Saturday, July 26, 2014

Nature: Summer's Open Book

During the usual school season, as we toil and trudge through our action-packed days, somewhere out before us is that distant glimmer of summer with its promise of long, lazy days to spend as we choose.

And as we all know, when summer is upon us, those empty spaces soon teem with too many diversions and, sooner than we like to admit, have melted as swiftly as an ice cream cone in the sunshine. It's inevitable that we get to the end of summer and find that we didn't have time to do nearly all the things we had hoped to.

One of the opportunities of summer for those who aspire to a Charlotte Mason education is to revel in the out of doors for some quality and quantity nature study time. Somehow, nature study, the most important and critical of all her subjects, frequently ends up in last place and is easily neglected during the rest of the year.

I want to encourage you that it's not too late to still make use of what is left of summer. Take the children out of the house, anywhere; dust off the paint box and nature journals and discover anew, or for the first time, the most important book to be read next to the Bible: the world of nature God has written his messages of truth, goodness, and beauty most gloriously.

In The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Collis, I read his opinion of those of us who ignore this book outside our walls:

"The book of nature lies closed before us. We look around, and everything seems more or less incomprehensible. At least that is my experience. I have come to the stage when, awake at last to the actual existence of the visible world, I also realize the shortness of life, and hasten to acquaint myself with a few of the facts before it is too late and I am dead before I have ever been alive."

This sentiment is echoed by John Muir:

"But of this there is no end, and life, when one thinks of it, is so short. Never mind, one day in the midst of these divine glories is well worth living and toiling and starving for." (My First Summer in the Sierra)

Let us not condemn our children to such an deadening life. There is still time to form a habit you will not so easily abandon in the coming year. Now is the time to get started, before the first official day of school. Carry along your first volume of Mason's series, Home Education, and while they explore, refresh yourself with information and inspiration from Mason's own words, such passages as this:

"All this is stale knowledge to older people, but one of the secrets of the educator is to present nothing as stale knowledge, but to put himself in the position of the child, and wonder and admire with him; for every common miracle which the child sees with his own eyes makes of him for the moment another Newton..." 
"Nature Diaries.--As soon as he is able to keep it himself, a nature-diary is a source of delight to a child. Every day's walk gives him something to enter: three squirrels in a larch tree, a jay flying across such a field, a caterpillar climbing up a nettle, a snail eating a cabbage leaf, a spider dropping suddenly to the ground, where he found ground ivy, how it was growing and what plants were growing with it, how bindweed or ivy manages to climb. 
"Innumerable matters to record occur to the intelligent child. While he is quite young (five or six), he should begin to illustrate his notes freely with brush drawings; he should have a little help at first in mixing colours, in the way of principles, not directions. He should not be told to use now this and now that, but, 'we get purple by mixing so and so,' and then he should be left to himself to get the right tint. As for drawing, instruction has no doubt its time and place; but his nature diary should be left to his own initiative. A child of six will produce a dandelion, poppy, daisy, iris, with its leaves, impelled by the desire to represent what he sees, with surprising vigour and correctness."
Oh, that our children would have all their senses as alive as John Muir, whose prose is nearly as breathtaking as the grandeurs he observed and recorded in his own nature diaries.

"I would fain draw everything in sight - rock, tree, and leaf. But little can I do beyond mere outlines, - marks with meaning like words, readable only to myself, - yet I sharpen my pencils and work on as if others might possibly be benefited. Whether these picture-sheets are to vanish like fallen leaves or go to friends like letters, matters not much; for little can they tell to those who have not themselves seen similar wildness, and like a language have learned it. No pain here, no fear of the future. These blessed mountains are so compactly filled with God's beauty, no petty personal hope or experience has room to be. Drinking this champagne water is pure pleasure, so is breathing the living air, and every movement of limbs is pleasure, while the whole body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all one's flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure glow not explainable...I gaze and sketch and bask, oftentimes settling down into dumb admiration without definite hope of ever learning much, yet with the longing, unresting effort that lies at the door of hope, humbly prostrate before the vast display of God's power, and eager to offer self-denial and renunciation with eternal toil to learn any lesson in the divine manuscript."

Our vistas may not be as spectacular as his Yosemite, but even a shabby patch of backyard can be a picture book of inestimable value to small eyes and ears and noses. Here, not at the kitchen table, is where their school lessons should begin. Now is the growing time. Let them open God's outdoor book and learn.

For the joy of reading,



  1. Liz, thank you for this! Every year I say we are going to start nature journals, and every year we don't. Thanks for the encouragement to begin now, not wait for fall. We are outdoors so much these days, it should not take much effort at all to sketch or jot down something we see. The only difficulty will be in deciding how much of all that we see we should record!

    1. Kimberlee,

      By all means do get started and seeing which each individual chooses to record in itself is a revelation. These are always the only days we have, so make the most of them.

  2. Thank you for two titles , Liz! I know of Muir's other books so added this one. AND just ordered the worm forgives the plough.... what a clever title!