Friday, August 26, 2022

The Difference in Two Words


Naturalist at Buffalo River around 1973


    Maybe I have told this story a hundred times at various places where I speak to groups wherever it might be. If you have read this before I will get to something about the migrating birds I promised to write about last week.

    When I was only 11 years old, I started working in the pool hall my dad and grandpa McNew had bought in my hometown of Houston, Missouri. Most everyone knows about that from what I have written before. The old men who came in and told hunting and fishing stories became my friends, and it soon came to be that I couldn't wait to get there after school, to take over for my grandpa and sit there on the front bench until my dad came in from his factory job.  A writer couldn't have had a better beginning, what stories they would tell.

    I had another important job as well, as I grew older. On weekends I would guide fishermen down the Big Piney River in a wooden johnboat we called Old Paint. The story of Old Paint appeared in Outdoor Life magazine in 1971 and one several national writing awards.


    In the late spring after I turned 13, the old timers at the pool hall began to talk about a nudist colony which had sprung up over near Willow Springs, and they often referred to them as "naturalists".  It was the first time I had ever heard the term, and they used it often.  Naturalists, and nudists, naked people running around on some kind of farm they had set up.  At first I thought it had to be a joke.   Who would do a thing like that?  Finally I realized that there really was such a thing as nudists, or naturalists as they referred to them.  Me and my cousins were naturalists, I figured, since we swam naked in the Big Piney and every creek that flowed into it.

    That spring, I took a University of Missouri professor and his wife down the Piney on a fishing trip.  His wife looked younger than he, and I was getting old enough to notice how pretty she was, with long blonde hair and a trim figure.  Of course I would notice, my gosh, at 13 I was thinking about marrying someone like that lady in only a few years.  The professor sat on the front seat as he fished, and she sat not three feet in front of me on a middle seat.  Late in the morning I got over my shyness and began to answer her questions about the river and it's wildlife.  I pointed out a kingfisher and showed her where it built its nest, then a shike-poke, sneaking up on a school of minnows at the mouth of a creek.  The professor listened and without turning, he told me I should go to the University of Missouri someday and study hard to become a naturalist.

The pronouncement stunned me somewhat.  Thinking back on what the old men at the pool hall had said about them, I wondered why anyone would have to study all that hard to be a "naturalist".  Then he really stunned me by adding that his wife was something of a naturalist herself!  Holy mackerel, I couldn’t believe my ears!

    I began to think that it was perhaps going to be the most exciting float trip I had ever taken!  Of course, my hopes were dashed later in the day when she explained what a naturalist really was.  I knew then I had always been one, because she explained that it came from a burning desire to be where everything was indeed natural and wild, and to learn as much as one could learn about nature.  I had done exactly that since I was very small, sneaking off into the woods on grandpa’s farm or riding my bicycle to the river to look at things which fascinated me so much, plants I had never seen, tracks of wild creatures of which I knew so little, and the small creatures beneath the rocks in the creeks which then were so full and clean and alive.

    I actually became a naturalist a few years later while in college, a summer park naturalist in Missouri state parks, where we took campers on hikes, gave programs at night, built new trails and set up displays about nature.  When I graduated from college, only eight years after I took that professor and his wife on that float trip, I became the Chief Naturalist for the Arkansas state park system, hired by their young director. Quite often in one of those state parks I told the story of that experience as a boy and the professor who thought I ought to know the difference in a naturalist and a nudist!!


No comments: