by Whit Gibbons

December 29, 2013

Every so often I like to give readers a list of environmental resolutions for the New Year. Here are my suggestions for 2014.

1. Put this list on your refrigerator, reminder board in your office, or on the bulletin board in your classroom. If you take it to class after the holidays, ask your teacher for extra credit. If you are a teacher, consider awarding extra credit for each item a student completes.

2. Take a walk around your neighborhood or a park with the intention of carefully examining the bark of trees. Compare the color and texture of different kinds. Do they all have the same kind of lichens? (If you aren't sure what lichens are, find out.) Looking closely at some of the basic features of the natural world is educational - and fun.

3. Read a natural history book that discusses a particular group of animals or plants. Many excellent wildlife guides, photograph-filled coffee table books, and even children's stories will qualify. If you are a teacher who's completing this checklist in a classroom, have the students give short accounts about the ecology of a plant or animal mentioned in the book. For preschoolers at home, read them sections from your favorite natural history books.

4. You may want to wait for warm weather for this one, but it will be worth the wait: pretend you are a behavioral ecologist. Find an animal in your yard and observe it continuously for five minutes. Whatever you pick - insect, squirrel, spider, bird - watch it closely. It just might do something interesting and unexpected. If the animal does not move for five minutes, it doesn't count. Pick another one.

5. Most people are used to enjoying nature through the sense of sight, by looking at plants, animals, and habitats. Learn to observe a habitat with your other senses. Listen for animal sounds, the rustle of tree leaves, or running water. Crush the leaves of trees or shrubs to see if any have a distinctive scent. Compare the feel of different grasses, leaves, and bark. If you are absolutely certain that a plant is not poisonous, you might even taste it. Learn to use all of your senses when you are in the woods or at a lake.

6. During the colder months you can visit a natural history museum, nature park, zoo, or public aquarium. You probably live within an hour or so of one of these and most of them have an environmental theme of one sort or another. For classrooms, themes such as endangered species, water quality, and overall environmental awareness can be studied in advance, making the visit even more enjoyable.

7. Pick an animal and a plant in your region that you are likely to see on a regular basis (gray squirrel? crow? dogwood tree? azalea?). Read about each one of them in three places, including at least one source that is not on the Internet, such as an encyclopedia, natural history magazine, or nature book. Become familiar with the ecology, geographic range, and overall natural history of a species and you will appreciate it for the rest of your life.

8. Visit an ecology website to learn about a plant or animal that interests you. Remember that most websites have not been subjected to rigorous scientific and editorial reviews. Misinformation is rampant on the Internet. Websites associated with universities often have the most accurate information.

9. Help a nonprofit environmental organization. You can make a monetary contribution or donate your time. You might have the greatest impact (and the most fun) by volunteering with a group of friends or classmates to help a local environmental group.

10. Give this checklist to a friend or relative and ask them to complete it. The more people pay attention to the natural world, the better off the environment will be. When you check off this last item, you can feel good about keeping your 2014 resolutions. Happy New Year!

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

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