Welcome to the Natural History Dictionary

** The dictionary is still nascent, so bear with us as we begin to populate it. Our goal is to have 300 entries by December, 2012. You can help us by becoming an author.

The natural world speaks a language, one many of us struggle to understand. But when we start to learn the words spoken by the trees, stones, birds, and insects our eyes open wide, with magical wonderment at a world we long to know. When the gate opens, we realize that the language is whispered to us in a dandelion growing between the cracks of a broken sidewalk, a majestic old growth hemlock shading a steep slope of Mt Greylock, a jay making a ruckus at a red-tailed hawk, the thin, papery, flammable bark of white birch, or a wide-bottomed valley lined with old beaver dams. And the more fluent we become, the more we hear the beauty of the stories the land beckons to us with. This dictionary begins to describe the pieces of this world, helping us decipher this language in the hopes that we can more fully listen and engage.

The Natural History Dictionary is a collaborative project based in Burlington, VT. Entries in this dictionary will help users figure out what the presence of a plant, fungus, animal, rock, natural phenomenon, or human artifcat in an area indicates about that place in particular. To start, click on a letter above or do a search to the right. Entries are indexed by (generic name, specific name) – e.g. maple, silver; ice, needle; cloud, cumulus.

For more on contributors visit the “About Us” section. Please contact us if interested in contributing or with any questions or comments. Thanks!

Tufts the squirrel

Why the dictionary? Field guides emphasize what things are, not what they tell you. There are two pieces to this  shortcoming that this dictionary addresses. First, our dictionary includes contextual information to help you understand why you find things where you find them and why you don’t where you don’t. For example, a traditional field guide will help you identify glossy buckthorn, but it usually skimps on details of what the presence of glossy buckthorn tells you about the ecology of that place in particular. After looking it up in a Peterson’s guide you might know that it’s invasive, but you might not know that as you walk downslope into a wetland you will find that glossy buckthorn replaces common buckthorn as a dominant shrub, that glossy buckthorn indicates localized pockets of siltier soils or increased moisture content in the soil, and that earthworms, another non-native species actually increase germination rates of this species over our native shrubs and trees. You’ll find that kind of info here.

Stripes the backyard chipmunk

Secondly, the dictionary will help you interpret the adaptive and ecological meaning of key features of plants, rocks, animals, etc. Field guides use different physical features to help you identify something. For example, you might be using teeth along the margins of a shrub’s leaves to differentiate between glossy buckthorn (no teeth) and common buckthorn (has teeth). But that field guide never tells you what those teeth on the margins of the leaf actually mean. Or the branching pattern, or the bark color, or much of anything. As this dictionary grows it will include more and more entries that help you piece together why plants, rocks, and animals look different from one another. In doing so, we hope that this will help you tell the story of the land, to learn the language of ecology, to make you feel at home where you live.

To see how well you know the story of the land, we strongly encourage you to take The Tourist Test, developed by Jon Young and the Wilderness Awareness School.

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