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The amateur naturalist: Tuning in to nature

By Katie Alvin Explore Big Sky Contributor

A dried scapula bone. A lacy bit of lichen. Feathers, or a tuft of elk fur. Artistic twigs, dotted and dried berries. These are some of the treasures nature offers the seeker. Training your eye to see these natural treasures nurtures the habit of experiencing your surroundings more deeply. To heighten your senses and boost your observational skill, try some of these nature-focused activities. But first:

What is a naturalist?

In general, the term describes someone who studies the natural world. Usually they keep records and collections to find patterns or document natural variation. Naturalists can focus on one topic – like butterflies, bones, or berries – or they can be generalists that study whatever they encounter. The farmer that records seasonal rainfall and frost dates is a naturalist. As is the fly fisherman monitoring insect hatch dates and times. If you notice which flowers are blooming along a trail throughout the season, or have collected enough rocks to cover most surfaces in your house, you could be a naturalist too.

Collecting with a conscience

The best place to observe something is in its natural environment. Every specimen collected is one less for others to encounter. If you’re interested in living things, be sure to learn about threatened or endangered species. The Montana Natural Heritage Program lists species of concern to help guide you. Also be aware of state and federal laws that govern collecting. Fortunately, there are several other ways to create a collection without removing items from their natural habitat.

Photography as collection

One of the easiest ways to document what you have discovered without being destructive is to take photos.get_outside_1 You can capture anything from flowers to cloud formations, trees to tadpoles, crystals to caterpillars. Newer cameras can record GPS locations along with date and time. Photos can be used to create collections online, on your wall, or even in custom printed books.

The Butterflies and Moths of North America website ( accepts public photo submissions to expand its database. This form of citizen science is a way to share your own explorations and discoveries with the world.

The nature journal

A more interactive and versatile naturalist technique is journaling. With a simple notebook and set of colored pencils, you can record observations, track changes in your surroundings, draw varieties of plants, and describe animals and their behavior. A nature journal is very personal, allowing for anything from a chart of times and observations, to poetry or drawings.

The most difficult thing about journaling can be overcoming the feeling that you can’t draw. But you don’t need to be a great artist to use drawing as a way to record nature. If you attempt a drawing that doesn’t quite pan out, describe it further using words. Or try techniques like drawing what you see with a continuous line without looking at the paper, or making simple color patches that match the colors you see. Whatever you do, make it yours.

Still life – in situ

Sculpture Andy Goldsworthy made a name for himself creating elaborate temporary art installations outdoors, using natural objects. Creating art from nature makes it nearly impossible not to notice the infinite variety of the natural world. Follow his lead by assembling a ring of leaves with graduating colors. Make a meticulously balanced rock cairn. Design a mandala using petals, twigs, leaves, and seeds. Photograph the finished piece if you wish to make a lasting memory of your temporary sculpture.

Seek the unique with a nature scavenger hunt

Whether you’re entertaining kids or just yourself, playing hide and seek with nature is an endless endeavor. Hunt for patterns or shapes in nature. Look for heart-shaped rocks or leaves. Try to find berries in every color of the rainbow. Look for letters of the alphabet – or maybe just your name – in twisted branches. Exploring texture, color, shape and size can expand your awareness of the world around you and flex your observation muscles. It’s also a great way to pass the time during a longer hike, especially for young ones.

No matter how you decide to engage with and record the natural world, be mindful of your impact. If you’re compelled to make a collection, consider photography or journaling. If you do collect natural objects, be sure your activities are legal, and try to stick to items that are non-living and abundant. Whatever you decide, make it another great reason to get outside!

Katie Alvin has lived in Big Sky for more than 20 years and owns East Slope Outdoors with her husband Dave. With degrees in Environmental Studies and Soil Science, she has been involved with environmental and outdoor education for 25 years.

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