The Buzz

Meet a Naturalist: Jess McQuown, an inquisitive mind

A person standing in front of a forest.
(Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Desk jobs aren’t for everyone, and Jess McQuown is one of those people who would rather not be sitting down on the job all day.

McQuown, program coordinator at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon, had a job in the corporate world for a few years after college and quickly learned she wasn’t well suited for it.

“I’ve always loved being in wild spaces. After a couple of years being trapped inside the corporate world, I knew I had to get out and get an education that would allow me to get a job working with natural history,” she said.

McQuown started with the Forest Preserve as a volunteer in 2019 and then was hired as an interpretive naturalist at Isle a la Cache Museum. A short time later, she moved to a position at Four Rivers, where she has been ever since.

“Honestly, I fell in love with it,” she said of the work both at Isle a la Cache and Four Rivers. Today, she enjoys the varied schedule of being a naturalist. The days don’t follow a strict routine, and there’s always something new to learn, she said.

“It is kind of exciting to know I’ll never know everything, because then my job is never boring,” she said. “I’ll never get to that point where everything is just basic and routine. I’ll always have to prep for programs and build up my knowledge.”

Being able to learn about new topics and spend time digging deeper on things she is already familiar with is an opportunity that never gets old, she explained. “Any time you learn one thing, it opens up more ‘what about’ questions.”

For McQuown, the outdoors has been a constant in her life, from vacations she took to national parks with her parents to the time she spent playing in and exploring the creek she grew up across the street from in Chicago’s western suburbs.

“We would tromp through the neighbor’s yard and play in the creek forever. That was where we played, so we were always dirty, always wet,” she said. “I remember learning about all the animals that lived there, almost accidentally.”

Now, as an adult, she said she still finds that her and her family most enjoy spending their free time outdoors.

She is an avid birder and enjoys native gardening, and those are two topics she loves to share her knowledge of with others. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many times, the work itself presents opportunities to learn about new topics, she said. That was the case when Four Rivers installed a large aquarium featuring fish from our local rivers, presenting an opportunity to learn more about our local fish species. And similarly in 2023, Four Rivers hosted an exhibit about the color yellow in nature, allowing her an opportunity to learn about making natural dyes for some complementary art programs that the visitor center hosted.

That feeling of starting from the beginning on something might be intimidating to some people, but McQuown said it helps her relate to people she meets through her work.

“It’s easy for us to remember or to feel what it’s like to start at the beginning because we are there constantly,” she said, adding there is always something she is trying to become more knowledgeable on. “We’re constantly finding new places to be at the beginning.”

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Sharing her knowledge with others and seeing them make connections with nature is one of the most rewarding parts of the job, she said.

“I derive so much joy from being with people out in the preserves,” she said. “I love when regulars find me to share something they’ve discovered or a student comes back with their family after a field trip because they want to share this place with the ones they love.”

As a naturalist, she works with people of all ages, from students visiting on field trips to adults attending programs or exploring the education center. She finds the different age groups fulfilling in different ways.

With young students, the awe and wonder of nature is hard to match, she said. “They see a squirrel in their yard, they see them at school, but they come here and they see them and it’s this magical experience for them.”

When working with adults, the conversations can be more in depth and allow for more give and take. “We can talk more deeply about topics, and in a different way,” she explained.

All those experiences working with people keep her motivated to always be learning more, whether it’s diving into new topics or expanding her knowledge base on familiar ones. Knowing there is always more to learn is one of the challenges of the job, but also one of the rewards.

“Only having so many hours in a day keeps me from getting to expand into all of the new areas I’d like to research,” she said. “Luckily, there’s always next year.”

About this series: The Forest Preserve's program coordinators, recreation coordinator and interpretive naturalists are among the friendly faces that greet you when you visit any our visitor centers and preserves. They are the men and women who lead the District's public programs as well as educational and recreational programs held in the preserves and beyond. They are the people who pique your curiosity and answer your queries, and we want you to get to know more about them and what drives them.

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