Amateur Naturalist

Sometimes I feel like an idiot. How has it taken me twenty-nine years to learn that the sometimes tall/ sometimes short/ sometimes bushy plant that is always green but is not an evergreen tree that lined our yard when I was nine is called arborvitae? How do I not know the differences between petunias and pansies? Why can't I classify that bird call if I have heard it all my life? Shame, ladies and gentlemen, swells up.

But then--thankfully, because where would I be if the other side of my inner-voice wasn't encouraging and gentle?--I start to write down the names of plants and animals I can name, that I hold in the store of my memories: garter snake, blackbird, robin, mourning dove, bullfrog, salamander, eastern cottontail, white-tailed deer, muskrat, porcupine, cardinal, bluejay, crow, black-capped chickadee, blue heron, lilac, snowdrop, striped and siberian squill, maple, oak, birch, pine, weeping willow, crab apple, chipmunk, grey squirrel, striped skunk, goldenrod, black-eyed susan, tulip, rose, geranium, hydrangea, bleeding heart, mum, fern, philodendron, water lily, clover, carrot, rhubarb, strawberry, raspberry, cattails, milkweed, painted turtle, mallard, trumpeter swan, Canadian goose, red fox, coyote, timberwolf, lynx, wild turkey, dandelion, sumac, poison ivy, poison oak, cricket, grasshopper, woodtick, mosquito, black fly, boxelder bug, bald eagle, loon, trout, trout lily, sunfish, catfish, carp, crappie, bullhead, bass, walleye, daddylong legs, monarch butterfly, dragonfly, raccoon, pheasant, hawk, bison, black bear, agate, granite.

And then I think, too: if I lived in Texas or Florida or New Mexico, I might be impressed with this list. Or maybe not. I might think, Why, that girl is a bit of a naturalist. Or maybe not. Some people learn the Latin names for things like others learn Spanish.

But I think for today--since I am trying--I'll rest on this thought, a type of bullfrog chorus: Good for her.
 Good for me. 
And onward.

How about you, wonderful-dear-and-genius readers?
What parts of the natural world do you know by name?


  1. I'm embarrassed at how little I know in terms of names. It's especially shameful, having grown up in a rural area in northern MN. But all my growing up years I was focused on becoming a famous writer, preferably a poet, and just thought the world outside my window was shockingly dull (I aspired to life in NYC). I really regret that now, when I can hardly name anything. Still, never too late to learn, right?

  2. Exactly, Amy: never too late! I can't say I found the MN world dull, but I was always more drawn to the images and emotion it wrought in me -- strange (and frustrating!) for someone so interested in language. It does feel good to be making some focused efforts now, though. Thanks for commenting!

  3. I feel a special pride every time I look at or read about something and its scientific name pops into my head, especially plants. Since we put on a little wildflower show and I order native plants to sell there, I've come to learn many scientific names due solely to the repetition of reading them, researching them, ordering them, and labeling them! Repetition, I must admit, is the only way, because otherwise it is a long and torturous process with not a single reward other than the envy of far nerdier people.

    What matters more than knowing names is understanding life histories. This, we tend to know in spades! Don't worry, I don't have a mental picture of a petunia at all. But I know Lewisias (Bitterroots), Monardas (Bee Balms), Aquilegias (Columbines), and Lupines, and I find these all far more lovely and interesting than petunias! :)

  4. I'm with trn (and love the "envy of far nerdier people" observation): I learned a number of species through repetition when I worked as a naturalist at Mount St Helens. It's nice to be able to recognize a creature/plant, and greet it by name. But there are large gaps in my knowledge, so I take comfort in this quote by Thoreau: "The birds I heard today, which fortunately, did not come within the scope of my science, sang as freshly as if it had been the first morning of creation."

  5. I envy you both your careers that connect you so closely to the earth. And I'll keep your "repetition" advice in mind. Besides, saying certain names is just downright fun! (I'll wave the nerd flag, proudly, too.)

    I've started a "Plant Literate" series, and although it's still in its infancy, I'm enjoying the process of discovering, documenting, and remembering more than I anticipated. Although my goal was to learn five new plants by October, my guess is I won't stop there, or ever.

    Thanks to both of you for your comments. I can tell you hold a wealth of knowledge, and I look forward to spending more time on your blogs!

  6. First, knowing the names is not nearly as important as appreciating the plant, animal, rock, etc.! True appreciation, and I know you are an expert at this, is the foundation to the preservation of all that is natural.

    I recommend carrying one field book each time you take a walk on the wild side. Learn to use the simple keys that are located in the front of the field book, or simply use the "thumb key" (thumbing through the pages) if that is what is easiest and try to ID a couple of new items each time you go out. Birds one day, plants another. Your memory of the names will build gradually.

    Perhaps the most important and best way of learning all of this is to make friends and hang out people who love this sort of thing. The Wildflower Society, a bird club, local geology buffs. We all love to share information. No one will ever judge you, and if they do pay no attention they are likely insecure and don't know that much.

    You have a keen eye, terrific appreciation, and wonderful, wonderful writing skills. Now get out there and enjoy yourself. I know you will!

  7. Bill: such good points. Appreciation IS paramount. I guess I've simply felt impatient with myself of late. I've had a lot of opportunities in my life to learn these more specific details, and somehow they passed me by.

    I love your advice about getting out with knowledgable people. I plan to do a little volunteering this summer with that exact purpose in mind. Thanks, as always, for the encouragement!

  8. Mine went: cockroaches, rat, flea, bedbug, dog, cat, squirrel, possum, eagle.

    Guess who used to live in New York city ...

  9. The other day my grandfather asked Avah and I, from his hospital room, whether the wildflowers were out yet. And my reluctant and embarrassed answer? We didn't know. So off we set into the woods, later that afternoon. And found: trout lilies, spring beauties, red trillium, and colt's foot. I come from a long line of naturalists (I have my great-grandfather's note-filled copy of Leaves of Grass by my bedside) and am embarrassed to know very few bird songs, or names of ferns or butterflies or even wildflowers. Thank goodness it's never to late. I'm in this one with you...beginners.

  10. I wrote a post inspired by this one. Thank you.

  11. May: are there seriously possums in NYC? How did I miss them last summer amid all the pigeons?!?

    And anyone reading this should check out woodbird's "Avifaunae" post. Similar sentiments, but lovlier sentences. :)

  12. Full disclosure: I only ever saw one possum. In Brooklyn. I thought it was a very large rat, at which point my husband guffawed at me.


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