Park Naturalists?

There can be no greater attribute in an interpreter than an infectious enthusiasm —Yorke Edwards

Preamble The computer app iNaturalist has lately been touchstone to an encouraging revival of the naturalist tradition among young people. Much good has already come of this renewed interest the Living World, but so far its focus remains narrow, even myopic, and its potential largely untapped.

Here I map out a frame for the meaningful and gainful employment of up-and-coming born naturalists that would encourage them to hone their naturalist skills while at the same time raising public awareness of the new world now beginning to dawn into scientific consciousness.

First Approximation


ooking back across five decades of life as an adult, I easily make out two occupations, one self-appointed, the other gainful, that together contributed more to who I am today than everything else I’ve ever done. Fifteen years of apprenticeship to Willder Trails is one of them. Ten years of summer employment as an “interpreter” in British Columbia’s park system is another.

I’ve written about Willder Trails elsewhere on this website. Here I’ll focus on the personal legacy that has accrued from my years as park naturalist. I’ll also make the case that reinstating BC’s park naturalist programmes could help promote an urgently needed ambassadors-of-the-wild-type societal function for born naturalists, defined as people endowed at birth with high naturalistic intelligence.

Cathie Hickson speaking at Helmcken Falls

They say the best way to learn is to teach and surely this must be so. And yet to say merely that teaching others about the living things of this Living World was for me a first rate learning experience doesn’t begin to capture it. Better to say that those summers spent roaming the wilds of British Columbia’s protected areas and “interpreting” those wilds to people of all ages and walks of life transformed me utterly. Not only did they inculcate a powerful sense of vocation, they also shaped my relations with everything and everybody around me forward to the present day.

Now the father of BC’s Park Naturalist Programme was Yorke Edwards (1924–2011)., a highly regarded naturalist, ecologist, educator and thinker who, in 1957, argued the province’s first nature house, in Manning Park, into existence. From there, and over the following decade, Yorke went on to successfully argue for the establishment of a government-supported naturalist programme that, when I joined the ranks, in 1972, had expanded to nearly-full provincial coverage.

And indeed, and though Yorke left BC Parks for greener pastures in 1967, his programme continued to expand about 1975 when a change in government policy led to its eventual decline and finally, by the late 1989s, effective demise.

Putting aside, however, the vicissitudes of government support for parks interpretation, it seems obvious that Yorke’s arguments in favour of park naturalists programme must have resonated with government in the late 1950s through the early 1970s,if not so much in the 80s and beyond. What sustained his programme after his departure in 1967 isn’t hard to guess: environmental awareness, especially after the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1965, was very much a going concern. But what got the whole thing off the ground in the beginning is very probably captured in the following quote from a talk Yorke gave in 1965:

People want to know more about nature, but most people don’t even know that they want to know more, and many that do, don’t know how to go about it. Every year we see clear evidence that this is so. We interpret nature in BC parks to over 100,000 people each summer, and we find that the best way to understand people is to watch them.

We have people who once didn’t know a robin from a cedar coming back every year to learn more – about their parks. Every year parents bring us their children who somehow caught fire last summer, or the summer before perhaps, and they have taken something a park naturalist said or showed to them, and they have built it into a lifetime interest that will give them a lifetime of pleasure. … There can be nothing more valuable in this, and like most really valuable things, money can’t buy it.

If you peer at this a bit, you can just make out three underlying themes: happy people, parks supporters and something that in the final analysis amounts to magic: the alchemy of park interpretation working change. Compare this to the mission statement of BC Parks today – to protect representative and special natural places within the Province’s protected areas system for world class conservation, outdoor recreation, education and scientific study – and you may notice something: that the mission statement is what parks do, but competent parks interpretation is how, in the long run, it necessarily gets done, that is, through the building and maintenance of public constituency.

What was true 60 years ago is no less true today; indeed the importance of nature interpretation in protected area can only have grown with the unexampled encroachment of Homo technologicus on wild places themselves and, more to the point, with the existential prospects altered inalienable by the intervening arrival of the Pandoracene.

For what lesson can the Pandoracene possibly be trying to communicate to humanity us if not this: that commitment to the wild nowadays sits at the very heart of long-term human well-being?

If go on about this, it’s simply to make the case that what transpired with me during my years as park naturalist can and will happen to others given a similar opportunity for personal remakes. But whereas what happened to me in the Time Before mostly impacted, for now, a single life, my own, yet a similar transformative experience undergone today would have much broader scope for societal ripple effects.

Assuming that reinstatement of BC’s park naturalist programme would provide a venue for instilling into public consciousness the new concepts in biology and philosophy briefly covered in this website, then born naturalists themselves could be at or near the forefront of a movement to finally put to rest the toxic stories of a mechanical universe, replacing them with ways of understanding more in line, not coincidentally, with indigenous belief systems.

Protected wild areas are by definition tracts of land, some large, others small, that society has contracted with itself to let alone. In a Gaian perspective, they are portions of the Earth’s surface that continue to contribute toward the resilient functioning of the planet as a whole. If only for these reasons, it is to be hoped that BC’s provincial parks and other protected areas can, much like the born naturalists so long overlooked and underrated in western society, become ground zero to a profound societal realignment whose end goal is to bring us ever nearer meaningful reconciliation with the Living World That Sustains us.

For if not here, in our protected areas, and if not through the efforts of born naturalists – and Indigenous Peoples – viscerally engaged with the Living World, then I really can’t think where or how such a crucial thing could begin to be accomplished.

Postscript. Yorke Edwards published often and widely concerning his insights and visions across a wide range of topics. In 2021, Rick Kool and Rob Cannings brought out a book on some of Yorke’s interpretive writings. It’s called The Object’s the Thing: the writings of Yorke Edwards, a pioneer of Heritage Interpretation in Canada, and was published by the Royal BC Museum, Victoria.

Nor is it really coincidental that Yorke’s publications on the ecology of moose and mountain caribou form an important part of this website, which by the way includes his (more or less) complete bibliography, online versions of his writings on Wells Gray Park, and online versions of his writings on interpretation and natural history more generally.