In my father’s favorite picture of me as a child, I am crouching on a forest floor, smiling up at the camera with a face covered in dirt. I’m told it was a common scene: the curious little girl leaning in for a closer look at pine needles, insects, rocks, or just the different colored soil, and getting her hands (and everything else) dirty.
Until about the time I started junior high, my family regularly packed up the tent trailer for a weekend of hiking or fishing. Spring trips might be to Death Valley, where we could play in the dunes and enjoy the desert stars. In the summer, we would escape the heat of our high desert home by heading up the Eastern Sierras. I wasn’t much of a fisherman, but I loved sitting on the banks or fording streams barefoot. On hikes I would work to stay ahead of my dad and my sister to be the leader, at least until something on the side of the trail distracted me or I needed my dad to dig into the backpack for a snack.
When not on family excursions, I spent my most of my childhood either playing outdoors or reading a book. I held tea parties in the gap between two juniper shrubs in the corner of our backyard. When my sisters and I played “house,” our make-believe house was usually a shallow hole ringed with creosote bushes in the desert lot next to our family’s home; one creosote bush would be the kitchen area and another a bedroom. Though I was the worst lizard hunter, I enjoyed watching them do push ups on rocks or testing how close I could get to them before they scampered away. My sisters and I regularly collected fuzzy creosote seeds to throw in each other’s hair while pulling apart stork’s bill seeds to watch them curl up into a corkscrew. Whether at home or on trips, I always enjoyed observing nature and seeing something new.
Neither of my parents would consider themselves naturalists, of even the amateur variety, and I rarely learned the names of the plants or animals I saw. But they encouraged me to observe and explore. Now, when I go back to the Sierras, it is with different eyes. Upon finding an unknown flower I can look it up and learn its name, I wonder about the speed of regeneration after a fire, or what limits the range of the different conifers. But it all starts with making observations, something I practiced a lot as a child.Though outdoor play decreased as school sports and the daily trials and tribulations of adolescence kicked in, my love of the outdoors never extinguished. This love, combined with the intellectual stimulation of a university setting, became first a major and eventually a career. Incredible field experiences as a student paired the outdoor exploration I had always enjoyed with the knowledge to ask more refined questions and learn through scientific research.
Today, as a senior research technician at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, I work on projects right here in San Diego County as well as exotic locales, such as the Peruvian Amazon. Not only do I enjoy my job, but I take great pride in knowing my work contributes to the conservation of plants and animals. I spend a good portion of my time outdoors “in the field” setting up research projects, taking data, or just making observations, which to my father means I am still the curious little girl going out and getting herself covered in dirt.
Christa Horn is a senior research technician in the Applied Plant Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.
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