres of field campus; plus 10 ponds and Banfield Creek.” The main entrance to Cornell’s preserve sits at an elevation of 1,150 feet and its highest, forested hilltop rises to a majestic 2,035 feet. I arrived at Arnot Forest on a hot day in July 2015, searching for evidence of a secret World War II program once housed there. I had an appointment with Dr. Peter Smallidge, senior extension associate and Arnot Forest director, to discuss this little known piece of the preserve’s history. As we talked, Dr. Smallidge’s enthusiastic appreciation for the place was undeniable.

Now, here’s my confession: given the choice between spending time in the city, any city, and a weekend among flora and fauna, I always opt for the urban experience. I’m pretty much an outdoor bozo, unless it’s on a deck sipping wine (produced in New York State, of course). So, sure, I thought we were meeting in a pretty place, but I was looking at the scenery like a judge at a beauty pageant – delighted with the visuals, but clueless about the complexity of what I was seeing.

Then, towards the end of our conversation, Dr. Smallidge made a casual remark. He mentioned that Cornell’s Department of Natural Resources sponsors a Master Naturalist Program weekend at Arnot and it was coming up in a couple of months. My conscience took off.  Maybe I should aspire to be more than just a kitchen window squirrel watcher. Should I stretch my bucolic activities beyond planting porch box petunias and walking the quarter mile, roundtrip, from my house to the post office?

I asked Dr. Smallidge if I could attend the weekend as an observer. He gave me the contact information. Two days after that conversation, I connected with the Master Naturalist Program coordinator and begged my way into the event.

The Master Naturalist Program is a statewide, adult education initiative “designed for educators, land trust personnel, private landowners, land managers, natural resource professionals, and citizens with a passion for our natural environment,” according to a program brochure. Implemented in 2010, the certification process requires individuals to complete 30 hours of instruction in three subject areas – ecosystems, conservation issues and identifying organisms – and 30 hours of volunteer participation in an environmental project tailored to his or her personal interests.

The mandatory first step towards certification is the three-day workshop I asked to observe. Once completed, participants are credited with 16 of the 30 hours of instruction that are needed. Attendance is limited. For several years, there have been more applicants for the workshop than spaces available.

A weekend in the wilderness

Three months later, as I drove through Arnot Forest’s entrance once again and up the winding drive to the lodge, I had the dreamy idea that I was going to heed Albert Einstein’s advice to “look deep into nature, and … understand everything better.” What I should have recalled were Shakespeare’s words, “What fools we mortals be.” Kristi Sullivan, an extension associate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Natural Resources, oversees and organizes the Master Naturalist Program. Also a certified wildlife biologist, Kristi has a passion for bats and is knowledgeable, funny, energetic, a skilled instructor and a cordial ambassador for the program.

As I confessed earlier, I am not an experienced camper or hiker or even backyard bird watcher. But I had no idea what a hapless neophyte I was until I saw the first activity on the agenda: a 90-minute tree identification walk. It was 90 degrees that afternoon – in the shade. I arrived without a hat, sunscreen, water bottle or insect repellent – and wearing stupid flip-flops. I looked like I belonged at a table under a beach umbrella eating hot dogs. I did remember my camera, cell phone, notebook, laptop and pen, which I carried in a frayed knapsack thingy because I only had two small pockets. Carrying a pack on my shoulder was going to be like hauling around a small boulder in a sauna.

I felt foolish, but reasoned that there must be others in the group as lost as I was, wondering what to expect.

Nope. As participants were introduced, my singular novice status was confirmed – over and over. The event was filled with individuals who had spent years actively engaged with the natural world.

I was surrounded by people who foraged regularly in the woods and fields for roots, mushrooms and other edibles. Sierra Club members who hiked for days in wilderness areas, and camped for weeks in remote environments. Teachers, health professionals, and environmentalists who wrote monographs, dissertations and articles on nature topics. Visual artists and illustrators who translated the natural world into artistic works with pencils, crayons, oils and silk screens. Several participants taught classes and led workshops on global warming, illness and the environment, water quality, herbal cooking, organic gardening and bird watching.

Since the few stray facts I could recall about any nature topic came from watching an occasional  PBS documentary, I was a teensy bit intimidated. That feeling faded, though, after a short time. Everyone was happy to converse, answer questions, share their knowledge, and speak about their dedication to protecting, improving, preserving or connecting others to the natural world.
The weekend was designed to be an immersion experience. Through a combination of lectures, slides, demonstrations and activities led by current and retired Cornell faculty, researchers, extension associates and staff, the workshop covered: tree identification, birds and bird migration, amphibians and reptiles, stream ecology, deer impact on forests, bears, ginseng, mushrooms and fungi, invasive insects, native insects.

I tasted leaves, held a snake, lightly touched a warbler’s soft belly, watched as tiny song birds were measured, weighed and banded, sluiced pond water looking for creatures, and examined pond slime, insects and water droplets under a microscope. I caught a salamander, stalked a baby turtle, counted new growth shoots in a forest regeneration test plot, and wandered around in a forest mushroom lab looking at how different fungi fell in love with different trees. I scrambled over rocks and up steep trails, waded in marshy sediment, and walked at least 100 miles – or maybe it was about 3.

I spent an hour in a pitch dark meadow waiting for an owl to hoot (it didn’t) and peered through binoculars for a good half an hour trying to spot, well, anything that flew. No luck.

Though only slightly less hapless in the wild after the workshop than when I started, I did pick up some info that will stay with me: Don’t rely on a cell phone for sustained lighting (they die). Always carry a full water bottle. Wear clothes with lots of pockets. Do not, repeat, do not wear flip-flops for any activity that has the word “hike” in it. Never assume you will recognize poison ivy, oak or sumac. It takes years to become a wild mushroom expert, a wild ginseng expert, a wild anything expert. Too many deer in any ecosystem, no matter how sweet-looking, cause trouble. Bears deserve respect and a wide berth. Bugs, even the ugliest ones, play a role in ecosystems. Invasive species come in all shapes, sizes and colors. The natural world is both resilient and delicately balanced. Do not take the resilience for granted. Almost any creature is faster than I am.

Aside from foolish mortals, Shakespeare was also spot-on when he wrote, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” I will never be a certified Master Naturalist, not even an uncertified outdoor recreationalist. But I came away from my time in the woods with a with a profound regard for people devoted to being competent stewards and knowledgeable ambassadors for the natural environment. If that’s your passion, then this is one swell way to spend a fall weekend.


For more information

The Master Naturalist Program

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• e-mail Kristi Sullivan at

Arnot Teaching and Research Forest

Call or email Diana Bryant  •  •  607-255-2115


story and photos by Jan Bridgeford Smith

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