A Living Year - Nature Study Narrative - Part I

Whenever I read about Charlotte Mason's work and her love of nature I have lofty dreams of taking long strolls in the woods with my children as we stand in awe of the natural world around us. This almost always ignites a determination for an outing to happen in the next day or so, and thus the trouble begins. I plan an outing and dedicate an afternoon for this wonderful appreciation of God's gifts, and liberally pack our nature backpack. In go the field guides, specimen pouches, pencils, colored pencils, markers, and crayons, magnify glasses, binoculars, sketch books, butterfly nets, granola bars, water bottles, plastic containers (oh, by now I have switched from the nature backpack to the nature small carry on luggage), but the determination for a lovely nature experience is still fresh in my mind. I just know we are going to have the most beautiful time together identifying birds and finding robin eggs and hunting for animal tracks. Yes, the birds are singing, the angels are singing, and there is wind blowing through my luxuriously long tresses of nut brown hair as my long flowy skirt dances in the cool breeze of the day...And then I wake up. Yep, I slip right back to reality when the nature afternoon arrives. I am standing in my cranky slippers, my children are fighting over a napkin (yes, a napkin), the cat just hacked up a generous sized hair ball, and the washing machine is making that terrible whining sound again, and my littlest one just came screaming up to me that she closed her finger in the bathroom door, and now I don't want to budge from my house. But amazingly enough regardless of the chaos of my home or of the conditions outside, it doesn't take much for me to bail when it comes to Nature Study. I nearly always find some excuse in my head of why we can't do it. I feel like Goldilocks in my pickiness. It's too hot, it's too cold, it's too windy, it's too cloudy, it's too something, and nothing is just right. Ugh, what's my problem!

Curious about my reluctance to pursue an area of Charlotte Mason that in my heart of hearts I really appreciate and want to embrace, I took some time one afternoon to discover what was my problem. I pulled out my Charlotte Mason resources to reread why Miss Mason felt Nature Study was so important hoping it might help to spur me on to motivation for my Nature Study time. It was in reading that I realized that I had a sense of intimidation as I felt like an underachiever as I read that Miss Mason had her students and her teachers take to the great outdoors every day for an hour or more. They would take in the lovely landscapes and sights and sounds of Ambleside's Lake district in England. The pictures of these places looked so rich and inviting with it's rolling green hills and knolls, and lanes and flower speckled hillsides, and all right out their back door. (thus the reason that Charlotte chose the location for her teaching schools) And all I could offer to our children was a small weed laden yard with nearby traffic sounds, and a six foot stockade fence with a incessant barking dog just on the other side. Not exactly the picturesque tranquil scenes of the lakes of Britain. So what's a mom to do?

Well, I stopped looking for the most perfect of situations. Charlotte Mason wanted children to go outside simply to breathe the air and stretch their little bodies. Of course she wanted them to see the beautiful world around them, and appreciate the trees and flowers and birds and all. But if I was sitting with Charlotte in my inadequate backyard :), she would find the richness and the beauty of it just as it is. I know she would guide our children and myself to a small patch of blooming ivy flowers and take that it. Appreciating the smallness of the petals and the delicacy it's shape. She would then guide us to a tree where she could hear a bird calling to it's mate or calling to impress a soon to be mate. Charlotte wouldn't need the perfect location or really encourage all the gear that I thought was important to fully appreciating the natural world around us at least not on the onset. She would first want us to just BE. No haranguing agenda, no nagging need for collecting specimens, just standing (or sitting) and looking and enjoying the outdoors right where we are. 

So Nature Study's first steps are to walk into a natural setting and just observe. Take in the sights and sounds and smells and pleasures of where you are regardless of your location. Take a deep breath and don't talk for at least five minutes. Let your children and yourself observe in the quiet what is going on around them, and do this right in your back yard. No need (if you're like me) to remove your slippers or make any fancy plans just step out into your backyard (and if you don't have a backyard just go to your window and open it a bit to hear the outside), and now just observe. Allow your mind to slow down and focus on the sights and sounds you hear near you and far away. You will be surprised how much you hear and see. And you will be surprised how quickly your body starts to quiet and relax. Your children will need practice getting quiet and little little ones will need more time to practice this, but it can be done. It can become another habit that can be trained.

After a number of times of training the habit of stepping into nature and allowing the quiet and getting good at observing the sights and sounds, then start putting into place the nature guides and sketch books, adding a little at a time. More gear and gadgets does not mean a better Nature Study. Charlotte Mason's reason for walks and time outside was because she sincerely felt that it helped weary souls to recuperate. (and sadly in our day and age, our children's souls can be just as weary as our own.) 

Well, I'll end here and ask that you read Part II of this blog post as I'll write an excerpt from a narrative nature book that illustrates the point of just "being" in nature. Come walk over to Part II with me if you'd like.