Journal of Interpretation Research
Volume 21, Number 1

Sharing Experiences, Constructing Memories:
An Ethnographic Report of Naturalists in the Field

Joshua E. Hunter, Ph.D.
University of North Dakota
1530 Robertson Ct.
Grand Forks, ND 58201

Within this short research report, the author provides a succinct introduction to ethnographic fieldwork in a Midwestern U.S. state park and exhibits a small sample of data gathered from park interpretive naturalists that highlights ways that a group of naturalists perceive the construction of memories. Subsequently, the author explores a salient interpretation from the data, in which memories are dependent upon shared experiences and interactions. By highlighting one specific group of naturalists, this research sheds light on how they conceive their role in the memory construction of others.

naturalists, memory construction, shared interactions, connections, ethnography

In this brief research report, ethnographic fieldwork conducted in a Midwestern state park in the United States is exhibited. I provide a concise explanation of the study and subsequently, offer some snapshots of data from ethnographic fieldwork, and provide a short reflection on their value and application. The fieldwork was conducted from February to December and included participant observations, interviews, and archival documentation. On average, four days a week were spent at the park, ranging from two to eight hours in duration. The long tenure in the field is a hallmark of ethnographic work in the attempt to capture the particular worldview and emic perspective of a cultural group.

Data collection included one-on-one interviews with the one full-time and four seasonal naturalists at the park, participant observations of the naturalists in their various roles, and artifacts, including written histories, reports, and program documentation. To broaden the scope, three full-time naturalists from three other state parks (who had affiliations with the park in the study) were interviewed, as were two administrators (both of whom had extensive backgrounds in field interpretation and connections to the park of the study). A majority of the research was spent in participant observations of naturalists while engaging with the public and each other, and wandering in the forest to train or lead hikes. The observational field notes and field interviews provide rich, in situ contextualization of the practice of this group of naturalists.

This research fits into a broader discourse concerning the role memories play in engendering connections and meaning between people and their environment. This coupling of early memories and constructing connections has been construed as an essential part of environmental education (Brandt, 2013; Measham, 2006). Relative to interpretive work, there is consensus on the need for interpreters to provide the conditions in which visitors construct connections or meaning by tapping into their own experiences and memories (Beck & Cable, 2002; Chen, 2003; Dec, 2004; Tilden, 1977). Turek (2006) focuses upon this concept of connections between people and place as a first priority for interpretation, superseding other objectives. Taken together, the literature has focused upon the interweaving of memories and making connections to a particular place. This requires sharing experiences and memories through social interactions between naturalists and visitors.

The short pieces of data below provide a small, yet representative sample of interviews, observations, and artifacts collected during fieldwork. It is important to note that these were shared perceptions among this group and the samples below are supported across the data collected. Thus, there is strong triangulation of the findings across the interviews, observations, and artifacts.

The following two quotes derived from observational field notes (casual conversation interviews) subsequent to pubic programs. Each naturalist was responding to a question regarding the role of interpretation in the state parks.

“I think the interpretive service is in the business of building memories.” (Maggie)

“Interpretation builds memories…. The memories transcend generations. The stories become rich and the need to share and continue to experience stays strong.” (David)

Adding additional voices to the above quotes, the two below are examples taken from one-on-one interviews and were given in response to a follow-up question asking for clarification after each naturalist independently used the term connection.

“Connecting with nature is a kind of drawing back, you know, being able to draw on experiences that people may have had before or in their lives at some time and connecting that to something they’re seeing right now.” (Kate)

Maybe [I can] tie in something that maybe conjures up a thought that they had earlier in life. Or, remember when you were a kid and you saw this? Or for the first time, how many remember the first time they saw this? Or experienced a rain storm, or wind, or climbing up into a tree.” (Jack)

Highlighted in these quotes is not only the perception that making connections is dependent upon earlier experiences, but that naturalists have an intrinsic role in this process. Supplementing the interview materials, this next piece of data is taken from observational field notes, in which a Wild Edibles Snack Break program in September is described.

There are many people, maybe a 120 or so. It is warm and sunny in the outdoor program area. The buffet contains fresh hickory nuts, wild ginger candy, fresh bread with wild grape jelly, garlic mustard pesto, black walnut bars, spicebush tea with local honey, and sumac lemonade. All are laid out with small artifacts of nuts, leaves, berries, and twigs strewn across the tables. Most of the visitors have a full plate and cup and are talking in small groups while sitting in the amphitheater. All of the naturalists are here and are dispersed among the crowd. Joan stands at the tables of food helping fill plates and cups and answering questions. A young man in jeans, T-shirt, and ball cap is interested in the drinks and continues to ask her questions. An older man, thin as a rail, chats with the young man in a lighthearted tone, “Boy, you could’ve just asked me. I’ve known all this long before today. I remember all this.” And then in an aside to Joan says, while winking, “My son-in-law doesn’t know much, but he could have simply asked me. I’ve eaten all this since I was a kid. Hunting mushrooms, drinking sassafras tea. All of it.” Joan smiles at the man and says, “It’s great you have these experiences and it must be nice to share them with your family as they enjoy the wild edibles and woods.”

Finally, this last piece of artifact data provides one example of many in which memories and experiences are described in the weekly Interpretive Programs bulletin.

A Box Full of Memories (craft): Create a unique vacation box to collect mementos and memories of your summer experiences. As we craft our boxes, we’ll share favorite camping spots and park memories. [Bring your box back in September and show us where you’ve been!] Nature Center Outdoor Program Area (45 min).

By triangulating all of these various pieces of data, patterns relating to how memory construction is perceived begin to emerge. Interpreting the data as a shared sense of constructed meaning among these naturalists begets some conclusions that can have impacts on interpretive work. Among these are that making connections to the park and constructing memories are bound up within shared interactions between people. As an example, both David and Maggie claim that “interpretation builds memories,” and this is a testament to their perception of the social nature of memory creation and their own role in the relationship. Likewise, in explaining the concept of connection, both Jack and Kate describe ways that they, personally, try to build connections by tapping into previous experiences and connecting visitors to what they are sharing in a program. By acknowledging their role in the process, there is an underlying awareness of the necessity of shared social interactions for connections and memories to be kindled. These statements are supplemented by both the observational and archival data in which there is an embedded significance of sharing experiences and memories.

While ethnographic research is not typically concerned with external generalizability, this research highlights internal generalizability across the individual naturalists and the data collected. This ethnographic inquiry of a particular group of naturalists and localized meaning construction enlarges the broader discourse concerning interpretation, shared human experiences, and memories. In this context, memories are seen as being derived through social interactions and shared experiences of the park as connections to a place are fostered. This bears out in how the naturalists practice interpretation (evident in observations), how they chronicle their practice (evident in documents/artifacts), and how they talk about interpretation (evident in interviews). Awareness of an intrinsic social component and the need to share is a reminder of the importance and complexity of interpretive work. And, in addition, the value that ethnographic work adds to this field of research.

Beck, L., & Cable, T. (2002). Interpretation for the 21st century: Fifteen guiding principles for interpreting nature and culture. Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing.

Brandt, C. B. (2013). Landscapes as contexts for learning. In R. B. Stevenson, M. Brody, J. Dillon & A. Wals (Eds.), International handbook of research on environmental education (pp. 275–283). New York, NY: Routledge.

Chen, W. L. J., Selin, S., Hanham, R., Odell, K., & Pierskalla, C. (2003). The craft and concepts of interpretation: A look at how national park service interpreters reveal and facilitate opportunities for connections (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). West Virginia University, Morgantown.

Dec, M. (2004). Legacy. Journal of Interpretation Research, 9(2), 73–76.

Measham, T. G. (2006). Learning about environments: The significance of primal landscapes. Environmental Management, 38(3), 426-434.

Tilden, F. (1977). Interpreting our heritage (2nd ed.). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Turek, E. M. (2006). Form follows function: Interpretive wisdom for environmental educators. Journal of Interpretation Research, 11(2), 47–51.