Did you know that keeping a nature notebook has the power to awaken your senses, to teach you how to truly see things that you may have “seen” in a vague way thousands of times before yet never truly seen at all? It’s true. And, by truly seeing, you can then be truly grateful to God for creating such wonders and allowing you to enjoy them. Before I started keeping a nature notebook five years ago, I seriously couldn’t name a single bird or tree. I remember how one day my yard seemed to come alive, with all kinds of… life! There were birds all about. Had they ever visited our yard before? If so, I had never noticed them. I was shocked to discover how many different trees were in our tiny tenth-of-an-acre city lot. I asked God if all this was new, just for me, and I suddenly felt a different type of closeness to God, the Creator of this previously-unnoticed-by-me world of nature.
Do you sense a spiritual imperative to get to know God’s creation on a deeper level? In the prelude and introductory chapter from my new favorite nature lore book, In God’s Out-of-Doors, author Reverend William A. Quayle beautifully matches words to the thoughts that have developed over the past five years in my own heart. Permit me to quote Quayle at length and to adapt his pronouns as a way to personally express why I am writing this series of articles for you:
Frankly, little is to be anticipated from the Author of this article published at Charlotte Mason Poetry. She is far from being a specialist. She is not entomologist nor botanist nor ornithologist. She confesses to knowing which end of a flower the root grows on and but little more.
She purposes writing because she loves God’s Out-of-Doors. The blue sky touches her to sadness, like reading a letter from one much loved and long dead; and the shadows in quiet water affect her like a prayer. The author’s wish is to people other hearts with love of flower and woodland path and drifting cloud and dimming light and moonlit distance and starlight and voices of bird and wind and cadence of the rainfall and the storm, and to make men and women more the lovers of this bewildering world fashioned in loveliness by the artist hand of God. And beyond all this, she would be glad to bring them into fellowship and love with God, which is the poesy and eloquence of life.
Some people do not well know that God is out-of-doors. I marvel at them. He is everywhere—“though I take the wings of the morning”—but so God is in dusks and dawns and twilights and noons, in doors and out, at toil and on holidays, where deserts keep tryst with the moonlight, and where the wide sea can behold no shore—God is always wherever I have gone. He is in the little room where a baby learns its prayer from mother lips, kneeling, and with fingers interlaced (God loves a sight like this), and in the church where congregations meet to wait on the Lord, and “worship in the beauty of holiness,” and where in God’s acre we bury our beloved out of the sight of our eyes dimmed with weeping—God is there; but he is also out where he has planted the wind flowers, and where the hawthorn stoops beneath its drifted snows fresh fallen, and where sweet eglantine blooms and the fringed gentian, and where the Indian pipe grows in the dusk of quiet woods, and where the maple flushes a little in the early spring and sows the ground beneath, where its shadows will soon shut sunlight out, with its own pink blossoms, and where the sycamore stands in winter with its yellow apples like a jest of harvest for a tree so bulky, or where dodder plant, yellow as gold, steals saps from other plants to feed its splendors on, and where the sea-fowls float like a ghost of voices through the night skies, heard but unseen,—God is out-of-doors also. God is everywhere.
He made the Out-of-doors and loves it, and haunts it, as Jesus did the mountain and the sea. “Behold the lilies how they grow,” He said whose name is sweet; and so I will heed them; and, He said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?” True, sparrows are very plentiful and bickering, but I will look at them, for He made them and pointed them out to me. The trees where the birds nest and the birds that nest there, the shadows where the herds lie and the herds panting in the shadows with luminant eyes, buds that swell toward blossoming and blossoms in haste toward fruitage, white sea gull and robin redbreast with his song like the gurgle of laughter in a baby’s throat, high sea clifts leaning seaward and sea marshes through which the salt tides flood their crystal rivers, fern and oak and sweet surprise of mosses, rivulet and broad river, plunge of waterfall and placid stream where the current is asleep, russet grove of scrub oak on winter hills, and the vivid greens of willows in fresh leaf in early springtime,—I will behold “them all.” They belong in God’s Out-of-doors; and God is out there looking his premises over. And if he will let me I will go with him. And as I look his way to ask him if I may go, he looking my way, before I say a word, says, “Come, let us go into my Out-of-doors;” and I am going with HIM into God’s Out-of-doors.
I personally experience close fellowship with God when I work in my nature notebook. I am not a fantastic painter or writer, but I do my best and offer it up to Him. It’s kind of similar to how I “make a joyful noise unto the Lord” when I sing—I certainly won’t be singing on a stage or with a microphone anytime soon! But I offer my song and my nature notebook to Him nonetheless.
Nature notebooking is therefore a way to give thanks, a way of cultivating gratitude. We can’t be grateful for things we don’t see. The crazy thing is we don’t truly, deeply see something until we try to reproduce with our hand what we see with our eyes. Therefore, when we work in our nature notebook, we are engaging in hand-eye training that simultaneously trains our hands and trains our eyes. And as we engage in careful observation more and more frequently, we form a habit of careful observation.
Additionally, by attempting to reproduce with our hand what we observe with our eyes, we are forced to live in this moment—to be present right here in this place. You can’t think about what you need to do for dinner tonight or what might happen tomorrow or next year. I heard somewhere that living in the past can lead to depression; living in the future can lead to anxiety. Living fully in the present allows us to avoid both of these extremes. We don’t imagine a more perfect version of the specimen before us; no, we try to paint exactly what we see right now—imperfections and all.
I’d like to share with you an excerpt from my favorite Parents’ Review article, written about a summer course in a remote English shire at the end of the nineteenth century. It is actually really short and worth your time to read the whole thing, but here are the best bits for now:
If I were asked to characterise the training here, I should say its chief value lay in this—that it was a means of self-revelation. The ruling idea seemed to be to put the scholar in possession of his own powers and possibilities, to help him to express freely and satisfactorily the thought that was in him.
To this end nature-lore was made the central study, and all the other subjects were more or less viewed and treated in relation to it. By means of rambles over the country-side, and on the sea-shore, talks on trees, plants, common animals, birds, etc. (made living by observation of great numbers of specimens, viewed wherever possible, in their natural surroundings and in life), the attempt was made to help the student to enter into a direct relation with nature. Then he was encouraged to reproduce with his brush some natural object that had struck him, a leaf, a simple flower, a shell, a fungus.
To the individual who is unfortunate enough to have… never held a brush in his hand, the command to make a brush-drawing seems as cruel as Pharaoh’s oppressive demands on the Israelites, and as impossible of fulfillment. But here no one might refuse to make the effort, and behold, to one’s amazement, one discovered that one could produce some representation of what was before one. The colours were crude, the drawing probably very faulty, but there was usually, even in the first sketches, that intangible something that is characteristic of the particular object represented. And even where the representation was altogether faulty and the teacher could find nothing to commend…, the pupil had certainly gained something by the effort. His power of observation had to some extent been quickened. Then as time went on and hints were given and direction, … and as one practised day after day for a month, one became more and more fascinated, one attempted bolder flights and more difficult “plant gestures,” and one felt unmistakeably that a new world had been opened up, new possibilities revealed to oneself.
… this was joy indeed. Not that you were satisfied with this or any other of your attempts—far from it. But you felt, possibly for the first time, that you, too, could satisfy that innate desire of humanity to create something.
I propose that we go on a nature notebooking journey together here at Charlotte Mason Poetry. In upcoming articles, I will share all the information I wish I had when I started my own nature notebook. Come and join me! Let me know in the comments where you are in your own nature notebook journey and what challenges you’ve encountered.
 William A. Quayle. In God’s Out-of-Doors. New York: Eaton & Mains, 1902, “Prelude.”
 Ibid., pp. 19-21
 M. A. Clapperton, “Ayrshire Nature-Lore and Handicrafts Classes.” The Parents’ Review, Vol. 10, 1899, pp. 173-174.
Nicole is the director of the In a Large Room Retreat, editor of Charlotte Mason and the Great Recognition book and art print, and co-founder of the In a Large Room Community. She and her husband Kent are raising four boisterous kids (including one with complex special needs) near Washington, DC. Nicole credits her nature notebook for her intervals of lucidity. You can follow her amateur nature notebook adventures at #keeperofglory and #insidemynaturenotebook.
©2018 Nicole Handfield