BestofClearingV-layout.inddBy Saul Weisberg
Executive Director
North Cascades Institute
(reprinted from The Best of CLEARING)

I love knowing the names of things. It makes them familiar, like old friends. I also love to look at patterns in nature. Veins on the back of a vine maple leaf. The yellow and black scales on the wing of a two-tailed tiger swallowtail. The striations in a piece of greenschist. The patterns of nature show us the details of life where the wonder lies.

The landscape is made up of details, too. The ways things fit together — the interactions of living and non-living things — tell a story. In order to make sense of larger patterns, in order to recognize them in the first place, you have to know the details. You have to be able to look at the pieces and pick them apart, understand what this thing is, why this lives here and not there, why things work the way they do, and what has changed over time.

The distrust and ignorance of science that is prevalent in society has made inroads in environmental education as well. It is not unusual to see eager and competent educators with master’s degrees in EE who have no knowledge of natural science, and who are unable to identify common birds and plants. These educators tend to focus on two things: the experience of teaching in the outdoors and the big picture — important processes and concepts. But somewhere between the experience and the process we lose touch with the thing itself — the organism and its world.

The poet William Carlos Williams said “No ideas but in things.” In the beginning you have to know its name. If you know the name of something you can take that knowledge with you anywhere. You have friends in every habitat. When we know the name of something we can talk about it; it is a sign of respect. Do we need to know the name of something to talk with it as well? Is it harder to harm something when you know its name?

Environmental educators must have a strong grounding in natural history, and field biology and ecology. In addition they should have an intimate knowledge of at least one group of organisms. The group does not matter. It can be dragonflies or butterflies, bears or salmon, mosses or conifers or lizards. Intimacy is the key. This grounding should include an ability to identify local species  and an understanding of taxonomic and ecological relationships. Taxonomy is intimately connected to real patterns in the natural world. Why a butterfly is a butterfly, or an orchid is an orchid, is connected to things you can observe, patterns that you can see around you in the faces of familiar organisms.

A naturalist is someone who pays attention. Paying attention brings you into intimate contact with the world. To be a naturalist you must be curious, observe actively and closely, describe and identify what is before you, take good notes, look for patterns at all scales, reflect on where you’ve been and what you’ve seen, and immerse yourself in the natural world. For a naturalist — intimacy is everything. We must dive deep and immerse ourselves in our wonderful northwest landscapes. A naturalist practices passionate observation in all seasons and in all weathers. At North Cascades Institute we are often asked the question “How can you teach (go birding, look at bugs, key a wildflower, watch a frog) in the rain?” Our answer is that there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

Aldo Leopold wrote that “The penalty of having an ecological education is to live in a world of wounds.” One antidote to Leopold’s dilemma is increased intimacy, knowledge, and depth of experience. Natural history is not just a scientific approach — our responses to the natural world, our feelings, are equally valid. Our feelings call us to action from a different, deeper place than our intellect. We need both. You cannot be a naturalist and not be involved in the natural world. One of my favorite images of naturalists afield was put forth by botanist Art Kruckeberg who said that “a naturalist is an ecologist in short pants.” Get your feet wet and your hands dirty, and don’t forget to have fun!

The following two activities will help take you a little deeper into the natural world. The first focuses on observation skills and recognizing patterns in the natural world; you do not need to know names or taxonomy or natural history to do it. The second is a series of simple exercises recognizing the early signs of spring in the Pacific Northwest. It provides a way to learn basic natural history information — identification of common northwest species — through observation.

ACTIVITY #1— Patterns: An Observation Game

Children are great at finding patterns in the natural world. This activity builds on this ability. This game hones observation skills and helps you recognize and think about simple patterns found between similar or dissimilar objects in nature.

The object of the game is to find and collect ten patterns — groups composed of a mix of three attributes (Shape, texture, color), each divided into three different characteristics. Within each pattern each attribute must be completely similar or completely dissimilar among the three items.

Work singly or in groups and set a loose time limit at first; make it shorter as the participants get better at finding patterns Different habitats will yield a completely different game — think about a beach, a forest and a meadow. Are there other attributes that you could use? How many can you add before the complexity becomes overwhelming? The fun comes when the groups gather to share their items and explain the patterns they have found.

Attributes (and characteristics):

Shape (round, angular, straight)
Texture (smooth, rough, slippery)
Color (greens, browns, grays)

Hint #1: Characteristics are relative — you must decide as a group what is “round” versus what is “angular,” or what is the difference between “slippery” and “smooth.” What characteristics do bigleaf maple leaves or moss share? What if they are wet?

Examples that work

Three things that are similar in all ways:

• straight, smooth, brown ‑ dry pine needle
• straight, smooth, brown – twig
• straight, smooth, brown – dried willow leaf

Three things dissimilar in all ways:

• round, smooth, gray – stone
• straight, rough, brown – stick
• angular, slippery, green – moss

Three things that share two attributes (shape and texture) with a variable third attribute (color):

• round, smooth, gray – stone
• round, smooth, green – leaf
• round, smooth, brown – bark

Hint #2: You have to be able to say “same, same, same,” or “different, different, different” for each of the three characteristics for each attribute. If you can’t, the pattern is broken.

Examples that don’t work:

• round, rough, brown – fir cone (dry)
• round, rough, brown – bark
• round, rough, green – young fir cone
(the color of the young fir cone breaks the pattern)

• round, smooth, gray – rock
• straight, rough, brown – stick
• angular, smooth, green – oak leaf
(texture must either be all the same or all different to make this pattern)

Does this collection fit the pattern?

• round, slippery, gray – wet stone
• angular, slippery, green – square mat of liverwort
• straight, slippery, brown – branch

You can add attributes or characteristics to make the game more complex or more interesting. Use your imagination; now go outside and play!

ACTIVITY #2—Signs of Spring

As naturalists we must use all our senses to explore the world around us. As humans we are limited compared to many other species. We can’t see ultraviolet light like bees, we don’t perceive microscopic amounts of trace chemicals in the water like salmon. Our eyesight is poor compared to a bald eagle, and our sense of smell pales beside the nose of a coyote. We must practice to make best use of the senses we have. Look, listen, touch and smell the first signs of northwest spring. Use field guides to identify what you find. This activity works well for people singly or in groups and can be easily modified to fit the experience level of a group. People living in different places will have different experiences to share. In the early days of spring the numbers of new species to learn is small. It’s a great time to get started being a naturalist. See what’s out there. Learn its name. Talk to it. Introduce it to a friend.

• When does the first butterfly of the year appear? What is it?
Look for mourning cloaks on any warm, sunny winter day, and anglewings in March.

• What is the first plant to bloom in your yard? In your local park? Do flowers or leaves appear first? Indian plum begins blooming in February, red flowering currant and salmonberry in March. All three of these early flowering shrubs develop flowers before developing leaves. Explore south facing slopes for early spring flowers. South facing grasslands and balds in the San Juan Islands are alive with lovely blue grass widows in March.

• When do you first become aware of the rich scent of cottonwoods along rivers and streams?

• When do you first see and hear the croaking of frogs from local wetlands? When do ducklings appear? What species are they?

• Are there any spring plants that feel good? Touch the softness of pussy willows in late January and early February.

• When do birds begin to migrate? What species begin to travel first? Listen for migrating geese and swans in April.

• When do the first ferns begin to unfold?

• When do you first see evidence of birds singing, building nests or defending territories? Which birds set up territories in your year first?

February and March is the best time to begin to learn bird songs. Each week a few new species begin to sing. You can use tapes from the library to identify these common songsters of spring: redwing blackbird, song sparrow, American robin, Bewick’s wren, winter wren, white-crowned sparrow, and varied thrush all begin to sing on a regular basis in February and March.


I want to thank Libby Mills and Shelley Weisberg for their gracious assistance and natural history expertise. Many of these ideas have developed through ongoing discussions with Tom Fleishner, Ed Grumbine, Bob Pyle, Wendy Scherrer, and John Miles.

Saul Weisberg is co-founder and Executive Director of North Cascades Institute, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to increasing understanding and appreciation of the natural, historical, and cultural landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. For more information about the Institute’s education programs visit
Artwork by Joan Barbour