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Naming Nature by Mary Blocksma (thoughts)

January 8, 2014

Naming Nature by Mary Blocksma
At its heart, amateur naturalism is about love. The kind of love that inspires quiet observation and close attention, the kind that notes tiny changes as well as large ones, the kind that is patient and humble and hopeful. It draws me out of myself, into a world in which I am only one tiny link in a terribly complex and wide-ranging chain. Yet it also anchors me in the here and now: the physical reality of the weather, the geographic idiosyncrasies of my local neighbourhood. It’s a way of affirming life, really. And of course, it’s also about curiosity: endless curiosity that collects tiny facts and delights in oddities and adds new depth to wonder.

Naming Nature by Mary Blocksma captures all of that, and as such was an utter treat for this aspiring naturalist. Following a divorce, Blocksma moves to a cabin along Lake Michigan, fulfilling a long-held dream and allowing herself to begin to reinvent her life at the same time. She’s surprised and slightly horrified to realise she can’t name any of the trees she sees from her window, a sign of the ‘nature illiteracy’ our society generally encourages, so she sets out to learn one new species a day for a year.

The book is set up as a journal, with a short new entry for each day (rather blog-like, now that I think of it). It’s a mix of Blocksma’s observations, facts about whatever plant or animal or other natural phenomena she’s writing about, tips on how to identify species (obviously most useful to residents in a somewhat similar habitat, but she does include information for all regions of the US, which was nice and refreshingly inclusive), and peeks at her daily life. Her tone is infectious, and I defy any reader not to become as interested in the little curiousities of nature as she is! Early in the book, she mentions attempting to sketch some of what she sees; as the year progressed, her efforts must have improved, because the book also includes little sketches done by the author herself, so that until I got to that entry I assumed Blocksma was a professional illustrator.

It’s fascinating to watch her knowledge and confidence grow, and it’s truly inspirational for someone like me who’s pretty much starting at ground zero as far as specific natural knowledge goes. Written in 1992, pre-internet, it includes a handy guide to guidebooks (which as a newbie I’ve found terribly overwhelming), and it so accessible I finished it thinking I could become like Blocksma too, even if I don’t have the rich environment she does. In fact, I’ve begun my own little daily learning project.

Sadly, Naming Nature is out of print (not to be confused with another book by the same title written by Carol Yoon, which has now been added to my wish list); with any luck your library still has it. I got my copy from Better World Books, and I’m glad I did: I love knowing I can dip in and out of this as it suits me. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it: in fact, if you’d like to read more nonfiction but feel a bit intimidated, this would be a wonderful choice. Of course, if you have any interest in knowing more about the world we live in, you owe it to yourself to pick this up! As Blocksma herself puts it:

I am convinced that even rank amateurs like me will be rewarded with a glimpse of something rare and wonderful if we poke around nature in a regular sort of way.

Suggested Companion Reads

  • Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt : an interesting look at blending learning more about nature with urban living.
  • American Primitive by Mary Oliver : this happens to be the book of hers on my nightstand, but any of her poetry collections are full of a careful attention to and love for the natural world.
  • A Field Guide to the Familiar by Gale Lawrence : a wonderful collection of similarly themed short essays (originally newspaper columns).
18 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2014 5:53 am

    That sounds like a truly wonderful book! I always wanted to learn how to identify birds and plants, but never got to it. Now I’m inspired to start some kind of challenge, too. I hope you’ll enjoy yours and share your experience.
    Right now I’m in bed with a cold, and your words made me want to jump out of bed and go out exploring ;) I wish I could get hold of a book for my region that is similar to Naming Nature.
    All the best,

    • January 10, 2014 3:25 am

      I’d love to read a book like this for Texas too: all of the US nature writers I read tend to be in the north! Oh well.

  2. January 9, 2014 7:11 am

    Ooh, this looks lovely! I want to read it too. I am slowly learning to recognize more birds and trees in my area, but am woefully ignorant of a large majority still.

  3. January 9, 2014 8:43 am

    Beautiful blog!!! Thanks for sharing. I look forward to hearing more. Observing goes well with walking. And I am glad to hear you exploring the natural world yourself. Observing my cliff is how I survive some days. You might also look at online guides, usually arranged by type–bird, tree, rock, etc. The Cornell University Bird ID site is very easy to use and helpful, for example.

    • January 10, 2014 3:25 am

      Oh thnx for telling me about the Cornell site. I have used online tree id stuff. Observing does go well with walking, although not so well with dog walking. ;)

  4. January 9, 2014 4:12 pm

    There’s a class I would love for us to take someday, a natural history of the area, conducted largely in the field, of course. In fact, Rich really wants to take it too, so maybe sometime we could all take it together. It’s taught by a friend of Rich’s who is just amazing! Rich always says that he used to think that he himself was a nature nut until he met Steve. ;)

    • January 10, 2014 3:26 am

      Oh I actually came across that looking at the community college website! I was excited until I calculated how much I’d have to pay for 3 credit hours (like over $400). But you and Rich should take it and then tell me all about it! ;)

      • January 10, 2014 5:45 am

        Or maybe what we could do is just tag along with Rich on all the field trips. :) I’m sure Steve wouldn’t mind. And it’s not like we care about getting the college credits, right? ;)

      • January 12, 2014 9:04 am

        I squealed out loud at this comment Debi. That would be so incredible! And I can pay Steve in baked goods or something. lol

      • January 12, 2014 1:35 pm

        While I can’t imagine a person complaining about that, I know you totally wouldn’t have to. He’s one of those people who loves the natural world so much and is just happy to share and inspire that in others. :)

  5. January 10, 2014 2:25 am

    Beautiful review, Eva! After I read the first paragraphs of your review, I thought – ‘I have to get Mary Blocksma’s book now’. Then when I read that it was out-of-print, I felt very sad. Why do beautiful books go out of print? Nice to see a Mary Oliver book in your suggested reading list. One of my friends is a big fan of Mary Oliver, and I have been wanting to read one of her poetry collections sometime. Maybe I will start with ‘American Primitive’.

    • January 10, 2014 3:27 am

      I think it’s a shame it went out of print too. I have American Primitive because it was the cheapest used collection of hers at Better World Books, and I figured that was as good as reason as any. ;)

      • January 10, 2014 7:14 am

        Ha, ha, ha! Yes, I agree with you, Eva :) I wanted to tell you something. After you wrote about Pat Schneider’s poem, I tried finding one of her poetry collections. Sadly they are hard to find, because they also seem to be out-of-print. I hope I can find a used copy some day. But I found a link where 11 of her poems are read by Garrison Keillor. (It is here). You have probably already seen that page, but I thought I will mention it just in case.

      • January 12, 2014 9:02 am

        Thnx for the link!

        So much goes out of print. It makes me wonder if ebooks will go out of print the same way, which would be disastrous since there’s no used ebook market, or if they’ll be stored as files forever, and thus always be available to buy.

  6. Vanessa permalink
    January 11, 2014 6:21 pm

    This book sounds wonderful Eva and I thank you for your review. My husband just came home and I was sharing your post with him and he recognized the cover and thinks that my in-laws have a copy! I’m very excited to seek it out and give it a read.

    • January 12, 2014 9:01 am

      Oh I hope you can get your hands on it! :)


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