Maybe I have told this story a hundred times at various places where I speak to groups, wherever it might be. If you have read this before, I will get to something about the migrating birds I promised to write about last week.
When I was only 11 years old, I started working in the pool hall that my dad and grandpa McNew had bought in my hometown of Houston, Missouri. Most everyone knows about that from what I have written before.
The old men who came in and told hunting and fishing stories became my friends, and it soon came to be that I couldn’t wait to get there after school, to take over for my grandpa and sit there on the front bench until my dad came in from his factory job. A writer couldn’t have had a better beginning; what stories they would tell. I had another important job as well, as I grew older. On weekends I would guide fishermen down the Big Piney River in a wooden johnboat we called Old Paint. The story of Old Paint appeared in Outdoor Life magazine in 1971 and won several national writing awards.
In the late spring after I turned 13, the old timers at the pool hall began to talk about a nudist colony which had sprung up over near Willow Springs, and they often referred to them as “naturalists”. It was the first time I had ever heard the term, and they used it often. Naturalists, and nudists, naked people running around on some kind of farm they had set up.
At first I thought it had to be a joke. Who would do a thing like that? Finally I realized that there really was such a thing as nudists, or naturalists as they referred to them. Me and my cousins were naturalists, I figured, since we swam naked in the Big Piney and every creek that flowed into it.
That spring, I took a University of Missouri professor and his wife down the Piney on a fishing trip. His wife looked younger than he, and I was getting old enough to notice how pretty she was, with long blonde hair and a trim figure. Of course I would notice, my gosh, at 13 I was thinking about marrying someone like that lady in only a few years. The professor sat on the front seat as he fished, and she sat not three feet in front of me on a middle seat.
Late in the morning I got over my shyness and began to answer her questions about the river and it’s wildlife. I pointed out a kingfisher and showed her where it built its nest, then a shike-poke, sneaking up on a school of minnows at the mouth of a creek.
The professor listened, and without turning, he told me I should go to the University of Missouri someday and study hard to become a naturalist.
The pronouncement stunned me somewhat. Thinking back on what the old men at the pool hall had said about them, I wondered why anyone would have to study all that hard to be a “naturalist”.
Then he really stunned me by adding that his wife was something of a naturalist herself! Holy mackerel, I couldn’t believe my ears! I began to think that it was perhaps going to be the most exciting float trip I had ever taken! Of course, my hopes were dashed later in the day when she explained what a naturalist really was. I knew then I had always been one, because she explained that it came from a burning desire to be where everything was indeed natural and wild, and to learn as much as one could learn about nature.
I had done exactly that since I was very small, sneaking off into the woods on grandpa’s farm or riding my bicycle to the river to look at things which fascinated me so much, plants I had never seen, tracks of wild creatures of which I knew so little, and the small creatures beneath the rocks in the creeks which then were so full and clean and alive.
I actually became a naturalist a few years later while in college, a summer park naturalist in Missouri state parks, where we took campers on hikes, gave programs at night, built new trails and set up displays about nature.
When I graduated from college, only eight years after I took that professor and his wife on that float trip, I became the Chief Naturalist for the Arkansas state park system, hired by their young director. Quite often in one of those state parks I told the story of that experience as a boy and the professor who thought I ought to know the difference in a naturalist and a nudist!!