Starting a Natural Collection

A Bird in a Tree.. by law_keven at FlickrMy wife and I are both natural collectors. As a young boy, I carefully collected thousands of baseball cards, spending my allowance each week on Topps wax packs. Later, in my teen years, I collected Magic: the Gathering cards with a ferociousness. I come by this naturally – my father has been an avid coin collector, the type who will sift through large jars of pennies looking for rare ones and saving them in individual sleeves. Similarly, my wife has collected books her entire life and has amassed an amazing collection of them, filling multiple shelving units in our basement.

Collections are incredibly enjoyable hobbies to have. When you’re caught in the passionate fire of collecting, you can burn whole days organizing what you have, determining the holes you need to fill, and simply enjoying the items.

The only problem is that most collections cost a lot to get started and have a significant maintenance cost, too. Sports cards require a constant outflow of money for items that might never retain their value. Books? Once they’re bought, the best you can hope for is to sell them used (or trade them) at a huge loss – the same goes for almost any media collection. Most collectibles, like Beanie Babies, fall under the same conclusion – you’re often sinking a lot of value into something with very little financial return, just personal enjoyment.

If you have that collector itch, one approach to solving this problem is to switch your focus towards collecting things that have minimal acquisition cost – or better yet, no cost at all. The best place to start is to look at the nature around you and find the things you find beautiful. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Collecting Nature Samples

One of the cracked geodes by sometoast at FlickrThe most obvious way to begin a natural collection is to identify items in nature that you can easily collect. Some things to think about if you’re pondering such a collection.

What do you find beautiful? Think about the elements of nature that you genuinely find beautiful. Birds? Trees? Plants? Rocks? Don’t limit your mind to what’s easy and obvious – spend some time thinking about it. For example, I find geodes to be stunningly beautiful, and there’s also a family tradition to them as well – my aunt was one of the most avid geode collectors I’ve ever met, spending most of her spare time in her adult life wandering around in the woods and in creek bottoms finding them. I myself love collecting leaves – as diverse and as colorful as I possibly can find. I take a lot of pleasure in attempting to identify trees based on their leaves.

What is reasonably accessible to you on a regular basis? For example, geode collectors pretty much have to live in the Midwest, as geodes are somewhat common in this area but rare elsewhere. Many collections, such as tree leaf collections, can be started anywhere and expanded upon regularly when the opportunity strikes, but don’t start a collection that you’ll have difficulty expanding near your home.

What doesn’t take up much room? You’ll also want to start a collection that won’t overwhelm your living quarters with clutter. For example, bird feather collections, if done carefully, can be stored in a binder, but collecting tons of large rocks will quickly create a problem (and make moving a nightmare, too). My aunt’s geode collection dominated their front porch, standing on every rail, and at times spilled over onto an adjacent table or two.

Can I get the family involved? If you’ve got a family, find something to collect that everyone can get involved with. Talk to everyone about it, and come up with something that everyone can get involved with. One good idea is to collect rocks of a certain color that match your external decor, bird feathers, or distinctive leaves. This can be a great opportunity to have your entire family get more in touch with nature.

Collecting Natural Observations

Peacock Butterfly in the morning by hape_gera at FlickrAnother way to enjoy collecting nature without having to store anything at all is to collect natural observations. If you decide to collect observations, the sky’s the limit – you can basically collect anything. Identify trees and native plants, view constellations, watch birds, identify rocks you find in nature, identify cloud formations – anything you can imagine.

Take careful notes when you observe things. Note where you were when you identified it, the date and time, and as many specifics as you can about the observation. Doing this will help you recall what you observed in the future – a nice collection of observations can be a real treat to go through on a day when you’re itching to go outside but the weather is an obstacle.

Get a good notebook to record your observations. Take notes on what you observed and when you observed it. If you have even minimal artistic skill, try sketching what you see. My wife and I each have sketchbooks – mine is a Moleskine reporter’s sketchbook, which works absolutely great for taking notes and making sketches of all kinds.

Consider a field guide, as well. Another useful tool if you get into natural observation is a field guide for your specific area of interest. For example, if you’re into night sky observations, try the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to the Night Sky (my wife has that one – it’s stellar) or, if you’re into rock hunting, look into the Field Guide to North American Rocks and Minerals. We own several National Audubon Society guides and have found them all to be excellent.

Nature Photography

Oak Leaf Raindrops by peasap at FlickrAnother option, if you have a digital camera, is to augment your natural observations with nature photography. Go out in the world and start taking pictures of the things that interest you – and build a nice collection of natural snapshots.

If you have a digital camera, take lots of shots. A large memory card can hold tons of pictures, so don’t hold off for the “perfect” shot. Start taking images right away. You can always toss the imperfect ones later on.

Record some notes, too. Note anything important about the pictures in your sketchbook for later reference, so that if you go back and look at the pictures, you’ll know what was depicted, where you took it, and when. Write down anything else of note as well.

Share your best nature photography with others. Join Flickr and share your best images. Add information about where the picture was taken and what’s depicted and tag it appropriately so others can easily find the pictures. Even better, allow them to be used widely via a Creative Commons license so that your images can be shared all over the place – you never know where your image might show up.

The natural world is amazingly beautiful, complex, and interesting, and it’s just sitting outside our doors, free to examine and explore. Take advantage of it to fuel your collecting urges and get in touch with the world around you.

I used Creative Commons images licensed for free commercial use in this post. Click on the images to view the beautiful originals at Flickr.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

Loading Disqus Comments ...