Digital Maps to Nature Literacy

Compass, Map, Direction, Degrees, North, East, South


We create tools to work for us: to dig foundations, to hoist steel girders for bridges, to record our words and thoughts for others or capture a likeness of another in a silver emulsion of an early photograph. Over the course of history, need drives those who make things to meet those needs by building tools to do the work. It is just who we are–two-thumbed, bipedal, big-brained inventors who get things done.

And at every turning point when threats like the new horseless carriage or speaking telegraph or moving-picture tube is about to enter public life, we think the worst will happen. Even the advent of books was looked on with a jaundiced eye by the church and the politicos who feared that if everybody had the facts, the top cats would lose exclusive control of “the truth.”

And so I found myself wrapped in this historical skeptic’s discontent the first time I held my smartphone up to an unknown fern and it spat back an answer in seconds. I so wanted it to be wrong, but it nailed it.

Academic or enthusiast-botanists before the late 20-teens would have spent countless hours to ID an unidentified plant, thumbing and stumbling through the thousand pages of a branched dichotomous key to the vascular plants of North America. They would have had to learn the ponderous dysphonic terminology of plant life. They probably all carried a hand lens with them in the field, because the keys often turned on the presence or absence of barely visible features not easily discerned by the unaided eye. It was slow and tedious work.

Those field botanists of yester-year would hold the unnamed plant in their hand, perhaps for hours; or if dried and pressed, it might have been examined multiple times in the herbaria over the course of a semester, struggling to give said mystery plant its proper Latin name. Visiting multiple populations of the plant in the wild might have been required at different stages of growth to know for sure–to examine the entire plant through time– roots and stems; flowers and seeds.

Butterfly Milkweed


Given the struggles of ancient botanists like myself, this instant digital plant identification of the there’s-an-app-for-that age seemed on first use like a cheap shot. It threatened to demystify botanical variety and reduce a season’s blooms to just so many pretty faces in somebody’s image gallery–snap it and forget it, and with practically no investment of time, energy or effort. Add another species to a life-list, because it’s all about having the most numbers. Some bird watchers have the same itch.

But I have had a change of heart, and recant my former heresies and skepticism. I can’t live with the hypocrisy any longer. And I justify this in my own mind, thusly:

You will no longer find me carrying a yard-wide Virginia Gazetteer, splayed out and crumpled in the passenger’s seat when I explore the backroads. That would be foolish now when all I need is Google Maps–a tool I don’t even have to touch but can simply tell where I want it to take me or show me where I am. This facility leaves me to focus on the details of the terrain and the town or countryside I’m driving through. The technology not only offers convenience; it allows me to center on the journey without anxing about with the route to the destination.

Granted, I am still a better navigator because for so many years, I poured over paper maps until they fell apart at the creases. I gained a visceral knowledge of the cardinal points and stayed oriented in space by the seat of my pants–after sufficient hours attending to the exact WHERE of my life in the environment of the moment.

I’d prefer we NOT (young and old) have a screen under our noses 24/7 but that ship has sailed. And if a body is going to be always with said screen, it could be used for worse uses than finding our way, geographically or botanically.

Hay-scented ferm understory, Blue Ridge Parkway, Floyd County Virginia


Digital tools exists now to give correct scientific and common names to the trees, wildflowers, amphibians and birds we see–if we bother to go outdoors. They can offer even the home-schooling parent, untrained hiker or park visitor a NAME for a thing, and that is the essential first step towards creating the world we want. Let me explain this odd claim.

Having a name for a previously-anonymous yellow flower you see on your morning walk brings it into a kinship with you. That particularity brings into your acquaintance a previous stranger now familiar, so that when you meet again, there will be the nod of recognition. But we need more than casual acquaintance in the natural world if we are to really know enough to care enough to do enough to matter, seven generations hence.

So snapping that image in Seek or PlantSnap is just a beginning–and not always a reliable one at that. The AI technology is not complete or perfect, which you know when you get an identification of a plant that offers the revelation stating “This plant is a “Dicot.” This is like a facial recognition program telling the FBI that the perp in the mugshot is “Human.” Not so helpful.

And it is always best to take the ID given by the app and follow up with web or book confirmation that you are, indeed, looking at Common Mullein. The digital ID is a serving suggestion, and almost always, more work needs to be done to at least compare the AI results with trusted botanical or zoological resources. Even small children can compare a web picture to the creature in hand (or in jar with lid with holes punched.)

Assorted catch-and-release salamanders, Mt Rogers naturalist rally


Giving nature’s non-human beings names should be just the beginning of a relationship. Having been introduced to a moss or a tree by the snapped image and then to possess a name for the thing–this is an invitation and an obligation to take the next steps in making friends of the planet’s non-human beings.

No plant or animal you find is abstract or theoretical or potential. That Cardinal Flower is as real and as alive and as much connected to Earth by history of kinship and community as we are. Don’t you want to know more, having been introduced and on a first-name basis now?

Finding an orange flower along the roadside in June, your digital tool can tell you that it is known as Butterfly Milkweed. And next year, riding along that same road in early June, you’ll know to be expecting it, and also have an idea generally for where this particular plant tends to be found–field and roadway margins and open places, not deep woods or marshes. Now you’re becoming ecologically aware across the seasonal cycles.

And as you look more closely at the milkweed’s unique features that set it apart from, say, the Daisy family, you might begin wondering why those tiny flowers have that odd configuration of petals that are different from the petals on a sunflower. Armed with the name, you’ll dig deeper and understand the amazing method of pollination that sets the milkweeds apart from almost all other flowering plant families. You’ll discover that the milkweeds produce a white sap (and have the AHA! recognition that this toxic milky sap is the origin of the name) that gives Monarch butterflies, who feed on these plants, protection from being eaten.

Moss sporophytes of Haircap moss cover a fallen log


If we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, let’s be thankful for an educationally-broadening benefit from our use of the ubiquitous tool that many humans possess on their person no less regularly than they possess eyes and ears: their smartphones. Use them to begin to grow a base of nature-knowledge and kinship. We’ll call this your child’s growing nature literacy in which the young learner comes to know the names and then the ecology, anatomy, taxonomy and natural history of as many of the things living in their common space as they can over an entire lifetime. What a great project to begin for children schooled at home–which at the time of this writing is essentially ALL children in the times of Covid19.

Now you have started on a journey of becoming worldly-wise. Nature literacy is just the first step. As it grows, it engenders a sense of place–a local context of YOU in space and time; you and the stories you hear and tell about the creatures you have known by name through the seasons. Sense of place over time leads to what I call a “personal ecology” by which you grow to see yourself as every bit as woven into the rhythms and workings of forest and wetland, meadow and mountainside as the downy woodpecker you ID’d by the Audubon app just yesterday. Personal ecology brings you—yes I mean YOU—into the Great Web of life the planet over, makes you an embedded citizen of the Biosphere.

And when you grow up or grow older with this way of seeing and knowing yourself as a member of the dedicated crew of Spaceship Earth, when you deeply know by name and understand and care for your bit of Earth that you call home, you’ll be drawn naturally to care for and about all living creature in all living places or habitats or biomes the world over.

If we can attain to this new relationship with nature, our species can move away from eco-apathy and planetary dysfunction towards eco-empathy. The human species can become a sustaining—rather than a depleting—resource towards the Ecology of Well-being.

To reach that end, every law or regulation, policy or behavior that contributes to the long-term health of the planet’s living systems, we will support. If they do the opposite, we will oppose them. Nature literacy gives us the foundational knowledge to make such judgments and take action.

That may seem like a reach, but this is my sense of how important it is to “know them by name” as a first step towards a world we want to leave as legacy for our children. We are their field guides. They will go where we lead them, and if a pocket phone app can open their world to the biosphere, then by all means, start there.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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