Guide me through nature!
August 21, 2020 12:53 PM   Subscribe

I want to learn more about my natural surroundings! Looking for some sort of book, app, curriculum, whatever (either analog or digital) that will guide me.

Somewhat inspired by this question from earlier today, but I'm specifically looking for something interactive that will have me follow along, or ask questions for me to explore, or go do little mini-experiments, or whatever. I'm aware of things like iNaturalist but open-ended resources aren't in and of themselves what I'm looking for here. Any medium is most welcome, whether a physical book, a website, a mobile app, etc.

I live in the suburban northeast US, in case that informs a recommendation that is or isn't regionally specific.

posted by dusty potato to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I've found the Merlin ID Lab app from Cornell pretty handy if you're interested in Ornithology. I believe you can add birds you spot/identify to help with their database, based on location and time of year.
posted by Ufez Jones at 1:24 PM on August 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

I have a stargazing app on my phone which I use surprisingly often. (Mine is Sky Guide, but there are others.) You see a star, you ask 'Hey, which star is that', check your phone.

It was especially handy looking for the recent comet. The app told me where it *should* be, I look, say to myself "OK, I guess that's it", and when people ask "Did you see the comet", I can say that I did.
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:46 PM on August 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

Master Naturalist
posted by cda at 1:49 PM on August 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

You might like Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Charm of Snails and Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness. It's more oriented to the city than the suburbs but it is a fun and interesting read on how appreciate the overlooked nature around us.
posted by metahawk at 1:52 PM on August 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend the book Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England by Tom Wessels, which gives you both a good excuse to go out to different local natural environments, and a chance to understand things in a really different way. Add in the Peterson Field Guides: Eastern Trees by George A. Petrides/Jenet Wehr to learn how to recognize those mysterious giants among us... They should also pair well with the Seek app, which I use all the time to identify plants, insects and animals.

Another direction to go if you are exploring the natural world, is to start foraging. There are so many tasty things to eat out there, and many of them are invasive (do your part by devouring the enemy)! Northeast Foraging by Leda Meredith is great, and Foraging and Feasting by Dina Falconi is a feast for the eyes and an amazingly useful resource. Another oldie but classic is Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons. And then there is the fun of mushroom hunting, but that is something that needs particular care so you don't end up accidentally eating one that is poisonous. But once you start looking, you'll find all sorts of crazy ones everywhere, even in the city.
posted by rambling wanderlust at 1:56 PM on August 21, 2020 [4 favorites]

You might find What It's Like to Be a Bird by David Allen Sibley to be interesting.

Check out your state's Department of Natural Resources's website. Some have pretty useful resources, which are of course tailored to local interests. Ohio's used to give away a free CD of bird calls, and they published identification PDFs for all sorts of wildlife. My particular memory is of the Dragonflies and Damselflies PDF, but they had numerous others. Ohio's materials were all free.
posted by kevinbelt at 2:00 PM on August 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

It might not be as interactive or directive as what it sounds like you'd ideally want, but there's a book called Naturally Curious: A Photographic Field Guide and Month-By-Month Journey Through the Fields, Woods, and Marshes of New England that points out things you can look for at different times of year. It has some suggestions of things you can do or make, like a bat shelter or staghorn sumac lemonade, and a lot of interesting nature facts.
posted by Redstart at 2:46 PM on August 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

Have you considered nature journaling? Developing observation skills and taking the time to document those observations is a great way to start to learn more about your surroundings. Document seasons, the time of day and the corresponding patterns of flora and fauna. Use ID guides as references. Observe patterns and ask questions.

This book is a great introduction if you’d like to give a try:
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 2:51 PM on August 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

This falls under the "whatever" part of your question, but can you legally acquire an eight year old (+/- a few years) equipped with a net? If you get the correctly inclined kid (tell them you're going to play real-world pokemon), they're really good at seeking and finding. You learn by following the kid around. Kid catches something and you try to look smart by answering its questions as you pair inaturalist to google (there is ALWAYS something that makes a species absolutely fascinating, if you google long enough). If it's not something endangered, then you try to keep their findings alive for a while. If you go back to the same place at different times of day and over a period of weeks, you'll learn about timing and seasonal progression.

You could skip the keeping-it-alive step, but it's where a lot of the mini-experiments come in as you try to figure out what things eat and what they need to hide/perch, and how to balance the chemistry of a thing. The reward is getting to learn a lot about animal behavior - some things have way more personality than you might realize, but they won't show it until they're happy. In the case of caterpillars, we legit don't know what all caterpillars eat and that has big implications for pest control, so you can do some real science figuring out food plants if that gets you excited.

We started by raising painted lady butterflies from Carolina Biological, then moved on to Wagner's version of Caterpillars of North America - the introduction has some extremely good information about how to find, keep, and study caterpillars. After that, we knew the basics and branched out to larger insects and small vertebrates.

My first incarnation was biology, which I still teach, but I've learned more about what's around me locally by hanging out with a kid than I have at any point in my formal education or career.
posted by arabelladragon at 7:01 AM on August 22, 2020

If you are the type of person who likes to gamify things, the Seek app is really good at identifying plants, insects, and animals (but not trees, generally) and making observation fun by "collecting" them. You get badges and trophies for collecting, and there are monthly challenges that you can try doing. It's by iNaturalist, but is a simpler interface and has more structure.

Right now I'm doing the "Pollinator" challenge - collect a certain number of plants of specific types, and a few butterflies or insects in specific orders. It then asks you to get involved by observing other pollinators around you. It's forced me to pay more attention to specific types of plants and insects, and I've learned a ton about the nature around me. It's fun!
posted by gemmy at 8:34 PM on August 25, 2020

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