What’s natural history, you ask? My favorite definition was written by a teacher named Tom Fleischner. According to Tom, natural history is “the practice of giving focused attention to the more-than human world, and doing so with honesty and accuracy.”
What’s the more-than-human world? It’s the life all around you: birds, insects, squirrels, mice, moles, mushrooms, plants, grasses, weeds, shrubs, trees, euglenas … any organism that happens to be where you are when you stop and take note. People who pay close attention to these lives, recording what they see over time, are called natural historians. Natural historians have compiled a lot of information about what creatures have lived on this planet, where they have lived, and when. Read carefully, these histories tell the story of life on Earth. The most beautiful thing about that story, to me, is this: it isn’t finished yet. Which means you and I can take part in the telling. We can be natural historians too.
In the book Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Back Yard (Henry Holt, 2014), I introduced readers to the idea that they could be scientists in the field, collecting important information—data, if you will—in their own backyards. Today I want to remind readers that the work of observing your backyard or favorite green space needn’t be done solely for the sake of submitting data to professional scientists … it can be done for the sheer joy of it! My three kids and I learned this for ourselves a few years ago, when we spent a single school year recording all the animals we came across in the place we call home. We took photographs and compiled them into a book—a giant three-ring binder, really—that we called The Flora and Fauna of Hosmer Street. Amazing things happened to us that year. We met some cool creatures, for sure, but we also learned to slow down, to look harder, to see more*.
Think you might like to be a natural historian yourself? My advice is simple: go for it. Spend time outside in the places you are curious about, and start recording what you see there, honestly and accurately. You can do this with a sketch pad, a notebook and a camera, or you can embrace the incredible technologies now available for this kind of work. (I’ve recently started using a smart phone application called iNaturalist, and love it.) Soon you’ll be an expert on the natural history of your place, adding new chapters to the story of life on Earth.
Loree Griffin Burns earned a PhD in biochemistry before she became a children’s author and her passion for science shows in her books. Her titles have been honored with ALA Notable designations, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book Award, an IRA Children’s Book Award, a Green Earth Book Award and two Science Books & Films (SB&F) Prizes. Learn more about Loree at www.loreeburns.com.