Susan Davidson has lived either in the Sierra or along the California coast most of her life, inspiring a deep connection to the environment.

The Santa Barbara resident is a recent graduate of the first California Naturalist Program on the Central Coast.

She trained to become a docent so she could influence good stewardship practices by local residents for the preservation of important native plants.

“I think nature probably saved my life,” Davidson said. “If I had a troubled day, a walk in nature would clear it up. It was always there for me.”

But California‘s landscape is under continual threat as the state’s population grows.

“California has suffered such degradation in so many places,” said Cathy Rose, a recent graduate from the naturalist project and docent at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, 1212 Mission Canyon Road.

The Gaviota coast is a current example of the struggle between conservationists and land developers.

“Fighting isn’t always the way to do it,” Davidson said. “It’s patience and education.”

The naturalist program’s 10-week, hands-on training course teaches students and volunteers the expression of biological life in dynamic relation to everything around it. The aim is to inspire inquiry.

“Whatever the focus was about that week, you would be thinking; how can I contribute? What can I do? How can I connect?” Rose said.

Once students graduate, the goal is that they will have the knowledge to start their own program of interest dedicated to fostering resource conservation, education and restoration.

Rose specializes in the communication of ideas about natural history and brings a new relevant theme once a week to her tours at the Botanic Garden.

One day she may use the theme of the California Sister Butterfly after spotting one in the garden, and the next time she might talk about why there was a recent influx of Band-tailed pigeons.

“There has to be a process where someone learns about a place, someone has love for that place, and someone wants to act upon it,” said Rose.

The project is new to California, and the Botanic Garden is one of five pilot sites in the state.

Home to 1,000 species of California native plants, the Botanic Garden was started as a place for plant research in 1925. In a historic collaboration, the Carnegie Institution for Science, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and plant ecologist Frederic Clements sought a geographic site that could be used for experimental plant research.

This plan became a reality when local philanthropist Anna Dorinda Blaksley Bliss purchased 13 acres in Mission Canyon for the Natural History Museum, with views spanning from the mountains and the ocean.

Today, the Botanic Garden is a learning center. Here, threats to Santa Barbara’s beautiful landscape and native species can be closely monitored by students and volunteers through observation techniques practiced by the Capstone Project.

“Knowledge comes through observation,” Rose said.

The California Naturalist Program will hold its spring program from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturdays, from Feb. 2 through April 6, in the Botanic Garden’s Blaksley Library. Click here for applications and reservations, or call 805.682.4726 x102.

Students will learn about plants that the Chumash tribe used as an antidote for poison oak, and how to tell what time of year it is based on the bird migrations, among many other fascinating facts.

“Every time you look a little deeper, you connect more,” said Davidson.

Noozhawk intern Cassidy Flynn can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Graduates of the California Naturalist Program's 2012 class at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. (Joni Kelly / Santa Barbara Botanic Garden photo)

Graduates of the California Naturalist Program’s 2012 class at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. (Joni Kelly / Santa Barbara Botanic Garden photo)