Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: A wonderful gift for the aspiring naturalist

By CHERYL KIMBALL December 08. 2017 7:11PM

“The Naturalist's Notebook for Tracking Changes in the Natural World Around You” by Nathaniel T. Wheelwright and Bernd Heinrich sells for $19.95. (Courtesy)

If you are part of the gift-giving or gift-receiving tradition at this time of the year, I have a great tip to put on your wish list or your shopping list: “The Naturalist’s Notebook for Tracking Changes in the Natural World Around You” by Nathaniel T. Wheelwright and Bernd Heinrich.

As someone whose first career spanned around 20 years in the book publishing industry, including owning a small bookstore, the physical book itself is just delightful. The front and back of the hardcover are lovely color drawings done by Heinrich himself. There is a black tape binding gold-embossed with the title, authors and publisher (Storey). And if that isn’t enough, a burgundy die-cut jacket covers the bottom half, the pages are gold-edged and the book has the classic built-in ribbon bookmark. All for $19.95 — a bargain before you ever even open the book and start reading!

Many readers will be familiar with Bernd Heinrich’s work. One of his books is almost always in one of my reading stacks. The most recent is “Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death.” Heinrich has written several books, including at least two on running (he was an accomplished long-distance runner). Perhaps the book most naturalists will be familiar with is “Ravens in Winter.” His observations are just fascinating to read. If I am lucky enough to enjoy those twilight years when getting out of a chair is an effort, plunk me in front of the window overlooking some natural environment with an end table beside me heaving under the effort of holding Heinrich’s substantial oeuvre and I will not complain (mostly …).

I had never heard of Nathaniel Wheelwright, who also lives in Maine (Heinrich spends time in Maine where he moved as a child and Vermont where he teaches) whose previously publishing credits are mostly scientific. These authors provide some great guidance and suggestions for both the aspiring and seasoned naturalist.

They define the term “naturalist” as simply “someone who is attuned to and enthusiastic about the natural world.” I suspect anyone who takes the time to read Nature Talks fits that definition. One interesting and welcome aspect to this volume despite its traditional format is that the authors’ embrace modern technology and the 21st century tools that allow us to instantaneously ID what we see and to easily pool our observations with others throughout the world. They encourage combining this with genuine reflection and simply being present. In other words, it is hard to be observant if you are wandering through the woods with your eyes glued to your smartphone. But if your smartphone can help you ID a mushroom without picking it (or to at least take a picture of it for ID later at your computer) then what a wonderful world it is! A perfect quote from one of their students wraps up this approach: “… we should use technology as a tool to improve our connection with nature, rather than as the source of that connection.”

The first half of the book is six chapters of their observations and tips on being observant:

• Chapter One: Being Attentive

• Chapter Two: How to Become an Observant Naturalist I

• Chapter Three: How to Become an Observant Naturalist II

• Chapter Four: A Naturalist’s Notebook

• Chapter Five: Simple Experiments as a Way of Learning

• Chapter Six: Knowing Nature Where You Are.

After these six narrative chapters comes the real gold mine of the book. An entire 365-day calendar spanning five years, all blank and awaiting your own observations. Each two-page spread covers eight days across. Down the left margin is five years. Each block for each day of each of the five years has six lines. The message of the calendar’s format is twofold:

1) You do not need to write a lot to record an observation. “Abundance of winter berry” or “First red-winged blackbird” is plenty.

2) The five-year format allows for fascinating comparisons across the years. When was the first day that temps stayed below freezing last year compared to this? Was the date of the first lightning bugs close each of the five years?

The book wraps up with some good information: a list of useful books, metric conversions, and a two-page calendar specifically for “Timelines for Species and Events You Follow.”

This spectacular book is just delightful. I am looking forward to starting my five-year calendar of observations on New Year’s Day!

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at

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