“Come forth into the light of things, let Nature be your teacher.” ~ William Wordsworth
As I write this post, I am sitting on my deck, trying to focus on my surroundings and to use my senses to relate in some way to what I notice in my yard. The air feels cool and damp. A light breeze is stirring the leaves on my tree. Its cracked bark is greyish-brown, rough and knotted in places. The occasional squirrel nibbles on its keys and I see some evidence that insects have been chewing on the leaves. I hear different birds chirping and the buzzing of flies, bees and cicadas. As the cloud cover shifts, I observe changes in the shadows being cast, and sometimes I see small white butterflies and tiny feathered dandelion seeds flicker in the light. Mine is not a curated garden. It is covered with assorted tall grasses, weeds, dried leaves, old branches, and bell-shaped purple flowers. I breathe in and my nostrils fill with the scent of wet earth. These things that I so seldom reflect on have become a source of fascination for me in recent weeks. I have been spending a lot of time in my backyard, and this period of isolation has given me the gift of time to discover what I can learn there.
“Whenever I have found myself stuck in the ways I relate to things, I return to nature. It is my principal teacher, and I try to open my whole being to what it has to say.” ~ Wynn Bullock
Lately I’ve been reading some thought-provoking books, including: On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz, Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear, and Light by Eva Figes. These have really gotten me thinking – about what we do and do not notice, and how we might pay more attention; about the role nature can play in inspiring us; and about how the beauty of what’s around us can be represented. Horowitz describes in some detail how different things look, depending on who’s looking (and her experts include a toddler, a geologist, a typographer, a doctor and a dog, among others). Maclear writes about (and draws!) her experience of restoring creativity through bird watching. I cannot deny that this book has encouraged me to see and hear birds in new ways. Figes’ novel invites readers to spend a day with Claude Monet and to imagine how he saw light and captured it in his paintings. One of my abstract art assignments involved looking closely at my subject matter. I chose to do quick sketches of seashells in my home and this revealed exquisite details – textures, lines, shapes, colours – which became more and more amazing to me through the process of really looking. Lastly, I watched an online workshop on nature journaling, something I have long wanted to explore. So, I bought a blank, spiral-bound sketch book, collected my drawing materials and decided to try it.
“You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns.” ~ Henry David Thoreau
I began by re-imagining my backyard as a sit spot – a place for reflecting, and for engaging in inquiry. I could actively look at my tree and plants, or simply wait for insects and birds to come to me. I have detected traces of the presence of creatures I didn’t see, but I know have visited my yard (e.g., chewed leaves, claw marks, mysterious scat). I have come to realize that I don’t have to venture too far to enjoy nature. I discovered that what captivated me the most were: my tree, bird songs, and insects. I have spent a long time sitting in the shade of my tree knowing only that it is “some kind of maple”. My big question became “How do you identify a tree with limited information about it?” I know mine has keys and some of the leaves have three pointed lobes. With help from the Internet, I learned that my tree is a Cretan Maple. I did a leaf rubbing and made a few notes in my journal. Birds have been another source of pleasure for me. Recently I spotted a cardinal couple in my tree, but typically I hear lots of calls without actually seeing the birds. When I close my eyes, sometimes I can hear up to ten distinctive voices! So my next question was, “How do you identify a bird by its song?” I found a recording of local bird songs and made a beginning of matching the songs to the bird images provided. It is my plan to explore birding by ear, and to learn about how birds vocalize and communicate. Lastly, I enjoyed unexpected visits from assorted insects including an inchworm, stink bug, and such butterflies as the Monarch, Black Swallowtail, Cabbage White and Eastern Comma. I have made a note to learn more about butterfly habits, and to learn how to make my garden more attractive to them. In the meantime, I will continue spending time in my backyard, and discovering ever more things that fill me with wonder.
Making my first tentative journal entries, and experiencing quiet contemplation in the shade of my tree, has made me think about how to translate my learning into classroom practice. How can educators encourage a balance between learning actively, while developing the stillness required of tuning in to nature? As a beginning, I would focus my attention on how an exploration of trees can be brought into different areas of the curriculum. Of course, the ideal place to start is outdoors, where children can have a real experience with trees, look and touch, ask big questions and then spend time searching for the answers. Adopt a tree. Draw it repeatedly during the changing seasons and really get to know it. Create leaf and bark rubbings as a simple art activity. Read stories that honour trees. Listen to music that invites you to imagine how it feels to be a tree. Collect keys, pine cones, acorns and twigs to examine with magnifying glasses, or to use as loose parts for creative play. Most importantly, share your own curiosity as you engage children in their own reflections. And encourage them to document the blossoming of their curiosity and wonder in their own journals, so their life journey will always include a love of nature.
“Go out, go out I beg of you
And taste the beauty of the wild.
Behold the miracle of the earth
With all the wonder of a child.”
~ Edna Jaques