Why I Became a Naturalist

by Tony Mills

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I think it is reasonable to blame my mom and dad; not only did they not dissuade me, but I am pretty sure they encouraged me to become a nature kid. Both of my parents were always fascinated by the plants and animals around us. Regardless of where we traveled, we were expected to spend time outdoors and embrace the natural world around us. But remember, in those days, there just wasn't as much for a kid to do with his time…

I remember my brother Mike and I spending an entire day trying to open coconuts in our Miami Florida yard, pausing only to chase the same brown anole (lizard) across the top of our Hibiscus hedge. Reruns of Gilligan's Island and Green Acres episodes quickly lost their appeal after a couple of viewings.

Our family weekends were loaded with "teachable moments" exploring state parks, propagating plants, fishing or other outdoor activities. Since our family moved from Iowa to Miami Florida, the marine ecosystem was a whole new world for us to explore.

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We spent hours walking the shallow waters of Florida Bay catching spider crabs and seining for sea horses and pipefish. I especially remember trips to the Florida Keys to fish and dive. Our friend Maggie took us out on the water in her small boat most weekends. The term boat may be over-selling it a bit. This was by no means a pleasure craft since Maggie had removed all the seats and anything else of comfort to make room for dive gear and fishing equipment. We must have been quite a sight (all five of us) headed offshore to that special reef with just our heads peaking over the gunwales. While the adults explored the reef below, my brother and I stayed on the surface because we were too young to be certified. We would pass the time by dropping our fishing lines out of the little boat. Now and then, after a hard jerk on the end of our rods, we would reel in a hog snapper, grouper or other game fish. It wasn't until I was a bit older that I realized my parents were spearing the fish and attaching them to our lines for us to "catch."

During these trips we often encountered sea turtles, jellyfish, giant spotted eagle rays and sharks, but the intangible lessons such as an appreciation for the vastness and importance of the ocean may have been the greatest benefits we received.

At home I kept an elaborate saltwater aquarium and even a pet octopus for a while. After we moved away from the ocean, to Augusta, GA, I always had a well-stocked terrarium filled with lizards, snakes or salamanders from the surrounding woods. My parents encouraged me to keep a "pet" for a few days and then to release it unharmed (and exactly where I had caught it). Much of our free time was spent exploring the oak hickory forests around our house or walking for miles up local creeks trying to catch and identify the fish, watersnakes and crayfish we encountered.

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At times I wonder how much of my fixation on nature is innate and how much relates to the environment in which I was raised. I vividly remember a trip to the local library with my mom to see a special lecture on local reptiles and amphibians. I was only ten years old but somewhat knowledgeable about snakes and turtles in my hometown of Augusta, GA. The speaker was Dr. Whitfield Gibbons from the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, a well-known herpetologist from nearby Aiken, South Carolina. The lecture was informative and exciting, and something important happened to me that night. I was already interested in the material he was discussing, but somehow Whit made me feel empowered--part of the scientific world. I think he made the whole audience feel that way. I remember turning to my mom during the program and telling her that this was what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. Whit noticed my interest and invited my parents and me to SREL to visit the lab and see the collection of specimens. He even let me borrow some traps to do a simple study of the aquatic fauna of my neighborhood wetland.

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I ended up working at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory for Whit for 21 years, doing research and presenting similar educational programs for the public. I have no doubt that his positive energy and enthusiasm helped me chart the course of my life, and I am very grateful for his influence.

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I now work for the LowCountry Institute on Spring Island with Dr.Chris Marsh, one of the finest naturalists in the southeast. Chris has introduced me to a whole new world of saltmarshes, crabs, sharks and shorebirds.

Throughout my career, I have always been surrounded by individuals who share my passion for the natural world. When my sons Ben and Marshall were young, their mom and I took every opportunity to teach them about plants and animals and we got a chance to experience nature through their eyes. I look forward to many more adventures with the guys in the future. My best friend and soul mate Kathryn is a talented biologist and we discover something new about the natural world almost every day. A chance meeting with Rob Lewis (the very talented cinematographer of Coastal Kingdom) has provided me a whole new outlet to share my passion for nature with others.

I have interviewed many other educators, naturalists, and researchers who have similar stories about their mentors. A general interest in nature may be innate, but it often takes well-timed guidance from a knowledgeable professional or parent to let a child know that he can be part of the discipline. I am convinced that my career was shaped by a combination of innate interest and the influence of parents, mentors and colleagues. And...there is no better compliment than to know that I have passed on some of this influence to others and a couple very talented naturalists consider me their mentor and an inspiration in their careers.


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