The first annual Northeast Natural History Gathering: Warblers and Wildflowers Weekend was held at Hosmer Point Camp in Craftsbury, Vermont, May 17-19, 2013. The gathering was organized in partnership with the Natural History Network and Sterling College.
The Northeast Natural History Gathering was a resounding success. There were 45 attendees, including nine field walk leaders. We heard participants use words like “invigorated,” “renewed,” and “nourished.”
Above all, the other organizers and I wanted the gathering to be rejuvenating. Our planning was guided by the philosophy that natural history at its best is an interdisciplinary, egalitarian practice that connects us with others and with the stories in our neighborhood. We crafted the gathering so that all members were valued equally, regardless of their knowledge, experience, or approach to natural history. Put simply, we made decisions based on what would be the most fun and the most in keeping with the spirit of natural history as we see it.
The gathering began at 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon. Overnight participants arrived, signed in, received nametags, signed up for field walks, were shown to their cabins, and had some free time to explore and socialize. We had dinner, served by the camp cook, and at 7 pm the commuter participants arrived. John Anderson, professor of ecology at College of the Atlantic, gave a talk on the history of natural history.
On Saturday morning, we dispersed for field walks. Through the morning there were two different birding field walks, a field sketching workshop, and a land-use history walk, each led by a person with expertise in the subject as well as a passion for guiding others.
Afternoon field walks consisted of two wildflower walks, a reading-the-landscape walk, and another field sketching workshop. Steve Trombulak, professor of biology and environmental studies at Middlebury College, gave a presentation on the renaissance of natural history. This was followed by an engaging and earnest discussion on how to cultivate the practice of natural history in ourselves and others in a world full of wounds. We dispersed to a fire, live music, and fire-juggling. An expert led a moth field walk.
On Sunday morning we had breakfast and a closing circle. The circle allowed participants to share highlights, appreciations, inspiration, and feedback on the event.
Overall, the event was a huge success. We attribute this to the relaxed atmosphere, plentiful field time, and logistical support provided by Hosmer Point Camp. Free time was plentiful during the event; we would not change that. It contributed to a laid-back atmosphere that heightened the feeling of rejuvenation.
A goal of the event was to practice natural history and thereby experience the sense of nourishment that practice engenders. This commitment to being outside, immersed in natural history, was critical to our success. This is in contrast to many ecology and natural history events that focus on accumulating and sharing knowledge. Too many ecology and natural history conferences involve spending the day inside watching slideshows of natural wonders we would rather experience in person, outside.
In the months following the gathering, many attendees have approached the organizers and reiterated how much they enjoyed it. One attendee called it a “religious experience.” Another wrote that “I loved the gathering as a chance to be with other people who are passionate about nature . . . I didn’t have to explain myself once. We were all in this together.”
At the end of the weekend I felt that I had just emerged from a Caribbean vacation: utterly relaxed and content. Few logistical problems arose, and though I did answer many questions during the event, they were easy enough to address. Not only did I feel more relaxed than I had felt all year, but my conversations with friends and acquaintances during the event led me to a positive change in my relationship with natural history. I now feel more comfortable in my own naturalist skin.
On Sunday morning after most everyone had left, we headed down to the waterfront to put away the canoes. We flipped over a boat, ready to carry it to its berth. At the bottom lay a dragonfly, soft and weak, emerging from its nymphal exoskeleton. We gathered round, quietly witnessing a rebirth. •
David Gilligan is a faculty member in Ecology. Sterling College will be hosting the second annual Northeast Natural History Gathering this May. For more information, visit: http://naturalhistorynetwork.org.