The 2014 class of the Field Naturalist/Ecological Planning program (abbrevated FNEP) has been described as “a nice looking group,” “a bunch of nutjobs,” and “so damn diverse.” We take all of our classes together, know far too much about the contents of one another’s brains, and try our best not to be too nerdy in non-FNEP social situations.
A few weeks ago, a very nice and polite non-FNEP in one of my classes said something along the lines of “what is it that you guys DO? I’ve been here for two years and I see you guys around but I still know nothing about your program.”
The truth is, some of us are still trying to figure that out, and I sure as hell didn’t know what I was getting into when I applied. That doesn’t mean I regret a single decision.
The website is vague. It says dazzling things like “We give Field Naturalists the tools they need to move the world” and list classes with names like “Fundamentals of Field Science” and “Place-based Landscape Analysis”. They all sound very exciting, but what does this stuff really MEAN?
I decided to handle my acceptance with the forethought of a drunk person on a diving board. The program director is a lovely sorting hat of a man, and I figured that if he thought that I should be there, then I must go. It was one of the best decisions of my life. But, for perspective students out there, let me answer a few questions for you…
NOTE: this is all based on the first fall semester.
1. How much time do you spend in the field?
In an average week, 18-22 hours.
2. What is the difference between an FN and an EP?
Who the hell knows. (Just kidding, but really, there’s hardly a difference). As far as I can tell, FNs have two 20-hour teaching assignments, while EPs teach fewer classes. The funding for the programs comes from two different departments (Plant Bio for FNs and Natural Resources for EPs). The class requirements are 90% the same.
3. What’s the teaching assignment like?
Most of us have to teach one section of a lab called “Natural History and Field Ecology” during our first semester. In general, I had a great experience, but there were many days when it felt more like a rite of passage than a teaching position. I think the idea is to throw you in front of 21 students to help them learn things that you are, in many cases, learning for the first time. Nothing makes you learn stuff quite like having to turn around and immediately teach it!
4. What are the classes like?
I love my classes (mostly). Here’s a fast and dirty description of my typical week this semester:
Monday: 1.25 hours of “Fundamentals of Field Science”: In this 7-person class, we sit around a table while our professor attempts to stump us, individually, with science questions. The general topic is provided on the syllabus, and many of us study ahead of time. The conversation makes unexpected turns, for example, one week I prepared myself for “How are tropical soils different from temperate soils?” and was asked “How could drinking coffee with orange juice lead to Alzheimer’s disease?”
I actually really enjoy Fundamentals on Mondays.
The class is followed by a TA meeting in which we hash over the minutia of this week’s lab for an hour.
Tuesday: Three hours of “Fundamentals of Field Science”. In the last few weeks, we have been working in pairs to evaluate one-hectare square plots in forested locations of our choosing. It’s a lot of work (especially if you are new at this) to examine everything from geology to human history of a site, explain how the ecology works, and then synthesize an argument to protect it from theoretical development.
There’s a LOT more to Fundamentals than that, though. It’s a class designed to push your boundaries, make you prioritize, and teach you to debate effectively. (My professor convinced me, in class, that it’s a good idea to clearcut the entire state of Vermont. Yep. He’s that good.)
Wednesday is my favorite day. It’s “Field Botany for Natural Resource Professionals” day! The class is perfectly choreographed to walk us through the important plant families of Vermont, 100+ species, and the natural communities in which they can be found. Liz Thompson, author of the renowned Wetland, Woodland, Wildland, teaches the class in conjunction with Cathy Paris, arguably the most prepared and well-spoken professor that I have ever had.
Also, we have snack time. Twice every class.
Thursday begins with two hours of Professional Writing class. Famous writer and naturalist Bryan Pfeiffer bestows his nuggets of wisdom upon us for one hour and helps us to critique one another’s work for a second hour. He focuses on writing that will be useful to us. Right now, we are working on op-eds and press releases. (Sorry my press release is late, Bryan, I was writing this blog post instead!).
I also teach lab on Thursdays, so the hours between 10 and 1 are usually spent rummaging frantically through bins of forestry supplies, cursing at printers, and certainly not eating lunch.
From one to five I teach NR1 lab. See above for details.
On Fridays we wallow in the field all day, rain or shine, hell or high water, for a class called Field Naturalist Practicum. We drive about an hour to a site (usually a park or natural area with a bakery stop on the way) and meet a guest speaker who walks us through the area pointing out critical ecological landmarks. At the end of the day we simply have to assemble our findings and summarize the last 700 million years (or so) of events that occurred at the site. Easy, right? Today, we hiked up Camel’s Hump and examined a series of manmade ponds in a montane spruce-pine forest. Why did someone build ponds here, seemingly in an uninhabitable place? If you know the answer, please tell me.
Up next semester (for me, anyway) is Winter Ecology, Place-based Landscape Analysis (again, wtf does that mean? I’ll let you know when I find out), and Applied Wildlife Management.