How To Observe and Analyze Nature

Illustration: Bernd Heinrich

By Nathaniel T. Wheelwright

    1. Cultivate Curiosity. Becoming a good naturalist is mostly a matter of being attentive. Why not try to learn something about the natural world every time you take a walk outside?

 

    1. Learn the names and taxonomy of plants and animals around you. Start with plants and animals that you encounter nearly every day. Though initially you may stick with common names, you can learn a lot by glancing at scientific names. Recognizing general taxonomic categories— knowing families or orders, for example—can help you identify species and appreciate their evolutionary relationships with other organisms.

 

    1. Become familiar with the basic ecology of plants and animals. Learn as much as possible about what kind of habitat they prefer, when they breed, what they eat, who or what eats them, and how long they live. The more knowledge you acquire, the more you will see and learn.

 

    1. Go on walks with knowledgeable naturalists, and take notes. Take advantage of naturalist “teachers” whenever you get the chance. Local Audubon societies, high school ecology programs, and museums are a resource for meeting wonderful teachers. Consider taking or auditing a class at a college, university, or field station.

 

    1. Ask “how?” and “why?” questions. Cultivate curiosity with a purpose. You can look up the answer to most questions you have about nature, but it’s more fulfilling if you follow Thoreau’s advice “to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it.”

 

    1. Scrutinize, touch, smell, listen, measure. Actual experiences lead to more-enduring memories and a more profound comprehension of the natural world. If you engage in a hands-on approach to learning about nature, you will learn more. Many experienced naturalists follow field ethics that serve as good guidelines. They will not handle, dissect, uproot, hold in captivity, or kill anything if it causes undue suffering; if it diminishes somebody else’s experience (e.g., plucking the sole example of a beautiful flower alongside a popular trail) or is prohibited by law (e.g., collecting specimens in a state or national park); or if it jeopardizes a species that is rare, threatened, or endangered.

 

    1. Conduct simple experiments. Anyone can snap a twig and come back a little later to see how quickly it drips sap and what it tastes like. Simple manipulations of nature like this permit you to peer into the minds of animals as well as gain insights about their physiology and behavior. If you want to understand the “how?” and “why?” of nature, try an experiment.

 

    1. Teach Others. One of the best ways to solidify what you know about nature is to share your knowledge with others. If you know something well enough to be able to explain it coherently, then you truly understand it. Anyone can be a teacher, and your children, siblings, parents, friends, and neighbors will very likely be grateful pupils.

 

    1. Analyze your observations. The longer you continue your observations, the more valuable your records will become. Consider summarizing your observations in a table or timeline, highlighting the earliest, latest, and average dates of different natural history events, or use a graph to illustrate the longterm patterns you see in nature. Such an analysis of natural events that you have seen at one place over time can be a significant contribution to science.

 

    1. Put knowledge into action. We are in a time of unprecedented environmental challenges. Changing climates, deforestation, and urban sprawl are driving species to shift their geographical ranges and migratory routes. Even a casual observer can note how quickly invasive species like kudzu, bittersweet, or multiflora rose are spreading. If you make observations in a consistent manner over the course of only a few years, you can document the decline of species, such as little brown bats or monarch butterflies. And you can make your own contributions toward solving our environmental problems by reporting those transformations of our planet.

 

Text excerpted and adapted from The Naturalist’s Notebook © 2017 by Nathaniel Thoreau Wheelwright and Bernd Heinrich. All rights reserved.

Nathaniel T. Wheelwright is Bass Professor of Natural Sciences at Bowdoin and coauthor of The Naturalist’s Notebook with Bernd Heinrich, research associate of biology at Bowdoin.

This piece first appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Bowdoin magazine.

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