On Being an Amateur—and Proud of It

monarchs are one of the hundreds of species i'm still learning about ... and happily so. Photo: Sue anderson

monarchs are one of the hundreds of species i'm still learning about ... and happily so. Photo: Sue anderson

The book's not even out (it will be on Wed., June 8!) and already I'm hearing the questions:

  • So you're not a wildlife biologist?
  • Are you a botanist?
  • Wait, so how long have you lived here?

The implication is clear: If you're "just" a writer and have no nature-related degrees or even the credibility of being a lifelong resident, how could you possibly be an expert on Central Oregon's plants and animals?

The simple answer is that I'm not an expert. So when I get those skeptical questions, I have to take a deep breath, raise my chin, and reply with pride: I'm an amateur.

Why do I say that like it's a good thing? Because the word "amateur" means "one who has a taste for something." It's derived from the Latin amatorem ("lover of"). So when I say I'm an amateur naturalist, I'm saying that I'm a lover of nature—and I look forward to remaining exactly that the rest of my life.

As to whether an amateur naturalist can write a nature guide (shouldn't that be left to the experts?), consider that one of the best nature writers in the business is Diane Ackerman, an English professor with four degrees (!) not in biology or enivronmental science but in English and creative writing.

Or think of Mary Roach (author of Stiff and Bonk and others), who writes bestsellers filled with research and scientific studies—and yet has no scientific degree or any particular qualifications beyond being curious and a writer and somebody who lived for a time in a trailer next to Gorilla World at the San Francisco Zoo.

Now, I'm no Diane Ackerman or Mary Roach. And of course there are also scientists like Alan St. John (see note below) who write glorious nature books. But I would argue that the key ingredient isn't "expertise" (in quotes because experts tend to be humble folks who recognize they don't know it all and will forever be learning—that's why they already know so much).

Rather, I believe the key ingredient is love, followed closely by curiosity. Whether you're in love with a person or with the combustion engine, you'll look closely, ask lots and lots of questions, and get to know your subject so well that you may eventually decide to tell the world all about what you've learned so far.

Or at least you might tell your friends, and maybe the four other people who buy your book. Because you're an amateur, and you're in love, and that's enough.

Correction: I assumed incorrectly about Alan St. John. He's such a good naturalist that I assumed he had advanced scientific degrees. As it turns out, he too is a proud amateur.