Community Naturalist Network: A social structure for facilitating ecological literacy in neighborhoods
Place knowledge is essential for an ecoliterate person and necessary to the mentoring cycle that allows the long-term transfer of local ecological knowledge within communities. Legacies of ecological place knowledge are lost through emigration, death of knowledgeable residents, lack of a sharing forum, and conditions of low social capital. Local place knowledge resides in nature-based clubs, professionals in natural sciences, libraries, and on-line—but this information may not be accessible to local residents, who may not understand its relevance to where they live. Without an understanding about how the world works, people cannot predict or assess the environmental impacts of their daily choices or guide children in developing their ecological identity.
Here we describe a social network for transferring ecological place knowledge to volunteer community naturalists within Baltimore, Maryland. The Network includes: a sponsoring organization with access to ecological knowledge; monthly excursions in a neighborhood or park; a closed Facebook page for access to expert mentors; participant projects to conserve local ecological knowledge; GIS maps of participants to assure geographic coverage; and informal training in ecological knowledge, naturalist skills, and mentoring skills. In this way participants learn and share the ecological stories of their neighborhoods.
The Natural History Society of Maryland started the Network in 2013, collaborating with Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Participants were self-identified through an email blast by the Mayor of Baltimore, announcements at meetings of organizations, and by the project facilitator’s outreach into uncovered neighborhoods. To date, 67 potential community naturalists have been identified, with 41 active participants from 39 neighborhoods. Thirty-five participate in the closed Facebook page for mentoring. Eight expert mentors participate, offering expertise in forestry, nature play, wildlife, geology, botany, and ecology. The focus of initial excursions was to learn names and characteristics of trees within Baltimore. Currently community naturalists are learning local geologic history and visiting rock outcrops that support that history. Naturalists receive informal training through mentor modeling and by practicing naturalist routines and mentoring skills as they learn natural features and ecosystem processes during monthly excursions. Participants’ community service projects include helping Baltimore Green Space stewards to identify trees; assembling plant lists for local residents at several locations; establishing two after school programs on nature themes; and establishing a community nature trail. The long term objective: a volunteer community naturalist within walking distance of every Baltimorean.