The naturalist mind

Many people trudge through life and miss a great deal of wonder and satisfaction that is right at their fingertips. As Proust observed, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Nature is right there before us, if we would only stop and look.

Becoming connected with nature and natural processes can happen in out in the woods, in a field, or in your own backyard; it can begin in childhood, or at any other stage of life. What does it take? Patience, desire, an inquisitive attitude, and a regular habit of walking go a long way. Add a note pad and a pencil or pen, and you’re traveling in style.

What’s a naturalist?

When it comes right down to it, what is a naturalist? You might try the dictionary, but even good dictionaries can be disappointing: “one versed in natural history, the study and description of organisms and natural objects”, or “one who follows the tenets of naturalism, the system of thought that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural laws and causes.” Somehow, these definitions fall short  …something is missing or off the mark.

What is lacking, in my opinion, is a clear sense of the drive and motivation, the skill and aptitude, the process and the joy involved. After all, being “versed in” natural history sounds like the result of a period of training, something that can be achieved after years of careful, probably tedious, study. And while many naturalists share a special kind of patience and attentiveness, what has been called “a quiet eye”, it is worth considering what that patient attention is turned toward, and it is important to recognize that even young people without any formal training may have strong innate naturalist tendencies, just as other people exhibit musical intelligence or emotional intelligence.

It is one thing to say, as the definitions do, what a naturalist should think or do or know, but the real question in my mind is how they got there. In fact, I would go so far as to say that becoming a naturalist is not so much a matter of mastering a body of knowledge as it is acquiring habits of mind. “Naturalist” is not a line to be crossed; it is a zone of being.

Howard Gardner[1], the author of the concept of multiple intelligences –as opposed to a single measure such as IQ– puts it this way: a naturalist “is an individual who demonstrates expertise in the recognition and classification of the numerous species –the flora and fauna –of her or his environment.” To be sure, the skills involved in recognizing species of organisms extend to other things –rocks, cars, stamps, wine –as any connoisseur or collector can attest. And while some naturalists are primarily collectors in this sense, others are much more concerned with recognition of patterns, for example, of change, interaction, movement, or behavior, and the issue of species identification is a minor concern, an afterthought. Equally important, if Gardner is correct then we should be able to recognize naturalist intelligence and cultivate it.

Pattern detection, recognition, and analysis are aspects of nature study that motivate me. The questions that pop into my mind are not “What are they?” but “What are they doing?” I’m more concerned with what’s going on, than what species of bug or bird it is. “Was it carrying something in its beak? Is there a nest nearby? Is it building the nest or feeding its young?” Of course, knowing what type of bird, male or female, when they court and raise their young, whether they are residents or just passing through are helpful in deciphering patterns of activity. But understanding what they’re doing provides a more intimate view of their world, and in the end, connection and understanding are what I want.


Connecting with nature does not require escape or immersion in the most spectacular, postcard-perfect scenery. For many naturalists, connection with the natural world arises out of fondness for particular creatures that inhabit a place we hold dear.

We must start our journey from where we are, and we must learn to accept nature on its own terms, not ours. Connections will be and should be made in our own backyard, if only we take the time to slow down, pay attention, and appreciate the living creatures that share the space we call home.

You probably are better off without a lot of special equipment. The most important thing is your mind, not the things you carry. However, a notepad, small sketchpad, or small journal, one that fits in a shirt pocket, along with a pen or pencil, and maybe a pocketknife to sharpen the pencil are very useful. Taking notes or making sketches helps you remember things, and sketching is one of the best ways to hone your perceptual skills[2]. In another section I recommend what to include in a simple field kit.

The mental connections between seeing, writing, sketching, and understanding are deep, intricate, and tangled, ranging well beyond this discussion. But there is little doubt that the mental steps involved in processing a scene and turning it into words or pictures can be as valuable as rewarding, and so the field journal has become an essential for many naturalists.

In Bernd Heinrich’s words, “As a little kid I used to draw to preserve or “discovers”. Later I got, by pure happenstance, to look beyond the images of nature, but they still had to be preserved somehow. Precision of language was required for scientific papers –no less than precision of brush strokes or pencil. …and when I see something wonderful –whether on the surface or at a level of mechanism below it– then I want to either keep it, or pass it on. I’m not sure there is a difference because one can’t pass anything on until one first grasps and holds it.”

In a nutshell, there are just two important rules to follow:

  • Slow down. I have met very few people for whom this is not good advice. Walking is ideal. You may drive or ride a bicycle to a field site, but once you are there, walk.
  • Sketch or take notes. If you need help getting started or want to improve, Hannah Hinchman’s A Trail Through Leaves[3] contains many different techniques and exercises. This elegant book elevates journaling to a high art.

[1] Howard Gardner (1999) Intelligence reframed: multiple intelligences for the 21stcentury. Basic Books, New York, 304pp.

[2] For some excellent naturalist sketches, take a look at any number of Bernd Heinrich’s works; Winter World is one of my favorites.

[3] Hannah Hinchman (1997) A trail through leaves: the journal as a path to place. Norton, New York, 224pp.

About timmo53

Biology, natural history and outdoor education
This entry was posted in Personal essay. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The naturalist mind

  1. Pingback: Advice for nature-watchers | anoutdooreducation

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