Naturalist skills increase outdoor enjoyment


When I was a kid, there were no youth hunting seasons. We were in the same mix as the adults.

That said, I’m a fan of youth seasons, and worked to help make the first one in Indiana happen, but as with most things in today’s instant gratification society, we have sped up the process of becoming an outdoorsman. With that, we seem to be losing the strong naturalist skills that derive from hard-won accomplishments and long hours outdoors.

It took me four years to kill my first deer. When I finally took that doe at 14 years old, I’d spent countless hours sitting in a tree and stalking through woods and fields learning from my many mistakes. Today, many kids kill a deer on their first hunt, sitting in an enclosed box blind with a heater while playing on their phones. I’m all for whatever it takes to get kids outdoors, but they are missing out on so much of the experience. And so are we as mentors.

Now, I admit to not being the most proficient naturalist. I don’t know my wildflowers, trees and birds as well as I’d like, but I continue to learn. It makes time outside more enjoyable. When I’m strolling through the deer woods, it means a lot to me to know the difference between a red oak and a white. And I really get excited when I see a Chinkapin, because I’ve learned deer love those sweet acorns.

Understanding how the entire tapestry of my local landscape works together makes participation in the natural order of all it so much more enjoyable. When I recognize the sound of a certain bird, I feel a greater sense of connection to the world around me. Plants, too, have become a solvable mystery. Is this a native or an invasive? I want to know. What are the benefits or detriments of having this graminoid or forb on my land? Don’t know those words? Look them up.

Thankfully, there are many people out there who are incredibly skilled as at identifying plants and animals, and they understand how important sharing such knowledge is. If you are interested in becoming more knowledgeable about the natural world around you, all you really need to do is spend more time outdoors with good guide books, but if you want to have more fun and enjoy the learning experience with others, then look for opportunities in your neck of the woods to join an interpretive class or nature walk. Many conservation organizations offer such events, and so does the Indiana DNR.

Spring Mill State Park is one of the most beautiful parks I have been to anywhere in the country. Bold statement, I know. But for real, when you walk among the old buildings with the beautiful stream pouring through the valley and look around while thinking what life most have been like for the inhabitants back in the 1800s, you feel an incredibly strong sense of nostalgia. It’s a wonderful park in which to study nature.

Thankfully, the staff there knows this and is putting on classes. They have two winter tree identification workshops coming up that will teach you how to identify buds, bark and more. The classes will be taught in two sessions. If you don’t live close to Spring Mill, there is a wonderful lodge on site. Staying a few days down there learning about trees in the winter would be a nice reprieve for cabin fever.

According to a DNR press release, the first session is Feb. 13 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Lakeview Activity Center, and the second is a field session on Feb. 15 from 9 a.m. to noon at the Gus Grissom Memorial. Attendance for both sessions is encouraged but not required. Dale Weigel and Teena Ligman, retired employees from DNR’s Division of Forestry, will lead both sessions.

Call 812-278-0139 to register for the sessions. Cost is $5 for each session. Make sure to dress appropriately for the weather for the outdoor session. Spring Mill State Park is located at 3333 State Road 60 East, Mitchell, IN 47446.

See you down the trail …

Brandon Butler writes a weekly outdoors column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more Driftwood Outdoors, check out the podcast on or anywhere podcasts are streamed.

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