Master naturalist

In mid-June I spent a week in the “prairies and potholes” area of western Minnesota, studying to become a master naturalist at Lac qui Parle State Park. Master naturalists are “well-informed citizens dedicated to conservation education and service within their communities.”

a leader at the right, with a class gathered at the left, all looking down at grasses and wildflowers

Studying the plants, insects, and animals in my yard has become a serious hobby. I knew I would do this training eventually to solidify my study. Last fall, I realized: if I’m going to do this someday, why not now?

I decided to do this particular naturalist training because…

  • I wanted to do the program in one week, instead of the varied other options spread over multiple weeks or months. I thought it would be good for me to focus my mind and not be rushing to class from work or other obligations.
  • I wanted to do a “destination” (to me) because that meant I could also focus my time outside of class, and I’d get to explore another part of the state – the Minnesota River Valley and its extensive history.
  • It’s very close to the Lac qui Parle Mission site, part of the Minnesota Historical Society, where I work. I thought it would be a good opportunity to spend time at this site, and it was – I visited it three times during the week.

So I started referring to my weeklong training as “naturalist camp.” Our class was headquartered at the park’s visitor center, full of mounted animals:

four stuffed birds on a high shelf

It was gray and moody – or raining – much of the week. View from the classroom:

gray clouds in the top half, the bottom half green grasses with trees in the distance

Interesting sessions

Glaciers. I learned about them growing up in Wisconsin, and this was a good reminder about how they form: more snow falls than melts, and it builds up and turns to ice under pressure. One thing I noticed was that glaciers don’t literally retreat, though that word is used a lot; instead, the front recedes due to melting. The most recent glacier in this area, the Wisconsin glaciation, determined a lot of Minnesota’s topography. The Minnesota River “bends” north because the land tilts, probably because of glacial lobes.

Geology. Soil is not dirt! Sand is the biggest particle, then silt, then clay. Lester loam, the state soil, is a mixture of the three. Morton gneiss (“nice”), a pink-and-gray rock that is quarried in southwest Minnesota, is 3.5 billion years old, one of the oldest stones in the world. It has been used for decorating buildings in the Twin Cities and across the country. Morton Outcrops is a scientific and natural area where visitors can see this rock.

a heart-shaped pink and gray striped rock on a desk

Water macro invertebrates. A local woman brought water samples, and we used guides to identify the creatures. The coolest: caddisfly larvae, which builds its own shelter (the one in the image at the bottom left created a long tube out of tiny rocks).

Water quality can be significantly improved by removing dams, allowing the water to flow naturally and fish and wildlife to move freely. Then mussels are happier, too. It makes sense, but I had never thought about this. We all have a responsibility to take care of our water, whether urban or rural.

three half mussel shells, one facing up and two facing down on a table

Terri, the Lac qui Parle State Park manager, talked to us about the park, past and present. The area is known for geese, but the goose population has dropped dramatically. The state is working to mitigate flooding, which happens frequently, by moving some elements to higher ground. For example, there’s a newish upper campground (home to the only camper cabins in the state with air conditioning!). And the largest cottonwood tree in the state is technically outside the park, but just barely.

Hutchinsonian ratio: animals of similar species that live in the same area vary in size by 1/3, which helps reduce competition because they’re different enough. For example, northern harrier hawks, ferruginous hawks, and red-tailed hawks live in the same grassland, but they each have their own niche.

A real, live archaeological dig!

What I liked the best

I’m sure this is no surprise: I loved learning about wildflowers of the prairie. There were dozens of (human-seeded) flowers around the visitor center, which we thoroughly studied. It was fun to see numerous changes in just five days – flowers that finished blooming and flowers that started blooming.

We learned about the rule of thirds for native plants, which says that what you see above ground is only 1/3 of the plant because at least twice as much is below ground in the extensive roots. I also learned how to identify a few grasses, such as porcupine grass (needle-and-thread grass). This one is fun because it has long seeds with pointed ends that drive themselves into the ground.

tall, thin grasses blowing to the right in the wind

One afternoon, we explored the Nature Conservancy’s Chippewa Prairie, one of the last remaining native prairies in Minnesota (less than 2% of the state’s original prairie remains).

several class members in a row in a mowed path, with one classmate using binoculars

The class was in this prairie for an hour and a half or so, and though we didn’t travel far, we explored thoroughly. We identified 36 flowers and grasses…

fragrant false indigo - two tall purple spike flowers with lots of small green leaves

…and even stumbled upon a grasshopper sparrow’s ground nest with several eggs!

blurry image of a nest full of eggs, partly obscured by grasses

There was a monarch butterfly observation station in the visitor center. This wasn’t created for us, but I sat in the back of the room, next to this display, and watched the caterpillars grow quickly over five days.

monarch butterfly informational panels and five rearing containers

Even when we were in the classroom, we were often able to experience real items like these pearl buttons made from clam shells:

mason jar lid full of flower-shaped buttons

…and this Ojibwe sweetgrass basket, made by one of my instructors during a workshop at Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post:

small round basket with blue thread

…though some of our lessons were slideshows and not show-and-tell:

image of a hog-nosed snake projected on a pull-down screen

What I liked the least

  • Because we had to complete capstone projects by the last day of class, part of our class time was reserved for group work. Similar naturalist trainings that last longer than a week – meeting one evening per week for three months, for example – don’t dedicate class time to these projects. I understand why this was necessary – it would have been hard for groups to get together outside class in just one week – but I wonder how much more we could have learned if those hours were devoted to class lessons or field trips instead.
  • Similarly, there wasn’t enough time at night to complete all of the assigned readings. I’d like to believe I would have stayed on track if I would have had a week to read the three chapters, instead of one night, though of course I’m a procrastinator so there’s no guarantee. But I did try.

Things I learned that I’ve already put into practice

  • Just because a plant is native, that doesn’t mean it can’t become aggressive under the right conditions. I’ve started pulling some of the plants in my garden that are spreading too far and too fast.
  • Goldenrod with galls: I learned these occur only on Solidago canadensis (Canada goldenrod). When I saw them a month later, it was the first time I ever thought of the scientific name before the common name! I don’t think I will ever switch to scientific for most plants, but this one stuck because it was said so often.
  • Lingering knowledge about new-to-me organisms, like the caddisfly mentioned above: I saw this insect mentioned a couple weeks later on Instagram, and I knew what it was! Same thing with scurfpea flowers – I had never heard of them before, but the day after class ended, I saw them at the Jeffers Petroglyphs historic site, 100 miles away.

tall spike of small purple flowers

Other things I will do

  • Minnesota's Natural Heritage: An Ecological Perspective by John R. TesterFinish reading the curriculum guide and textbook. The textbook is beautiful and I hope I can dedicate some time to completing it soon.
  • Participate in volunteer nature events. It’s a requirement to maintain my master naturalist status, but it’s fun and interesting work. I focus on service positions, such as collecting wildflower seeds in the fall and removing invasive species like buckthorn in the winter.
  • Try to figure out how not to sound like a know-it-all when on hikes “for fun” with my family and friends. I’ve already been on several such hikes, and I don’t think I’ve pulled it off yet.
  • Think about how to turn this interest into more than a hobby. Now more than ever, nature needs our help.

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