Summer days can provide families with welcome relief from school routines and responsibilities. They can also stretch out like the trackless sea before the weary and overstimulated parent. Nature observation provides an economical, accessiblechange of pace. Highly flexible, it can expand to fill an empty afternoon or contract to fit into a spare fifteen minutes.
Keeping an explorers’ bag packed facilitates a hasty escape to the outdoors when the notion strikes and forestalls loss of momentum in the search for supplies. The essentials are limited to sketchbooks and writing or drawing implements. Optionalsare binoculars, guides to flowers, trees, and birds, sunscreen, hats, bug spray, and nonperishable snacks.
Upon returning indoors, parents and kids can capitalize on the excursion with further research into the plant and animal world, as well as discussion about the Creator who entrusted it to our care. The books below can provide advice, ideas, and inspiration to fuel the operation.
Fearless World Traveler: Adventures of Marianne North, Botanical Artist, by Laurie Lawlor, ill. Becca Stadtlander
Younger readers will enjoy accounts of the intrepid North’s (1830–1889) childhood pursuit of varied passions. Her impressive accomplishments, however, may only be fully appreciated by adults, who can conceive of the hurdles she overcame. Between the ages of forty and fifty-five, this self-taught artist circled the globe multiple times by every imaginable means of transport. She painted exotic flora and fauna in remote locations, where handwritten letters that spent months in transit were her only means of contact with friends and family. In some cases she was the first European to document a species; in others, hers are the only surviving images following extinction.
Eight years before her death at the age of fifty-nine, a gallery featuring nearly 1,000 of her paintings opened at the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens in London. Between 2007 and 2009, a team of experts restored the collection. Today it is one of the longest-running shows by a woman artist. Fortunately for those without access to gallery, it can be accessed online at http://www.kew.org/mng/gallery/index.html.
The Leaf Detective: How Margaret Lowman Uncovered Secrets in the Rainforest, by Heather Lang, ill. Jana Christy
J.R.R. Tolkien, famed for his love of trees, would have heartily endorsed this fascinating book. Artfully written and designed, it chronicles Lowman’s (b. 1953) mission to understand andpreserve the world’s rainforests. Her innovations, which allowed scientists to study the tree canopy more closely than ever before, helped establish the critical nature of the rainforests to global ecology.
As a mother, Lowman put harnesses on her boys and hoisted them aloft with her; she believes enabling people to experience the forest is an important element in conservation. A significant part of Lowman’s work is promoting educational programs on multiple continents.
Each page of The Leaf Detective includes leaf-shaped insets that supply factual tidbits about trees and the history of tree science. A two-page diagram in the back offers activities for readers, and a list of books and videos provides additional resources for parents and educators.
The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science, by Joyce Sidman
This glossy-paged, beautifully illustrated 120-page biography will appeal most to upper-elementary and middle grade readers. Merian’s (1647–1717) extraordinary accomplishments, made possible by passion and perseverance, are inspiring. Although not trained as a scientist, she used her skills as an artist, uncommon for women of the seventeenth and early eighteenthcenturies, to further knowledge of the insect world.
Merian’s publications enlightened scientists as well as the general population. Her brilliant renderings of caterpillars, butterflies, moths, and the plants they frequented and fed on still achieve her stated aim: “Do not seek to praise or honor me for this work, but rather God, glorifying him as the creator of even the smallest and humblest of these worms” (p. 64).
Merian’s financial success was modest. But she reaped great satisfaction from her close observations and dedicated efforts. Both her diligent studies of caterpillars’ life cycles and the publishing of her art and research required astonishing dedication. Of one successful observation she wrote, “When this pretty moth-bird actually appeared … I was so filled with joy, and so content in my desire that I cannot describe it enough” (p. 115). And of the lessons she learned and applied to her publishing endeavors, “Patience is a beneficial little herb” (p.110).
The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon,by Jacqueline Davies, ill. Melissa Sweet
Lest boys think girls had all the fun, this book describes an episode from the late teen years of the man whose name became synonymous with birding. Melissa Sweet is one of my favorite illustrators; her combination of watercolor, sketches, and collage perfectly suit Davies’ text.
Davies describes the Frenchman’s experiments with banding during the couple of years he spent in North America before moving permanently to the United States in 1805. Audubon’s (1785–1851) observations provided valuable insights into bird behavior and migration, which was little understood at the time. Author’s and illustrator’s notes in the back provide additional information and resources.
The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, by Jean Mackay
Any old sketchbook, or even a sheet of paper (or several stapled together), can serve for recording nature discoveries. But for those seeking further inspiration, Mackay’s slim volume offers tips and ideas, in addition to nearly fifty blank pages suited to pencils, markers, or a light wash of watercolors.
The twenty-five or so introductory pages feature Mackay’s own lovely illustrations, as well as simple advice on mixing colors, deciding what to draw, and training the eye and hand. A tutorial on basic bird sketching is invaluable. Mackay will convince you that you don’t have to be an artist to start documenting what you see in nature. The most important practice is paying attention, and the only requisite equipment is curiosity.
Look Up! Bird Watching in Your Own Backyard, by Anette LeBlanc Cate
This eighty-page book was a favorite of my daughter’s third-grade class but contains a wealth of information that will benefita range of ages. Cate’s comic-style drawings and whimsical captions accompany practical advice about what to look for and how to identify birds. While not ostensibly a guidebook, it introduces and provides fun facts about many species. It even dips into ornithological science with a section on grouping and classification.
Explorers’ Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery and Nature, eds. Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert
Although young people are not is target audience, this visually stunning collection features sufficient photographs and illustrations to inspire explorers of any age. The editors provide biographies and excerpts from the sketchbooks of more than seventy explorers covering six centuries. Some names are familiar—John James Audubon, Meriwether Lewis, Carl Linnaeus, David Livingstone; most much less so.
Some entries comprise detailed maps or pages from journals, like those of Abel Tasman, a Dutchman who was the first European known to have visited Tasmania, Tonga, Fiji, and New Zealand. Other explorers left beautiful botanical drawings and paintings, like those of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), Margaret Mee (1909–1988), Thomas Baines (1820–1875), and Marianne North (1830–1890). Included are essays from five contemporary explorer-artists who offer a glimpse into their creative processes.
The meticulous notes and observations represented here remind readers that beauty and wonder are always there for those who take the time to look for it.
Featured image is a plate from Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium by Maria Sibylla Merian via Wikimedia Commons