Get in Touch with Your Inner Naturalist


There’s a scene in John Updike’s splendid Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy where the main character, Rabbit Angstrom, is deliriously running–he’s having a heart attack–through a wooded area. He marvels at all the beautiful trees around him yet can’t identify a single one. He doesn’t know what to call them beyond “trees.”

Rabbit’s ignorance is common in our culture. A randomly picked 4th grader can likely tell you what an x and y axis on a graph mean, but he’d have to consult his smart phone–you know he has one–to learn which tree species adorn his backyard.

A product of public education myself, I learned about our world in much the same way. My and many others’ education privileged knowing the civilized human story–with its wars and generals, governments and heads of state, and inventors of life-changing technologies–over knowing the natural history of our bioregion, the names of local trees, plants, mammals, and reptiles.

Fortunately, environmental literacy and stewardship programs are spreading throughout the country and around the world. And Forest schools–where children learn about their surround and spend most of their day outside–are becoming more popular by the year.

Yet many of us either lack the resources or access to adult environmental literacy courses. Therefore, I’ve compiled some of the books I’ve found most helpful in becoming a “citizen naturalist.” This list hasn’t been vetted by experts and doesn’t include popular “polemical” books, such as Rachel Carlson’s exquisite Silent Spring or Bill McKibben’s poignant The End of Nature. Instead, it reflects my approach toward knowing a little more about my infinitely interesting locale.  The short list is divided into inspiring people’s perspectives on living as a naturalist (“Get inspired”), and guides about getting to know a place and the inhabitants who share it with you (“Venture out”):

Get inspired

Henry David Thoreau’s awestruck, wonder-filled Walden

Aldo Leopold’s inspiring and ethical essays in Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There

Annie Dillard’s exhilarating and meditative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

David Abram’s original and spellbinding Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology

Venture out

Though somewhat dated—most of the books in this series were written in the early 80’s–I highly endorse the well-researched, enjoyable Sierra Club Naturalist’s Guide Series

Thomas J. Elpel’s accessible, brilliant and fun-loving Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification

Kenn Kaufman’s pleasantly detailed and photographic Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America

Let these and many other books and teachers be your guide toward learning more about the natural world that envelops you. Don’t be like Rabbit Angstrom–get to know your neighborhood trees!

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