Book Reflection: The Practical Naturalist by Chris Packham

Your favorite civilian natural science book comes with prerequisites: vivid photos from altocumulus clouds to decomposition fungi, key hiding spots of small insects and charismatic critters, and nontechnical but curiosity-provoking descriptions of ecological concepts–all of which fill The Practical Naturalist. Edited by Chris Packham and written by a team of scientists, this book is detailed yet without intimidation for the potential nature hobbyist, young or mature–perhaps young and mature.

Having read many illustrated encyclopedia-esque publications as a kid, this update to the genre elicits nostalgia. It also demands a read to see how different it looks from Gerald Durrell’s well-known 1982 A Practical Guide for the Amateur Naturalist. How bizarre to see a smartphone on the page about the naturalist’s tools of investigation! “Vivid” as I said before, is a docile term for how much photos have improved in clarity since Durrell’s book. It’s a shame we don’t have more of this genre, perhaps even bioregion-specific ones so new naturalists can have the inspiration from these but the depth of an ecology book and the usefulness of a field guide.


Like similar reads, this one briefs through natural history concepts, a few pages of handy items like sound recorders and loupe lenses, how to stage sites like wildlife gardens to attract subjects, and mostly tidbit-oriented chapters on ecosystems like grasslands and tundra. An important note: the writers assume you’re from North American or the British Isles for locations like coasts and farm fields.

A perk to this book is the layout. Zoobooks, Eyewitness books, and other visual natural history publications in a time gone all had two paged spreads where it’s a mosaic of small paragraphs, photos, and diagrams. Sometimes those lay as if on a table with three-dimensional specimens like shells or flowers. This theme continues but with more variety. There are photos linked across as a bar comparing habitats in one panorama like bushes, ditches, cactus hedges, and stone walls. Some bars are meant to be turned around and read like a calendar–how else do you compare concepts and means of observing organisms existing in various tropical rain forest strata?

The Practical Naturalist excerpt

An invigorating read and bucket-list cataloging aside (can I visit all those places see all those species?), I do believe incredible directions for this genre would be to offer more depth. Dedicate each book in a series to a biome or to major bioregions like the American eastern coniferous forest or British maritime. Perhaps they can take the habitat chapters in The Practical Naturalist and make each of those a book. There are a lot of hidden treasures and easy field techniques that are accessible to the amateur scientist that this book was too generalized to cover.

I love it all the same: inspiration and the tools to carry that inspiration rarely weave into one tome.


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