Nature Writers to Inspire the Backyard Naturalist
I was very fortunate to grow up on a three-acre wooded hill. Beyond our lot were acres of woods and suburban forest. The neighborhood kids knew all the secret paths and shortcuts leading us to small streams and ponds, deeper woods and a myriad of open fields. We explored and rambled through our secret places where no adult would roam, but always in the warm embrace of our natural domain.
We knew the locations of snake and chipmunk burrows and the nests of hawks, squirrels and hornets. We examined the squiggling creatures in streams and pond muck and searched pond edges for frog eggs and turtles. We knew the best climbing trees and which shrubs hid robin nests. We came alive in nature’s playground, confident captains of our small universe.
Six decades later I still rediscover that same childhood curiosity and wonder in the world I inhabit. Our six acres of mostly fields and pastures are surrounded by large patches of mature wood and are home to an amazing variety of life.
Here in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor we all live a short drive or walk from acres of exceptional natural habitat to explore, learn from and marvel at the spectacle of life. Many of us have backyards full of trees or adjacent to woods. We truly are woodland inhabitants with forests representing 76 percent of the land cover in our region. To know your backyard is to be within the cover of trees.
For the last several years I have relied on many naturalist writers to provide insightful information and inspiration as I continue to explore my own backyard and surrounding National Heritage Corridor. Several of these writers help inform this weekly column, and my multiplying collection of books attests to a constant pursuit of learning about nature.
I first learned of John Hanson Mitchell from his earliest book, “Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile,” which documents the natural and cultural history of his house, property and neighborhood. I later discovered his exquisite essays in “Sanctuary, the Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society” and have since read his delightful second book, “A Field Guide to Your Own Backyard,” which is a careful examination of the living animals and plants through the four seasons of his property. You can find several of his essays and information on his books at his website: https://www.johnhansonmitchell.com/index.html
Bernd Heinrich is professor emeritus in biology at the University of Vermont, a well-known naturalist and the author of numerous books about nature and biology. His ground-breaking research on ravens resulted in two fascinating books, “Ravens in Winter” and “Mind of the Raven.” He has the keen eye and research skills of a biologist and a narrative writing style that is compelling and insightful. Most of his books are based on his observations and research of the natural world in his 100-acres forested backyard in Maine. I have several of his books and recently purchased “The Trees in My Forest” and “The Naturalist’s Notebook: An Observation Guide and 5-Year Calendar-Journal for Tracking Changes in the Natural World around You.”
I first discovered “Northern Woodlands” when visiting a Vermont bookstore and soon became a regular subscriber. The quarterly magazine is full of articles and essays celebrating and describing northeastern forests and people who care for and work in them. It is published by the Center for Northern Woodlands Education, an educational non-profit organization based in New Hampshire.
For a budding backyard naturalist I recommend Northern Woodlands magazine, and their Facebook page, regular e-newsletters and website. Their website has an excellent selection of books for sale including Volume I and II of the Outside Story, with collections of essays on the natural world and a number of helpful guidebooks. Here is a link to their website: https://northernwoodlands.org where you’ll find a section on their books.
Along with books by inspirational and informative nature writers, I also keep guidebooks including several on birds of New England and the northeast United States, as well as New England guides to amphibians, reptiles, wild plants, trees and more. The one guidebook that travels with me on most of my rambles is the “Kaufman Guide to Nature in New England,” which provides identification and basic information on the most common plants and animals in New England. I recently purchased the “Sierra Club Naturalist Guide to Southern New England,” by Neil Jorgensen. Published more than 40 years ago, it is a definitive naturalist guide to the ecological world of our southern New England region.
There are also a couple of handy smartphone apps I use, including LeafSnap for identifying plants and trees and Merlin by the Cornell Lab for Ornithology for identifying birds.
To be amazed and to explore and learn about our natural world, one needs only to step into your own backyard. I will forever be a “budding” naturalist and on the lookout for the myriad of fascinating life in flora and fauna living right out my back door.
I hope you’ll join me and countless others as we discover this beautiful place we call home. The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor, our very own homegrown National Park. Together we can care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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