The Budding Naturalist As Guide

Santa Cruz home school student Kelly McCandless has written her first field guide, The Budding Naturalist's Guide to the UC-Santa Cruz Arboretum.

by Xochitl Rojas-Rocha

May 13, 2015—One day not long ago, 15-year-old Kelly McCandless spotted a bobcat in a field on the upper west side of UC Santa Cruz. At the sight of her, the wild cat slunk into a bush surrounded by open space, with only the drooping branches of a cypress tree nearby to hide it. McCandless followed. At first, she kept an arm’s length away and very carefully tried to peer into the bush to catch a glimpse of the animal. When it refused to show itself, she abandoned stealth, leaned into the bush and started investigating the space between its branches. But the bobcat had vanished.

“I was just looking around and I was so frustrated, and it had to be in there,” says McCandless. “I felt very outwitted and outsmarted.”

Growing up in Santa Cruz has afforded McCandless the kind of close animal experiences some may never have. A surfer since she was 7 years old, McCandless has had dolphins swim beneath her as she cut across the glittering waves. She’s been close enough to a coyote as it caught and then devoured a ground squirrel that she could hear the squirrel’s bones crunch and crack. These lasting experiences and McCandless’ bone-deep love of nature all culminate in her self-published book The Budding Naturalist’s Guide to the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum. She signs copies of the book and leads a nature walk on Sunday, May 17 at the Arboretum.

McCandless has always been happiest in nature. She loves writing poetry and journaling while wandering through the towering redwoods or the wildflowers by Wilder Creek. An only child, she has been homeschooled with the help of her mother and Alternative Family Education (AFE). She spent less than a handful of weeks at Mission Hill Middle School before deciding the public school environment was not for her.

“I don’t think it would have been possible for me to write this book without going to AFE because you can be as dependent or independent as you want to be. And it gives you time to excel in the area of your passions,” says McCandless.

Since she started home-schooling, McCandless has written poetry and stories for Tangerine Moon, a middle school magazine that welcomes young guest writers from across Santa Cruz. When she was 12, she enrolled in the 30-week Riekes Nature Awareness Program hosted by the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum.

With its diverse, protected habitats for scaly creatures like snakes and lizards, as well as hummingbirds and sleek birds of prey, the Arboretum proved the perfect sanctuary for the budding naturalist.

“The Arboretum is so amazing,” says McCandless. “There’s such a high concentration of birds and other animals in here, because it’s an amazing environment for them. It’s also such a pleasant place for people to go and spend time.”

McCandless spent the next three years studying the critters in the Arboretum. She even rose through the ranks to become a junior leader in the Nature Awareness Program and now spends her days teaching children to appreciate the natural landscape and explore it safely.

"I feel like I’m inspiring them to love nature and be connected to nature, and I like inspiring them," she says. "I think it’s really important that young people appreciate and understand nature, because then they'll feel more connected and be inspired to protect it.”

The Budding Naturalist’s Guide to the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum is the fusion of McCandless’ love for exploring the Arboretum and inspiring children and new naturalists of all ages to connect with nature. The slim volume features some of her own photography and exciting facts about animals like the Allen’s hummingbird written vividly by McCandless. For example, when it feels like its territory is threatened, the Allen’s hummingbird zips up into the air and zooms back down in a “ski-jump” swoop, according to the book, and when it’s coming in to land, the hummingbird makes a dramatic buzzing sound “like a tiny little airplane.”

But what really sets McCandless’ nature guide apart, says UCSC professor emeritus and prominent birder Todd Newberry, is its refusal to stop at simply identifying animals. The book challenges the reader to ask questions about the animal’s life and habits and become a “nature detective.” Much like a classic detective, the nature detective needs to be patient and attentive to her surroundings in order to read tracks and decipher the story they tell.

“It’s a book about creating conversations with these creatures,” says Newberry.

McCandless and Newberry met at the Arboretum while McCandless was in the midst of the year-and-a-half-long project that would become The Budding Naturalist’s Guide. Almost immediately, McCandless’ confidence impressed Newberry. At 15, she had studied at the Arboretum for three years and had spent countless hours with its inhabitants. Newberry felt comfortable taking on the role of editor with the task of streamlining McCandless’ book without having to teach her about the animals themselves.

“I picked that up right away, that sense that she could handle what the creatures were throwing at her,” says Newberry.

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Of course, the process was not always easy. McCandless struggled with the grueling editing process that followed the excited rush of writing the first draft. Identification tips, facts about the animals’ diets, calls and more — McCandless had to condense all this and more into one page per animal. At times, she says, she felt that the editing process would never end.

Still, 18 months later, McCandless has reached her goal. For her, the most rewarding part was “the feeling, after it was done, of holding the first book in my hand and being like, ‘I did this!’”

McCandless hopes that her book will inspire in readers a love of nature and curiosity about the natural world. She wants The Budding Naturalist’s Guide to act as a springboard for readers to look critically at “clues,” like tracks, that they find in nature.

Read about birder Todd Newberry
Read about low-carbon birding

With one ambitious project down, McCandless is raring for more opportunities to encourage people to care for nature. She volunteers for Santa Cruz Bats, rescuing bats and giving talks at local K-12 schools. While her plans aren’t final yet, another Budding Naturalist’s Guide for the birding hotspot of Elkhorn Slough might join its companion piece in the hands of young naturalists across Santa Cruz.

During our interview, McCandless is quiet and polite. But when I point to a drawing of a California quail in her book and say I’ve just seen a pair of the quirky birds pass behind her, her spine snaps up straight and her face breaks into a wide grin. “Really?” she asks, whirling around.

And in that instant it’s like I’ve disappeared, another rock or flower among many in the Arboretum — there’s only her and the birds.

The UCSC Arboretum will host a nature walk and book signing with McCandless on Sunday, May 17, 9am-noon. The nature walk will follow the trail loops from The Budding Naturalist’s Guide to the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, with McCandless pointing out animals seen along the walk.