Updated on 06.25.08

Starting a Natural Collection

Trent Hamm

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.

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  1. Adrian says:

    “Books? Once they’re bought, the best you can hope for is to sell them used (or trade them) at a huge loss”

    Actually, an antiquarian or collectible book collection can massively outperform the stock market. I assume here you mean buying books at Borders for reading purposes, rather than old books for investment.

  2. Tony says:

    Great post. I’m going through a dilemma right now trying to decide whether or not to keep collecting comic books. I get a lot of enjoyment out of them, but at 60 – 70 bucks a month for 10 titles, is it really worth it? With gas prices the way they are I’m thinking I might have to suspend my subscriptions. I’m actually thinking about collecting stocks instead! Pretty sure they’ll appreciate faster than Batman…

  3. Randy says:

    If you live in an area where precious metals are commonly found (think Colorado, California, and Alaska), then metal detecting can be a fun and profitable hobby that does not require much space. I have relatives in Alaska that commonly found valuable artifacts on their expeditions…

  4. Procrastamom says:

    Our family collects license plates. No, we don’t steal them off of unsuspecting driver’s cars. We keep a list of all the ones we’ve seen in our travels…we’re on a quest to “collect” all 50 States and 13 Provinces and Territories (we thought Hawaii would be the hardest to get without actually going there, but surprisingly we saw one in our little Canadian city recently!).

    We also have a thing for waterfalls. We won’t go on a hike unless there’s a waterfall to see (that’s the incentive for hiking), so we take pictures of all the ones we’ve visited for our collection.

    (I know, kind of weird, but CHEAP!)

  5. Carrie says:

    Am I the only one that doesn’t understand collecting? I don’t collect anything because clutter drives me nuts. Maybe I’m missing something. I spend my time collecting experiences, I guess?

  6. Sara says:

    Loved the inclusion of nature photography. I can’t stand collecting “stuff” just for the sake of it, but once I got to that idea, I knew that was one way I could approach this concept. All of the fun nature experiences, none of the dusting.

  7. Jules says:

    Trent, as much as I love the last two, I must ask you to amend “nature collections”. There are so many endangered plant and animal species in the US that encouraging people to collect them is irresponsible. No, one leaf will not hurt a tree. But hundreds of people each taking one leaf, will.

    I’m an avid birdwatcher (if I can find the time for it), so I totally dig collecting observations. I’d love to do avian photography, too, but birds are too damn far away and a lens…well, if anybody wants to give me $3000 :-D

    Photography in general is fun. I’d eventually like to take a course on doing your own developing, though–I think the whole mystique of developing your own pictures has been lost in this digital age.

    PS–the first photograph is of a Eurasian Jay. They’re rare migrants, if seen at all, in the continental US :-)

  8. Rebecca says:

    I’m with Carrie. I don’t get collecting. It’s just stuff that sits there to me. I just prefer to collect food and then cook an eat it. Even if you consider my kitchen things a “collection” I don’t keep things i don’t use and almost all of it was given to me as gifts.

  9. Dave says:


    Do you think hundreds of people will collect a leaf from the same tree? You overestimate Trent’s popularity :p

  10. Holly says:

    I just wanted to let you know that in some states it is illegal to collect certain nature items, like bird feathers, especially of rare or endangered birds. Anyone who is interested in starting a collection, especially of bird feathers or pressed flowers or plants, should check with their local fish and wildlife department to make sure what they are doing is legal.

  11. DB says:

    FYI – collecting and possessing feathers from protected, non-game birds (i.e. such as songbirds, shorebirds, etc. is very illegal. Yes – even picking up a blue jay or cardinal feather is technically illegal. College biology profs, teachers, and some other researchers may be able to obtain a collecting permit.

  12. DB says:

    Just a continuation – in case people were wondering why feather collecting is illegal. Toward the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, it became quite fashionable for ladies to wear hats sporting the various colorful feathers of birds. Many species were brought to the edge of extinction due to this practice. Thus laws were enacted to prohibit the taking and possession of bird feathers.

    “Take only memories, leave only footprints” – pretty good nature motto to live by. Don’t “collect” from nature – leave it for all to enjoy!

  13. Julie says:

    The photo of the butterfly implies that butterfly collecting would be okay — I suppose pressing dead butterflies is fine but please don’t imply that butterflies might be caught in nets to join collections.

    My dad got me starting collecting coins from pocket change – I passed many hours digging through his coin buckets (washing my hands frequently of course!). Stamps is another great collector hobby for kids.

  14. kufreabia says:

    i think u are right about the books except the fact that real old books sell well, even if they are not 1st editions. i sold a copy of red robin for $65 on alibris.com, and i bought it for $3 in a thrift store!

  15. I like to take extreme close up pictures of flowers and frame them and give them to my mother. They are especially pretty if you find them after it has rained or early in the morning when they have little droplets of dew on them. My Mom just DIES when I give one to her.

  16. forty2 says:

    add me to the “I don’t understand collecting” clique. at one time I collected US and UK stamps (geek alert) but once I found out that my collection was worth at best face value, that kinda burned me on collecting anything.

    at least stamps don’t take up much space, though; it all fits in a 3″ binder, so it’s worth the slight effort to keep it around.

  17. This is a great idea! I too have a tendency to collect, and was trying to think of what I might do to substitute for my book and dvd collections (which I have committed to getting rid of). I’ve recently bought a nice digital camera, and love the outdoors. Taking pictures of my outdoor adventures can give me two things: something to jazz my blog posts up with, and something new to collect. Thanks for the inspiration!

  18. Tony Katz says:

    If you’re collecting something because you think it might one day be valuable, you are wasting your time, forty2.

  19. Shelly G. says:

    Great ideas…There are so many things in nature to enjoy…

  20. Trent,
    Great post. I like how you you value collecting observations as opposed to “stuff.” It seems the older I get, the more I want to simplify and de-clutter my life.

    Creating experiences in the natural world is far more beneficial to the spirit than a roomful of “stuff.” There is no maintenance cost. Just benefits.

    Thank you for adding the great images.


  21. Whatever floats your boat. I’m not much of a collector, but I can certainly appreciate fine collections. I tend to be a “purger.” When in doubt, get it out.

  22. Melissa says:

    I liked Danny DeVito’s coin collection best of all, in the movie, “Throw Mama from the Train”.

    There isn’t much nature in cities or carefully groomed suburbs.

    And “minimal artistic skill”? Such a sad phrase. All first graders love to draw and paint pictures, don’t they? Learning the alphabet must ruin a lot of creativity. Can you write your signature? That’s minimal art, hey? Just joking!

    It’s proven that art taught in schoole produces better SAT scores……MelissaK

  23. Karen says:

    I collect dust bunnies – heeheehee!!

  24. Carol says:

    Melissa, thanks for your comment – I just finished a book called The Creative License by Danny Gregory which speaks volumes about art and drawing. Check out this great book if you ever get a chance.

    I started *collecting* flowers when I walk my dog in the spring and summer. I never realized how many varieties are in my neighborhood and they adorn my house. I like the idea of taking pictures of the flowers. Thank you for the idea.

  25. Shana says:

    I only collect Hallmark Ornaments and buy them when they are half off after Christmas. They do tend to keep their value and most sellers do sell them at the half off price or more except for the older ones. When I get them down again I am going to sell them on ebay.

    Also, I don’t ever get them down until December so they do stay in the attic until then keeping my house clutter free.

  26. Diane Taylor says:

    My son became an avid bird watcher in high school with the encouragement of his biology teacher. He used much of his summer job money to buy better and better binoculars and a spotting scope. We looked on it as his “hobby”, but he is now a field biologist in Hawaii working to protect endangered species. He has held and banded birds that most people will never see. You never know where a hobby will lead you, especially if it is the “passion” of a young person.

  27. bob says:

    I like collecting porno movies.

  28. Alexandra says:

    What a great post on an inexpensive hobby! I’d love for you to post more like this..maybe a series on low cost hobbies. I’m a relatively new reader, so if you’ve done this before, never mind.

  29. Marie says:

    You would love home schooling! We keep nature journals and time line books.

    I only collect what I can use in my everyday life. (I hate clutter also) I collect plates. Everyone has a favorite plate. We buy them when we travel and we talk about the trip when it is on the table. It’s cheap,fun and the kids can tell their kids about them when they eat at the grandparent’s house.

  30. Chad Oliver says:

    ” . . . try the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to the Night Sky (my wife has that one – it’s stellar)”
    Love the pun! Was that intentional?

  31. Sonia says:

    Great ideas! In Australia many reserves are “collector free” zones, but taking note books in and taking away observations is a great idea. However, parks are fine places to collect leaves etc, and of course our own gardens. I love your tips for bringing the whole family in on the art.

  32. Tyler says:

    That’s funny. I always thought geodes were most prevalent in the American Southwest (because of all the dry creekbeds). I remember going out when I was young and collecting all sorts of geodes.

  33. partgypsy says:

    If you like sketching, nice to bring a blank sketch book and draw in pencil or other medium, plus can date and make comments in the margins. You can do this for flowers, or even people in a bar you meet while having a conversation.

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