How to Become a Naturalist

Pagans often say that we want to get in touch with Nature. But there are many among us who don’t know one tree species from another, or one flower from another. It’s all “oograh“.

I was lucky to be brought up by my mother, who pointed out lots of different flower species and taught me to identify flowers by their genus. So I have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of wild flowers. If you didn’t have the luck to be brought up by a keen botanist, here’s how you can become one. My mother is also keen on birds. I like birds and am okay at identifying them – but they won’t stay still, which hampers the efforts of the amateur ornithologist.

Flowers and trees are easier to get started on than mushrooms, grasses, birds, or moths, because flowers and trees are easier to tell apart. Once you have got your eye in and learnt to identify flowers, you can move on to more advanced things like mushrooms, grasses, and birds.

The key to being a naturalist is observation of detail. How big is it? How many leaves does it have? What shape are they? How are they arranged on the stem? How many petals does it have? What are the stamens like? Does it have fruits or seed-pods? Florets or umbels?

Step 1 – learn a few common flower species, or make a list of the ones you know already. Find out whether any of them are part of the same family.

Step 2 – buy a really good flower field guide, with a botanical key. The key will help you to find the plant in the book by checking the number of petals, leaves, etc. It’s also a good idea to learn the names of parts of plants (stamen, pistil, umbel, floret, etc).

Step 3 – Riffle through the book and familiarise yourself with the different plant families, and where they are likely to be found. If you know that the Brassicaceae have four petals arranged in a cross shape around the centre of the flower, or that the Umbelliferae have big umbels (like an inside-out umbrella) it’s easier to get to the individual species by going to the section of the book that deals with that family.

A similar process to the above applies to learning bird species, moth and butterfly species, and tree species.

Why classify?

If you don’t learn the names and characteristics of plants, it is a lot harder to tell them apart. Associating the specific characteristics of a plant to its name (whether it’s the folk-name or the Latin name) anchors in your mind that it’s a distinct species. It’s the way the brain works.

Go for a walk

Walking is good for both body and soul, and a great way to be in Nature (and has zero environmental impact, unless you use a car to get there). I am very fortunate in being quite near the River Thames, which is awesome for nature walks. On Sunday, we found snake’s-head fritillaries in Iffley Meadows.

Snake's head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Snake’s head fritillaries. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Whenever you go for a walk, take your flower book and/or tree book with you. (There are probably apps for identifying things, but it’s nice to have an actual book.) Note down the species you see, and keep a nature journal. I have done this intermittently over the years, and it’s nice to read back over old entries. If you are not keen on writing, take photos, make drawings, or take a very small sample for pressing (but never pick the whole plant, and only take part of a plant if you can see at least 20 other good plants of the same kind).

One of the things I do is write “small beauties” posts and post them to Facebook and my other blog. These are descriptions of what I have seen whilst out and about – trees, birds, flowers, interesting clouds, people, boats, buildings. Writing these sharpens your powers of observation, and reading them later is a pleasant reminder of what you have seen.

I love going for a walk and really looking at the trees, flowers, birds, and landscape that I meet on the way. It’s how I relax. And it is really rewarding to be able identify flowers and birds and trees: it gives you a sense of achievement, sharpens your powers of observation, and means that you really engage with nature instead of just seeing it as a vague amorphous mass.

Snake's head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

White snake’s head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Folklore of plants

It’s also interesting and useful to find out about the folklore and herbal uses of plants. In the past, the witch was the village healer (according to legend, anyway), so it’s good to learn the folklore, symbolism, mythology, and medicinal uses of plants. I am not the world’s greatest herbalist, but I know a few things; and I am a pretty good botanist.

Recommended books

Most of these are about British natural history (because I live in Britain). If you have recommendations for North America, Europe, or Australia, please post them in the comments.

  • Collins British Wild Flower Guide – a really comprehensive guide to plant families and individual species. Really clear layout, very comprehensive, beautiful illustrations, and contains a botanical key.
  • Roger Phillips, Mushrooms – this is the definitive guide. Not a field guide, but well worth getting a copy anyway.

Folklore and natural history

Useful websites

Related posts

Embodied Spirituality: The Sit Spot

The sit spot

An important part of embodiment is experiencing yourself as part of the world. As climate activists have said, “we are not defending nature – we are nature defending itself“.

A really great way of experiencing yourself as part of nature is to incorporate the sit spot into your practice. The sit spot is a place in nature where you can sit comfortably for around fifteen minutes. While there, you slow your breathing, quiet your mind, and listen to the sounds around you: the rustling of the wind in the leaves, water flowing or falling, bird song. You return to the same spot on a regular basis, so as to become attuned to that particular place and its sounds, energies, spirits, seasons, and moods.

Adrian Harris, who writes on embodiment, describes the practice of the sit spot:

Spending time in your sit spot is a meditation that fine-tunes your sensory awareness. Gradually, patterns in nature become apparent and in time you fall into a “deepening sense of place” (Patterson). Such subtle embodied communion with one chosen place can pattern a sacred relationship to the world.


The sit-spot is similar to the ancient Heathen / magical practice of “sitting out”, known as utiseta. This is a practice for communicating with landwights, and should only be used if you specifically need help or answers.

Lydia Helasdottir describes utiseta:

Start with experiencing yourself, and that which is around you. Place your attention on the trees and the rocks, the root that I’m sitting on, the wind in the trees, the smells. We do this whole thing of “I can see one thing, I can hear one thing, I can smell one thing, I can taste one thing, I can feel one thing.” Then you go to two things, then to five things. Getting to the point of smelling five different things is quite difficult, especially if you haven’t moved your position, but it’s a good thing. So the first point is to be really aware of you and the things around you. Do that with your deep breathing.

Then you contract you attention inside yourself. If you’re wearing a cloak, at this point you put the hood over yourself. Contract your attention so that you’re not noticing anything from the outside, and you’re just trying to find the core of the center of your being, all the way down. Really compress it so that it’s just you. It might take ten or fifteen minutes for you to even get there, and then you do that for an hour or so. Then you expand your attention outwards, but you go past the boundary of your body, so now you’re experiencing all that stuff that’s around you, but not as separate from you any more. And at that point, often it’s easier to commune with the wights and the dead people and whatever else. And you do five or six or twelve or so cycles of that during the night.

Embodied Spirituality: Gardening

Gardening is well known to be therapeutic, but it is also deeply spiritual. It is a process of fostering life, of working with the land and Nature to create beauty – what could be more spiritual than that?

Embodied spirituality is about responding to the world with wonder, creativity and joy; it is not some abstract process – it is about connecting the inner with the outer.

The planting of the seeds in the ground teaches us hope and care for small growing things. Watching the seeds come up is an experience of hope rewarded. Then we must care for the tender seedlings, watering them, planting them out, protecting them from being eaten. We create patterns in the garden – arrangements of plants that flower and fruit in their season. The plants might be herbs that heal, or flowers with scent and colour, or leafy trees, or fruit and vegetables. Plants have symbolism and mythology and folklore associated with them.

"Saihouji-kokedera01" by Ivanoff~commonswiki - Self-photographed. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

Saihouji-kokedera01” by Ivanoff~commonswikiSelf-photographed. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

The word paradise means an enclosed garden; the earliest gardens were oases of fertility in the desert, such as the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which must have required considerable watering. The fabled Garden of Eden was the mythological model for such gardens. Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ uncle Zovár said that the Garden of Eden was really the whole Earth, because everywhere on Earth is capable of flowering like a garden, and is full of the divine presence if you know how to be aware of it.

Composting (an essential aspect of gardening) is a wonderful metaphor for the process of change and transformation. We compost our dead matter (past experience) and it helps to fertilise new growth (the wisdom that comes from experience).

Paganism for Beginners: Things we care about

Pagans care about the same issues as everyone else – poverty, war, racism, homophobia, transphobia, the environment, saving indigenous lifeways, knowledge, and culture, women’s rights, cruelty to animals, and so on.  Like any other movement, there are many different opinions in the Pagan movement: some Pagans don’t care about these things; some take a different view of them; and  some care about them very much more than the average.

But there are some issues that are associated in people’s minds with being Pagan, the two most obvious ones being environmentalism and feminism. Many people have claimed that Paganism is a Nature religion (and many others have claimed that it’s not), and since Paganism and Nature-worship are synonymous in many people’s minds, caring for the Earth seems like an obvious thing for Pagans to want to do. And since the Earth is often viewed as a goddess, or as the Goddess, Paganism is an obvious choice for anyone who wonders why so many monotheists view their deity as exclusively male.


Pagans care about the environment for many and varied reasons. Some people became Pagans because they care about the environment; others began to care more about the environment after becoming a Pagan. Either way, Pagans recognise that the Earth is our mother, and if we don’t take care of her, we will all die, and so will many other species.

The earth is our mother,
we must take care of her.

Hey yanna, ho yanna, hey yan yan.

Her sacred ground we walk upon,
with every step we take.

The earth is our mother,
she will take care of us.

Native American song (mp3)

The causes of our current destructive course are many and complex. Some people blame capitalism; others blame consumerism; and others blame the dominionist views of conservative Christianity.  I blame all three, and think they are historically interlinked.

Capitalism does not simply mean a market economy; it means the investment of surplus money in a business venture. This means that instead of being accountable to the whole community, a company becomes accountable to its shareholders, and shareholders generally want only one thing: a profit.

Consumerism is not simply wanting nice things; it is the view that only having nice things makes you happy, and the drive to acquire more and more nice things.

Dominionism is the view (derived from the book of Genesis) that God gave the Earth to humans for our use.

A major contrast with these views is deep ecology, which advocates the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs, and argues that this requires a radical restructuring of modern human societies. This certainly chimes in well with the Pagan world-view, and I explored the ecological and embodied world-view in two previous posts, Eco-spirituality and theology and Eco-spirituality in practice.

The language of ecology can be problematic, especially when it gets co-opted by business trying to preserve the status quo. Sustainability used to mean living in a way that prevents damage to the environment and loss of species habitat; now it has been co-opted to mean something like ‘greenwashing‘ (paying lip-service to environmental concerns while actually continuing to act in a destructive way), or buying carbon credits and continuing to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The “environment” implies something that surrounds us, but which we are not necessarily part of. We are part of the environment and of ecosystems; we are not separate from our habitat.

A group of Pagans (of which I was one) have recently produced A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, which has been translated into several different languages and has now reached around 5000 signatures. Whilst a statement will not fix things on its own, what it does is articulate the principles and practices which will help to fix things, and signing up to the statement means a commitment to its principles and to doing something for the planet.


Some people became Pagans because they were feminists; others began to focus more on equality after becoming a Pagan. Either way, feminism is a natural bedfellow of Paganism, because most Pagan traditions worship a Goddess or goddesses, and value diversity and equality.

The roots of feminism lie in three simple premises:

  • that women are equal to men,
  • that women are not currently treated equally in society,
  • and that we should do something about it.

However, as with any other philosophy, there is more than one flavour of feminism, because not all feminists necessarily agree on the correct tactics for getting rid of inequality, or indeed on who counts as a woman.

Variants include: Amazon, Analytical, Anarchist, Atheist, Black, Chicana, Christian, Conservative, Cultural, Cyber, DifferenceEco, Equality, Equity, Fat, French, structuralist, Global, Individualist, Islamic, Jewish, Lesbian, LiberalLipstick,  MarxistMaterialMaternalMormonNeo, NewPostcolonialPostmodernPoststructuralPro-lifeProtoRadicalSeparatistSex-positiveSocialSocialistStandpointThird worldTransTransnational, and Womanism. There is even an online quiz for deciding what kind of feminist you are.

Here are some of the ones that share concerns with Paganism:

According to Wikipedia, “Anarcha-feminism, also called anarchist feminism and anarcho-feminism, combines anarchism with feminism. It generally views patriarchy as a manifestation of involuntary coercive hierarchy that should be replaced by decentralized free association. Anarcha-feminists believe that the struggle against patriarchy is an essential part of class struggle, and the anarchist struggle against the state. ” Historically, anarchist feminists included those who advocated free love and campaigned against marital rape and the subjugation of women. 

Black feminism: Black feminist theorists argue that sexism, class oppression, and racism are inextricably bound together. The way these relate to each other is called intersectionality. The theory of intersectionality has been adopted by many other feminists and social theorists. According to Barbara Omolade,  ”Black feminism is sometimes referred to as womanism because both are concerned with struggles against sexism and racism by black women who are themselves part of the black community’s efforts to achieve equity and liberty”.

Eco-feminism: According to Vandana Shiva,  women have a special connection to the environment through our daily interactions. She says that women in subsistence economies who produce “wealth in partnership with nature, have been experts in their own right of holistic and ecological knowledge of nature’s processes.”

Obviously there are lots of other things that Pagans care about,  but these are two areas that are fairly central to why so many people have joined the Pagan movement.

This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost. 

The next post in the series will be on controversies in the Pagan community, where I attempt to summarise all the controversies of the last few years, including racism, transphobia, Wiccanate privilege, and more.

Eco-spirituality in practice

Paganism is often said to be a Nature religion, but often Pagans are not very immersed in Nature. This could be because we get distracted by shiny things like mythology, or because many of us live in cities and so are more familiar with brand names than tree species, or because connecting with Nature is just too hard.

One thing that is often suggested as a way to connect with Nature is celebrating the seasonal festivals. I have certainly found it helpful to have the seasonal festivals in my life as markers of time, and they have made me more aware of the passing seasons, but I don’t know if they have made me more connected with Nature. I also worry that we sometimes impose our own patterns on Nature, rather than listening and looking to see what’s there.

Another way to connect with Nature is to get out more, and walk in the woods, by the sea, in the mountains. Meditating in Nature is excellent, and is a very old pagan practice called “sitting out”. Adrian Harris writes, over at Bodymind Place:

The principle of the sit spot could hardly be simpler: Find a place outdoors and sit there everyday for at least 15 minutes.  Though it’s generally traced to Native American teachers, this ancient practise is cross-cultural. What modern Pagans call ‘sitting out’ has a more explicitly spiritual purpose, but is essentially the same thing.

Cultivating a sense of place is important too. The excellent book The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci by Barry Patterson is one that I recommend highly, because it offers specific techniques for engaging with place, including learning about its history, geology, flora and fauna, mythology, archaeology, and so on.

This approach is also recommended in a bioregional quiz, “Where You At?”, originally developed by Leonard Charles, Jim Dodge, Lynn Milliman, and Victoria Stockley, and updated by Connected by Nature. Learn about your local flora and fauna, what flowers, fruits and vegetables are in season at what time.

We also need to be in right relationship with Nature, so reducing your carbon footprint and your ecological footprint and auditing your lifestyle are important.

Eating food that is local and in season helps the environment, but it also makes you more aware of your surroundings. It’s very hard to eat seasonally in some places, but we should at least be aware of the air miles on what we eat, and try to buy more local produce.


Eco-spirituality and theology

Eco-spirituality is a new name for a set of ideas that goes back a long way.

Baruch Spinoza and Giordano Bruno both viewed the universe as divine. Their ideas were broadly pantheistic. The implications of the idea that the universe itself is divine are explored by Sam Webster, who prefers immediacy to immanence. The universe is a theophany, the manifestation of the Divine. The implication here is that everything is sacred, and we should take care of the Earth and other beings; we certainly don’t have dominion over them.

A common trope in Western views of reality is the idea that there is an underlying essence to everything, a pure state of being, and that everything else emanates from that. This is a very pervasive idea, from Plato’s concept of Ideal Forms, all the way to Cartesian dualismProcess theology was an attempt to correct this thinking; its basic premise is that everything is always changing. It also views the Divine as involved in the process of change, and developing as a result of the changes:

For both Whitehead and Hartshorne, it is an essential attribute of God to be fully involved in and affected by temporal processes, an idea that conflicts with traditional forms of theism that hold God to be in all respects non-temporal (eternal), unchanging (immutable), and unaffected by the world (impassible). Process theology does not deny that God is in some respects eternal, immutable, and impassible, but it contradicts the classical view by insisting that God is in some respects temporal, mutable, and passible. (Wikipedia)

As Pagans usually view our deities as neither infinite nor perfect, and many of us regard them as beings on their own spiritual journeys, this makes a lot of sense. Cyclicity and change are regarded as positive in Paganism, so process theology fits in well with that. Indigenous traditions also affirm that process and becoming are natural and inevitable; many indigenous American languages do not translate well into English, because English refers to everything as a fixed state (nouns), whereas they refer to everything as a process.

Gaia theology & theory affirms the idea of the Divine as living, and therefore changing. Gaea theology was developed by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart in 1970, independently of James Lovelock‘s better-known Gaia Theory. Oberon Zell-Ravenheart derived his ideas in part from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic palaeontologist and geologist. Both Zell and Lovelock regarded the Earth as Gaia, a living organism, and named the idea after the Greek Goddess Gaia.

According to Wikipedia:

According to James Kirchner there is a spectrum of Gaia hypotheses, ranging from the undeniable to radical. At one end is the undeniable statement that the organisms on the Earth have radically altered its composition. A stronger position is that the Earth’s biosphere effectively acts as if it is a self-organizing system which works in such a way as to keep its systems in some kind of equilibrium that is conducive to life. Biologists usually view this activity as an undirected emergent property of the ecosystem; as each individual species pursues its own self-interest, their combined actions tend to have counterbalancing effects on environmental change. Proponents of this view sometimes point to examples of life’s actions in the past that have resulted in dramatic change rather than stable equilibrium, such as the conversion of the Earth’s atmosphere from a reducing environment to an oxygen-rich one.

An even stronger claim is that all lifeforms are part of a single planetary being, called Gaia. In this view, the atmosphere, the seas, the terrestrial crust would be the result of interventions carried out by Gaia, through the coevolving diversity of living organisms.

Eco-spirituality embraces an ethic of non-violence and sustainability. Non-violence includes respect for life in all its manifestations (human, non-human, animal, vegetable and mineral); harmonious use of natural resources, with respect for the natural order and cycles of the environment, and development compatible with the ecosystem; and listening to Nature, not dictating to it. In Hinduism, non-violence is known as ahimsaSustainability means not using up or depleting the resources available, and maintaining the diversity of ecosystems. Reducing the diversity of an ecosystem, or doing something that creates an imbalance in it, upsets the food web (what eats what in a specific ecosystem).

A key idea in eco-spirituality is deep ecology, which advocates the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their usefulness to humans. Deep ecology argues that the natural world is a subtle balance of complex inter-relationships in which the organisms depend on each other for their existence within ecosystems. This philosophy was named “deep ecology” by Arne Næss in 1973. It is becoming increasingly apparent that a deep ecological approach is needed to ensure sustainability, biodiversity and the continued existence of the human species. Vandana Shiva writes:

‘Deep ecological solutions are the only viable solutions to ensuring that every person on this planet has enough food, has enough water, has adequate shelter, has dignity and has a cultural meaning in life. If we don’t follow the path of living in ways that we leave enough space for other species, that paradigm also ensures that most human beings will be denied their right to existence. A system that denies the intrinsic value of other species denies eighty percent of humanity, their right to a dignified survival and a dignified life. It only pretends that is solving the problems of poverty, it is actually at the root of poverty. And the only real solution to poverty is to embrace the right to life of all on this planet, all humans and all species.’

Another important strand of eco-spirituality is eco-feminism, the idea that the exploitation of the Earth is symbolically linked to the domination of women, with talk of conquest, dominion, and so on; whereas respect for the Earth can be equated with respect for women. This is a big part of contemporary Goddess spirituality, and is obviously related to Gaia theology. In Ecofeminism (1993) authors Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies point out that modern science is not a universal and value-free form of knowledge, regarding the dominant scientific discourse as a projection of Western men’s values.

Another green precept is “Think global, act local“, the idea that before acting, we should look at consequences for the whole biosphere, as well as for the local environment. This is consistent with the Wiccan ethic “An it harm none, do what thou wilt”, which encourages us to look at the consequences of our actions. It also relates to the idea of spirit of place. The Romans honoured the genius loci, and the Greeks honoured the daemon (both terms mean ‘spirit of place’). This was the consciousness inhabiting wood and grove, tree and well, river and lake. Pagans have found that specific locations have a different atmosphere, a sense of presence. Christians have started to talk about ‘thin places’ – liminal places where the numinous can readily be encountered.

One of the things that keeps me Pagan is the importance of wildness. For me, this concept includes the erotic, the instinctive, the intuitive, a sense of connection to Nature, intimacy, freedom, and solitude. It also links in with deep ecology – the valuing of wild places and wild beings for themselves and not for their utility. An excellent book on the subject of reclaiming wildness is Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a Jungian psychotherapist and traditional storyteller.

Ancient cultures regarded the landscape itself as sacred, and devised sacred geography to describe it. This includes the concept of the four cardinal directions and their associated symbolism; the idea of the World Tree at the centre; and cosmologies with the heavens above, the underworld below, and the Earth in the middle.

So, how do we put these ideas into practice? That will be the topic of the next post.