Naturalist’s Guide to Observing Nature
Stackpole Books (www.stackpolebooks.com)
Copyright 2006, First Edition, 11 pages frontmatter, 112 pages text, 4 pages index
This book is short but I won’t say it’s an easy read. You have to be willing to put in some brain sweat. In six chapters Kurt Rinehart leads us through his approach to understanding nature via a synthesis of observation, field guides, and Holmesian application of deduction. Beginning with the beginner’s question “what’s that?” – Whether bird, mammal, or plant, Rinehart guides the reader through a Socratic series of questions: When was it seen? Where was it seen? Where were you? What was it doing? Why did it seem to be doing that?
In other words, rather than just looking in a field guide for a particular bird or a bird of a different color the author stresses a systems approach to identification and explains how field guides should be used to facilitate this approach. This method combines almost all that I have learned so far in my Texas Master Naturalist training. Some birds are active in the morning; some not (unless disturbed – which is why you are part of the system). Some are usually found high in a tree rather than low. Some on the exterior limbs of a tree while others prefer the interior. Some prefer sun, others shadow. Some prefer deep woods, others prefer the edge. Some are found in low areas around streams and others aspire to greater heights.
The analysis could continue indefinitely. The lesson is that the basic physical descriptions and pictures found in field guides should not be your emphasis whether the question concerns bird, mammal, or plant. If you take a community approach to ecological roles you will develop an understanding far beyond merely being able to identify a particular creature. Another lesson is that being a good naturalist (there should be no other kind) is not trivial. One must do one’s homework. To get the most out of a field trip one must know what to expect. And you learn what to expect by becoming familiar with your field guides. Browse them, peruse them, read them, and study them. They’re not like dictionaries that you usually consult only when you don’t know a word – though I admit I have an unusual fondness for browsing dictionaries – but rather more like travel guides to a foreign culture. Sorry – if you want to be an expert you should get used to eschewing shortcuts. Knowing what to expect helps you identify the unusual.
So after a short introductory chapter, Rinehart devotes a chapter each to birds, mammals and their tracks (mostly tracks), and plants (mostly flowers and trees with a good smattering of information on the bugs you will find on them). And he ties these chapters together by stressing the questions and relationships referred to previously.
The book’s gem is chapter 5 “A Natural History Mystery”. In this short chapter Rinehart tells of how he discovered a mass of unknown seeds, determined that the seeds were probably the droppings of an unknown (to him) bird, and eventually was able to identify both seeds and bird along with a wealth of evolutionary and environmental history. Wow. A wonderfully profound but practical synthesis of all his prior lessons.
Chapter 6 “Field Guides and Other Resources” is not profound, but is far better than a mere bibliography. It lists the author’s preferred resources but is more of a guide to building your own library since he explains why he made the choices he did. You can apply or modify his systems approach to suit your interests and needs.
Needless to say, I’m enthusiastic about this book. It deserves to be read more than once and it deserves to be shared. I’ve done the first and hopefully LPMN will establish its own resource library and when we do so, I’ll be donating this book so others may benefit.
- Stackpole Books has been sold to Rowman & Littlefield and will become an imprint of that company’s Globe Pequot division. The URL above is the one provided with the book but it is currently (29 May 2016) little more than a stub. But since it claims that the website is being moved to a new platform I thought I would provide it as is. Perhaps it will have future utility.