An Introduction to Natural History with Eric Heil: On the Study of Our World Fully Alive

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In certain school systems, it is perhaps more common to find students dissecting samples and diagraming abstractions. The boys in the Lower School at The Heights, however, begin their scientific formation not in a lab, among dead specimens, but in nature, among living creatures. Their text book is not full of paper, but of paper’s source, trees; for their primary text is the book of nature itself. 

In this week’s episode, Eric Heil takes us outdoors–so to speak–for a discussion of natural history. With over fourteen years of experience teaching at The Heights, in addition to having spent time as a researcher both for at the Bronx Zoo and the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, Eric offers us thoughts both practical and lofty. 

First, Eric explains what natural history is and how it differs from other ways of approaching science at the elementary level. Then, he considers what a typical natural history lesson might look like. Next, Eric expounds the elements of nature journaling, a typical exercise for a natural history class. In particular, he explains John Muir Laws’ three step framework for nature journaling: 

  1. Explain what you see. 
  2. Expound on what the observed reality makes you think of. 
  3. Wonder about what you do not yet know. 

Lastly, the discussion takes a turn for the transcendental, as Eric considers some of the existential fruits of natural history.  

Beyond books and diagrams, and indeed even the boy’s own words and sketches, the study of natural history draws students into that mystery which moves those animals they have found. Perhaps this is the reason why natural history has been deemed the most important subject taught in the Valley: the silence that it instills is the beginning of a prayer; indeed, the greatest prayer, which is gratitude.  

Show Highlights

  • What is natural history and why does it matter? 
  • Campus as the textbook itself
  • How is a natural history class different from other ways of teaching science at the elementary level? 
  • Jean-Henri Fabre and the importance of direct observation
  • The parts of a typical natural history lesson
  • What is a nature journal and how do you make one?
  • The benefits of studying natural history 
  • How natural history integrates into an education for realism
  • Existential goods of natural history 
  • Why is natural history the most important subject taught in the Lower School?

Suggested Reading 

Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock

A Natural History of North American Trees by Donald Culross Peattie

Nature’s Events: A Notebook of the Unfolding Seasons by John Serrao

Observing Insect Lives by Donald Stokes (and several other Stokes Nature Guides)

Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth

Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification by Thomas J. Elpel

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv

The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws (and www.johnmuirlaws.com)

The Naturalist’s Notebook by Nathaniel T. Wheelwright & Bernd Heinrich

natureoutside.com nature journal website by Steven Stolper

The Forest by Roger Caras

The Tree Identification Book by George W. D. Symonds

Sketching Outdoors in Autumn by Jim Arnosky

Find the Constellations by H. A. Rey (of Winnie-the-Pooh fame)

Insects (A Golden Guide from St. Martin’s Press) Revised

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 6th Edition (Peterson Field Guides)

Also on The Forum 

Webinar: How to Keep a Nature Journal

On Nature Journals and Observant Souls

“Can I catch it?”: On Handling Wildlife 

Reading Recommendations for Keeping a Nature Journal

Why We Need Exposure to Nature

Nature Deficit Disorder: The Importance of Green Time

Eric Heil

About the guest:

Eric Heil


Eric Heil is originally from the Napa Valley in northern California. He studied Spanish language and culture for one year at the University of Navarre, in Spain, and then he completed his B.A. in biology at the University of Dallas. In 2001, he joined Teach for America and taught middle-school math and science in the Bronx for two years. He was the Robert G. Engel Mammalogy Fellow at the Bronx Zoo before moving to Washington DC to work for the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park. At the National Zoo, Eric investigated the nutritional ecology of the California sea otter. He taught in the lower school for eight years before taking a sabbatical year. He returned to the Valley having attained an AMI diploma in Elementary Montessori education. Eric also received his M.Ed. from Loyola University Maryland.