Years ago, I discovered a small idea that quickly became an important one in my life with my kids. Charlotte Mason (the English educator of the early 20th century) believed an emphasis on nature was a critical way to develop into a well-rounded person. Her schools would follow their courses of study in the morning leaving the whole afternoon free to wander in the English country-side (no matter how moody the weather!). She couldn’t imagine that all various ills wouldn’t be cured by fresh air, walking and the keen ability to name all the plants and animals in one’s surroundings.
Unfortunately at the time, I lived in a condo in southern California. We had sprinklers, 80 degree temperatures, chronically blue skies, black crows and palm trees that never change their shape, color or drop leaves. It seemed to me that naming plants could be finished in a matter of moments (ice plant, vinca, pansies, bermuda grass, hibiscus and a few displaced maples). Weather amounted to sunrise and set. Bird watching included varieties of sparrows. The insect population offered us pill bugs and snails.
But Charlotte’s philosophy got to me. She contended that every child had a birthright: to know his or her environment, to love it, to cultivate even a postage stamp garden of one’s own. She believed deeply in the power of getting outdoors and forming a relationship with trees, bushes, wildflowers and the local wildlife (even if that wildlife turned out to be gophers and squirrels). Perhaps I hadn’t looked closely enough. Perhaps my years of growing up with a gardener in the suburbs had dulled my appetite for nature. Maybe there were more varieties of everything than I had guessed!
And so, determined to give my children a vocabulary I didn’t have, we bought
- field guides,
- sketch books,
- colored pencils,
- and maps of our local area.
Amazingly, as is so often the case, once I turned my attention to nature, it erupted into view as the varied, wild, fascinating world I hardly noticed every other day. Likewise, I discovered that just because I didn’t live in England with creeks and moors, woods and rose gardens didn’t mean there weren’t equally wonderful locations to enjoy in Los Angeles.
We went to tide pools at the state beach and met sea anemones. We sketched the pools, named all the barnacles, shell life, sand crabs, and creatures living in the salty ponds amidst craggy rocks. We noted sea grasses and sand pipers, evaluated the tides (low or high), tried to figure out if the beach was pure west (by the sun) or facing south (as some of them are).
We visited a nature preserve near our home (sure the creek was cemented in to keep it from moving into the neighboring housing development, but it was still preserved for us to hike in!). We learned about birds, we looked at acorns and pine cones. We sketched.
We found another huge, empty space of land only walking distance from us. We had no idea it even existed! In this vast empty space bordered by huge homes, a thicket of blackberries grew wild and we picked them and made pies. We took a can of silver spray paint with us one time and sprayed spider webs to see the differences between various spiders and how the webs were formed. Then we made mini books to show what we had learned.
We did all this before we moved to Ohio where nature journaling and walking were as easy as breathing. Once we moved here, we became avid birders, measuring the times they fed, looking up the best feed for the ones we hoped would visit our feeders most frequently. We took hikes in gorges and through woods. We skied mountains and had picnics in glorious state parks.
In all of these events, nature journaling had merely been the door that we nudged open through a suggestion by an educator. We did keep journals, with sketches and notes, trying to copy The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. But mostly, we learned to love nature:
- to name it,
- to observe it,
- to know it.
If you would like to enhance your love of nature, Brave Writer offers a wonderful course designed to make nature journaling a natural and joyful part of your life. What I wouldn’t have given for a class like this back in the dark ages before the Internet! I would have loved to have guidance, to have shared our work, to have experienced the process in others.