Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Our Plan for the Year: Natural History

I often visited a friend who lived in Maryland when I was in college. Her family lived in the woody hills near the Appalachian Trail (no, they were not Appalachian-Americans). Whenever a bunch of us went walking, she could tell us about the plants and animals. Although I was well-educated and was on track to graduate from a fairly prestigious school, I felt so ignorant about nature.

I couldn't even blame it on being a city-girl because I had spent my high school years in rural Newfoundland--the nearest stoplight was an hour-and-a-half away. My siblings and I did things like build a cabin in the woods, or a distant facsimile of one. We went fishing, picked blueberries, got stuck in the bog, combed the beach for junk, etc. Our school extra-curricular activities included a fishing derby, camping at a bird sanctuary, and heading out to a nature park. One teacher even took us hobbit-hunting down at the docks on the one nice day of Spring--there was only one. As much time as we spent outdoors, we didn't know nature like my friend did.

I used to think that her parents made her learn all that stuff because they were teachers. Her mother was a librarian, and her father taught driver's ed and coached after school. But, now I think it was because her father grew up farming. Her parents grew their own vegetables and her dad even kept bees. They were very close to the land, well-aware of the passing of the seasons. Their old-fashioned lifestyle reminds me of a quote from the one book we are reading for natural history,
By having others think for us and design our work and pleasure, we now live comfortably without certain knowledges that only a century ago were essential. In losing our need to know so many things, our list of general knowledge has at last become exceedingly small; it equips us well for business, less well for the sciences, and very poorly for living the full life.

Spending a little amount of time studying natural history is one element of living the full life. Yesterday Pamela and I studied some empty bird nests my father found in his shed. When the birds return next Spring, my dad will let us know so we can study the life cycle of birds first hand. What kind of birds will we see? Pamela thinks they are robins, but I suspect they are sparrows or finches.

After we wrapped up our study on the life cycle of painted lady butterflies, Pamela found a dead cloudless sulphur butterfly, so we started a list of butterflies in the back of her nature notebook. We spotted a common buckeye and, later this week, she will record her observations and add that to her list. We started a list of trees too, for, after studying winter buds, we will be able to compare the blossoms of peach, pear, and dogwood trees next Spring.

Yesterday, we came across another mystery: we found a branch of our peach sapling covered in webbing and small dark eggs sprinkled all over the leaves. We are keeping an eye on that while we wait for our ladybug kit to arrive.
"In the days of the almanacs, when man lived close to the earth and the sky dictated every move, there was a beautiful and profound understanding of time and life and the spiritual connection between the two." Eric Sloane

The study of natural history also includes the study of the sky. Right now, we are tracking Hurricane Earl on an NOAA chart we printed out. Pamela's first reaction when she saw the track was, "NOT SOUTH CAROLINA!" Her second one was, "Not Louisiana!" (Steve's family live there). We are also keeping weekly weather records and Pamela noticed that last week was drier than the week before and the temperatures have dropped as well. We will be spending the rest of the school year collecting weather data to sharpen Pamela's understanding of the change of seasons.

What is natural history? It is paying attention to what is happening outdoors with careful recordings of day by day observations. It is thinking about the observations and making corrections. It means taking one's time before making any rash conclusions. It is developing a sense of place, which is what we are doing in our corner of the world. When we walk, I help Pamela hone her sense of direction. We notice all the mushrooms popping up after that rainy spell in August. We see butterflies hanging out at butterfly bushes and squirrels chasing each other around tree trunks. We observe where the moss grows along the brick walls and listen for our favorite birds. We will do all these things and more as we explore our turf in a loosely structured plan that will ebb and flow with the changing seasons.

Our natural history book echoes what Charlotte Mason wrote long before he was born,
"Nature never did betray the heart that loved her";––
and, in return for our discriminating and loving observation, she gives us the joy of a beautiful and delightful intimacy, a thrill of pleasure in the greeting of every old friend in field or hedgerow or starry sky, of delightful excitement in making a new acquaintance.

But Nature does more than this for us. She gives us certain dispositions of mind which we can get from no other source, and it is through these right dispositions that we get life into focus, as it were; learn to distinguish between small matters and great, to see that we ourselves are not of very great importance, that the world is wide, that things are sweet, that people are sweet, too; that, indeed, we are compassed about by an atmosphere of sweetness, airs of heaven coming from our God. Of all this we become aware in "the silence and the calm of mute, insensate things." Our hearts are inclined to love and worship; and we become prepared by the quiet schooling of Nature to walk softly and do our duty towards man and towards God. (Page 98)


Bonnie said...

I just ordered the book!
You are having a great year.
Thank you again and again for
your blog. I would love to be your student ~~ and Emma!

The Glasers said...

You have more of a poet's soul and a gentle spirit and have such a gift for literature. I'm sure Emma loves that most about you!