The Naked Naturalist

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 17)

On our spring naturalist retreat, we identified many organisms found in Iowa’s southern Loess Hills. We also did yoga, wrote essays, made art, took pictures, and composed haiku to the mating calls of treefrogs. Some in our group stretched the 2-day retreat into 3 and 4, and we will have another one later this summer. When I invited a friend to attend our next naturalist retreat, she laughed and  asked: “Can I at least leave my boots on?”

Funny how that keeps coming up. True, it sounds like we are “naturists,” the devoted nudists for whom clothing is a barrier to the natural world, to each other, and self-awareness. Naturalists in my school of thought seek a different kind of awareness, one that requires another form of nakedness. Nonetheless, the confusion seems to be common. Just a few weeks ago I attended an art opening by Paula Wilson, an artist from New Mexico and an avid member of our school when her travels allow. She introduced me as her naturalist friend to some patrons, who later asked her: “How does he make a living taking his clothes off in the woods?”

Paula told me about this the next morning while on a last-minute hike, along with our colleague Robert Smith, before catching a flight to her next gallery show. A round of jokes ensued about men our age with big bellies and hairy backs going naked in the woods and sasquatch sightings. Paula, a petite desert flower good and kind, did not join in. When the jokes ran out, it was my delight to tell her a story that took place in those very woods, at the pond we just had passed along the trail.  

Early one cool spring morning, we had so much gear that I uncustomarily loaded up an ATV with buckets, nets, seines, extra clothes, and all manner of rubber boots and waders for our treefrog tadpole survey. My friends would follow on foot. Our goal was to identify and document the tadpoles of 3 hylid species found at our site. These are treefrogs and kin, distinguished by a suction pad and an extra joint on each toe. Many are small and some are tiny.


Boreal chorus frog (Pseudacris maculata). Note suction pad and extra joint on each digit.  (Photo by Robert Smith.)

Mating treefrogs are bashful; they abruptly stop singing at any movement that could mean danger. As I drove toward the first pond, I shut down as soon as I might hear them, and let myself be hypnotized by Pseudacris maculata, the tiny boreal chorus frog. I heard depth and resonance in this chorus; in concert they are enchanting. They create sonic overtones far beyond their octaves. I can’t even imagine what the females are hearing. The first humans to hear these songs lived wild, exposed, and tuned in. I want to hear what they heard.

As I continued on my route, the chorus stopped well before I reached pond. After I unloaded the gear, I continued on toward another pond, much bigger, to drag a hidden canoe to the water. As I approached, I was met not by a boreal chorus, but by a small band of webelos. (At this point in the story I stopped to explain to Paula that a webelo is the transitional stage between a cub scout and a boy scout, like a tadpole with legs.) They watched me intently as I passed. After setting the canoe in the pond, I began my return trip to gather my naturalists and fetch the gear. The watchful webelos had not wavered.

 As I drove again by the encampment, I was hailed by the the leader, no doubt the father of a webelo. I turned off the engine and greeted him. The webelos remained at a safe distance, save for one by his side. He spoke softly, as though raising a delicate matter: “Are those other people coming down here? Can you give us a few minutes to break camp?” I assured him that we would be no bother, and that we would be working at the far end of the pond. He spoke even more softly, as though very uncomfortable: “Will you be keeping your clothes on?”

It took me a moment to clear the incredulous frog from my throat. I assured him that my colleagues and I would remain fully clothed. He now seemed suspicious, and informed me that he had taken some webelos on an early hike, and came upon a female member of my group frolicing naked through the woods, followed by a photographer. At this point the face of the attending webelo brightened, as did the faces of those who had crept hopefully close.

I again assured the adult leader that our research protocols do not include nude science, and that the naked woman probably doesn’t know what poison ivy looks like. Leaving the relieved pack leader and some disappointed boys, I drove off to resume my duties. When I reached the first pond, I found my gang still wearing layers of flannel and rubber, covered in mud and crouched over buckets, all present and accounted for. I never did see the naked woman with a rash.

Paula liked my story. As we drove back to the city to catch her flight, we discussed the similarities between nature-lovers and nudists, naturalists and naturists, and the underlying truth. A deep encounter with the natural world requires stripping away ego and expectations and assumptions, and baring your soul if not your body. No matter what you are wearing or not wearing, sometimes you just need to listen to the frogs.