Nature Notebooks in the 21st Century

Nature Notebooks in the 21st Century

When I first started learning about Charlotte Mason, I realized pretty quickly that nature study was important. If I was going to attempt a Charlotte Mason education in my home, I would have to figure out what nature study is. I looked in Mason’s volumes, but it wasn’t clear to me exactly what I was supposed to do. It wasn’t until I started attending Charlotte Mason workshops that someone finally showed me what I was supposed to do in practice.

The model was fairly simple and consistent. We would leave the conference center, go for a walk, and find a leaf or some other artifact of nature. We would then come back inside and use water colors to paint the specimen on an individual piece of thick paper. That was nature study! It seemed pretty straightforward. I was eager to try it at home.

I knew where I wanted to go for my nature walks. Near my home was a prairie which had been carefully protected and preserved from development. This prairie was home to many native flowers and grasses, and volunteers regularly protected it from invasive species. I was fascinated by this prairie, and it gave me “a sense of place,” which I described in the very first article I ever wrote about Charlotte Mason.

A naturalist taught me about the prairie and some of the flowers we saw. I grew to love many of those flowers, such as the spider worts and the orchids. But most of all I loved the wood lilies. I learned right away, however, that I was not to pluck any of the flowers. Volunteers poured countless hours into preserving this remnant of Wisconsin’s natural heritage. This created a dilemma for me. How was I supposed to do “nature study” if I couldn’t take the specimens home? I had the water colors, the brushes, and the thick sheets of paper. But the flowers were in the prairie.

Charlotte Mason’s very first references to nature study use the term “diary.” In the first edition of Home Education in 1886, we read:

The child who spends an hour in watching the ways of some new “grub” he has come upon will be a man of mark yet. Let all he finds out about it be entered in his diary by his mother, if writing be a labour to him,—where he finds it, what it is doing, or seems to him to be doing; its colour, shape, legs: some day he will come across the name of the creature, and will recognize the description of an old friend. (Mason, 1886, p. 43)

We find this nature “diary” to contain not images, but rather, words. The child writes (or dictates) his observations about a creature he has seen in nature. A second reference in the original Home Education indicates that such diary entries are not only for the summer months:

French lesson, and observations to be noted in the family diary, belongs just as much to winter weather as to summer, and there is no end to the things to be seen and noted, They come across a big tree which they judge, from its build, to be an oak—down it goes in the diary; and when the leaves are out, they come again to see if they are right. (Mason, 1886, p. 62)

Importantly, the reference to brush drawings in the nature “diary” that we see in later editions of Home Education was not present in the first edition.

Encouraged by the success of Home Education, Mason launched, in rapid succession, the PNEU, The Parents’ Review periodical, and then the House of Education. This college for training teachers opened its doors in January of 1892. After the first year, Mason was not satisfied with the program for nature study. Herbert Geldart explains what happened next:

The Nature Note-Books were first begun in February, 1893, at Miss Hodgson’s suggestion, who having been asked by Miss Mason to try to make the students as keen observers, as true lovers of, and as conversant with Nature as she herself is; hit upon the plan of making each student keep an illustrated note-book, modelled somewhat on the lines of note-books which she had herself been in the habit of keeping for her own purposes. (Geldart, 1898, p. 488)

Much later, Agnes Drury elaborated that the nature notebooks began in conjunction with a Natural History Club:

The students’ nature note books began early in 1893 when a House of Education Natural History Club, led by Miss M. L. Hodgson, was started. (Drury, 1952, p. 126)

Hodgson herself went as far as to fix the exact date that the nature notebooks began:

In the summer of 1893 [Geldart] came to stay with us at “Springfield,” in order to see what could be done about an examination of our Nature work. The Nature Note-books had already been started on February 3rd of the same year… (Hodgson, 1902, p. 7)

Geldart said that the notebooks were “illustrated.” These were no longer simply diaries; they now included drawings by the student. But how were they drawn? Three months after the nature notebooks were introduced, an article appeared in The Parents’ Review which pointed to the idea that there is something special about brush drawing:

Freehand drawing, which can only be executed with such an inelastic medium as a pencil, has always been a misnomer; but freehand painting is really all that the name implies, and must produce lightness of touch and freedom of the wrist. Teachers who have introduced it agree in saying that it has materially affected for the better the handwriting of the children. (Steinthal, 1893, p. 221)

The community at the House of Education rapidly seized on the special appropriateness of brush drawing for nature illustrations. Eight months later in The Parents’ Review we read:

The six students who left Ambleside at Christmas, sent in their Natural History Note books. All of these shew great interest in the subjects treated, and much care both in the notes and the drawings, and everyone of the books shews both progress and improvement during the year. Some of the drawings of flowers, which appear for the most part to be pure brush-work, are really beautiful, and there was one capital sheet of snail shells. Sophie Smyth heads the list for both amount and excellence of work; but Florence Mucklow runs her very close with drawings of plants, in which, what Ruskin calls their “gesture” is very well caught (Geldart, 1894, p. 77)

Geldart, like Steinthal, ties the use of brush drawing to principle. Especially noteworthy, however, is that Geldart noted that brush drawing has a special affinity to nature. In particular, it is able to capture “gesture.” Geldart states explicitly that by gesture, he means the word as used by John Ruskin.

The art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) used the word gesture many times in his writings. In one very interesting instance, he shows how nature drawn without gesture is nature without life:

… the arabesques of leaves ending in currants with wriggly stems and birds eating them—or, at least, holding them in their bills, for there is no peck, no life, no gesture—only the two birds delicately feathered, each in a proper posture opposite the other, holding the currants as opera girls do in a ballet over the heads of the principal figures. (Ruskin, 1903a, p. 51)

Indeed, for Ruskin, the human imagination can use gesture to bring even inanimate objects to life:

Now in all other kind of energies except that of man’s mind, there is no question as to what is life, and what is not. Vital sensibility, whether vegetable or animal, may, indeed, be reduced to so great feebleness, as to render its existence a matter of question, but when it is evident at all, it is evident as such: there is no mistaking any imitation or pretence of it for the life itself; no mechanism nor galvanism can take its place; nor is any resemblance of it so striking as to involve even hesitation in the judgment; although many occur which the human imagination takes pleasure in exalting, without for an instant losing sight of the real nature of the dead things it animates; but rejoicing rather in its own excessive life, which puts gesture into clouds, and joy into waves, and voices into rocks.  (Ruskin, 1903b, p. 191)

Geldart’s evocation of Ruskin established an enduring link between three ideas in the Charlotte Mason method: gesture, life, and brush drawing.

Five months after this paragraph by Geldart appeared in The Parents’ Review, Charlotte Mason made the following statement at the PNEU Annual Meeting (June 8, 1894):

… after the child has seen and studied the living growing thing in situ, and has copied colour and gesture as best he can. (Mason, 1894, p. 430)

Although she does not mention Ruskin or put the word gesture in quotes, it is fair to assume that she was evoking the linkage between gesture, life, and brush drawing. She developed this linkage further in 1896:

The knowledge of Nature which we give is of living Nature. We are far more anxious that a child should know the gesture and habitat of a flower, in the first instance, than that he should begin by examining its structure. If I wish to know all about my friend Mrs. Jones, I visit her and especially see what she is in her home, and thus learn far more about her than if I saw her under the hand of the dissector.

We venerate life exceedingly, and are unwilling to destroy it in any form. We prefer that our children should study the flowers of the field, and reproduce, however feebly, their tender grace of gesture, their purity of tint, than that they should be prepared to pass a difficult examination in scientific botany—highly as we value the latter kind of knowledge in its due time, that is, after children have acquired what we may call a personal acquaintance with Nature. All interest in life is a source of life, and study should be a means of fuller life. We do not care about collections except so far as they lead on to love of living Nature.

Nature-study always follows the formation of a Branch of the Society in any place. When knowledge is derived from text-books, children are satisfied, and never ask questions about what they learn, because the dead matter of the text-book induces a condition of mental lethargy in the learner; but when children are brought into touch with living Nature their curiosity is insatiable, and their love grows with that it feeds on.

A lady remarked the other day that a walk which used to be dull and uninteresting to her before she belonged to the P.N.E.U. was now a source of the greatest delight, for to recognise the redstart, or find the nest of the paper-wasp, was a greater pleasure than to meet a lion of society. (Mason, 1896, pp. 385-386)

By 1898, virtually all nature drawings at the House of Education were done in brush work:

The original sketches are almost invariably brush-paintings in water-colours without outline, a method which catches the “gesture,” as Mr. Ruskin calls it, and general character of a plant better than drawing with a point or with a hard outline. (Geldart, 1898, p. 490)

The reason for the predominance of brush work is again anchored in principle: the character of the plant is best captured by the gesture of a brush rather than the line of a pencil. And I would suggest, better than the pixels of an iPhone, too.

The insistence on brush drawing was apparently a surprise to parents and teachers (as perhaps it is today). We read in The Parents’ Review that same year:

Many mothers and many governesses are still puzzled by that dark saying, ‘Brush drawing.’ It is difficult to believe that one must forego the familiar lead pencil or slate pencil and let children’s first lessons in drawing be made with that much freer instrument, the paint brush. (PNEU, 1898, pp. 264-265)

Two years later, the prevalence of brush work in nature notebooks was again noted in The Parents’ Review:

This seems mainly due to the fact of brush-work being so widely used in Nature Note-books… (Fagan, 1900, p. 653)

In 1904, Mason published School Education. In this book she formalized the assertion that gesture is best captured with the brush:

Aesthetic appreciation follows close upon recognition, for does he not try from very early days to catch the flower in its beauty of colour and grace of gesture with his own paintbrush? (Mason, 1989c, p. 77)

And the flower must be seen in the field, for that is essential for a “living education”:

It seems to me a sine quâ non of a living education that all school children of whatever grade should have one half-day in the week, throughout the year, in the fields. (Mason, 1989c, 237)

Then in 1905, Charlotte Mason released her updated and revised version of Home Education. She amended the information she originally gave about “nature diaries.” These diaries are no longer simply to be collections of words. They are also to be collections of pictures:

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. (Mason, 1989a, p. 55)

Two years later, Mason published Formation of Character. In this volume, she made her most profound statements about brush drawing. In her wonderful exposition of the education of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, she lamented the failure of his early training in art:

Then, as now, children were taught to draw, not from objects, but from drawings of those objects; that is, they were and are taught to imitate lines rather than to receive and record impressions of things. The father, who held that nothing was so stimulating to young pupils as for their elders to learn with them, also laboured at this unprofitable copying; and with an English pencil on fine Dutch paper he not only copied the lines of the composition but the strokes of the engraver. (Mason, 1989e, p. 335)

The problem was that he drew lines. Mason’s assertion is that life is captured not in lines but in gesture. In other words, art is learned with the brush and not the pencil. What happens if this principle is ignored?

… we know that all his life Goethe had a great hankering after this art; and as an old man we still find him copying a detail of some picture, line by line, shade by shade. It would appear as if we are always handicapped by the faults of our education, not merely in a general way, but subject by subject, method by method, we are only able to go on with that which has had a living beginning in our youth. (Mason, 1989e, p. 335)

Here we find that Mason’s insistence upon the brush is not an indifferent thing. It is, as with time out in the fields, a sine quâ non of a living education. And it should be noted that whenever Mason refers to a “living education,” she is making a theological statement:

Supposing we are willing to make this great recognition, to engage ourselves to accept and invite the daily, hourly, incessant co-operation of the divine Spirit, in, to put it definitely and plainly, the schoolroom work of our children, how must we shape our own conduct to make this co-operation active, or even possible? We are told that the Spirit is life; therefore, that which is dead, dry as dust, mere bare bones, can have no affinity with Him, can do no other than smother and deaden his vitalising influences. A first condition of this vitalising teaching is that all the thought we offer to our children shall be living thought; no mere dry summaries of facts will do; given the vitalising idea, children will readily hang the mere facts upon the idea as upon a peg capable of sustaining all that it is needful to retain. (Mason, 1989b, p. 277)

If we grant that “God the Holy Spirit is Himself the Supreme Educator,” and that “the Spirit is life” (Romans 8:10, ESV, 2016), then education should use living things. For the study of nature, this means encounters with “living Nature,” encountered “in situ,” and reproduced with the paintbrush. For a true Charlotte Mason education, these elements are non-negotiable.

This guideline set by Charlotte Mason was reaffirmed again and again in The Parents’ Review by House of Education students and teachers. In 1909, former House of Education student C. Cooper wrote:

All children in the Parents’ Union Schools keep Nature Note Books, or Nature Diaries; … The children illustrate these with brush drawings, these drawings should be done without pencil, just freely with the brush, and the child should be left to his own initiative, as far as possible, a little guidance being given at first, but his Nature Note Book should not comprise his drawing and painting lessons. (Cooper, 1909, p. 341)

In 1916, House of Education teacher Agnes Drury, a close friend of Miss Mason, reiterated this principle:

Each chooses what she likes to bring home to paint (with the brush only) in her Nature Note Book… (Drury, 1916, pp. 677-678)

In 1922, art teacher L. Gore explained the special affinity between brush work and nature journaling:

In brush drawing, the simple stroke or sweep of the brush must produce the line or shape required with no previous guiding line or outline. It requires considerable accuracy of eye and control of hand and affords magnificent training in judgment. It is essentially suited to flower-painting and Nature Note-book work. (Gore, 1922, p. 653)

When Mason’s Towards a Philosophy of Education was published in 1925, it further enshrined the linkage between brush work and nature study:

Their field studies give them great scope. The first buttercup in a child’s nature note book is shockingly crude, the sort of thing to scandalise a teacher of brush-drawing, but by and by another buttercup will appear with the delicate poise, uplift and radiance of the growing flower. (Mason, 1989f, p. 217)

House of Education student G. Downton reaffirmed the principle in 1931:

All paintings should be done in brush work with the greatest possible accuracy and painted to size. (Downton, 1931, p. 188)

And Drury yet again affirmed the principle in 1941:

Pencil sketches, if advisable (which I do not admit), should be more and not less accurate than brush drawings. (Drury, 1941a, p. 62)

It is important to note that the insistence upon brush work in nature notebooks was not a rule that prohibited the use of pencil in any situation. For example, in 1923, an article from the second volume of The Parents’ Review was reprinted, suggesting that the sentiment was still valid more than three decades after it was first written:

… for drawings done for amusement by herself, it is better to let the child use any medium she fancies, in order to disabuse her of the idea that too much depends upon the means. (Monkhouse, 1923, p. 114)

Did this insistence about brush work in the nature notebook overtake Mason’s original 1886 vision of the nature “diary,” with written accounts? Not at all. The description of nature notebooks through the years always preserved this narrative element in the journals. Charlotte Mason cements this in Towards a Philosophy of Education:

They are expected to do a great deal of out-of-door work in which they are assisted by The Changing Year, admirable month by month studies of what is to be seen out-of-doors. They keep records and drawings in a Nature Note Book and make special studies of their own for the particular season with drawings and notes. (Mason, 1989f, 219)

The written records in the nature notebooks were said to contain the “results” of nature walks:

The Nature Note Books contained interesting records of the results of excursions for the study of natural history, flowers, trees, and the like, and the notes were illustrated by coloured sketches of the objects recorded. (Rooper, 1902, p. 154)

In the 1930’s, Agnes Drury published many samples from nature notebooks, with the aim to “indicate an answer to a constantly recurring question, ‘What shall I write in my Nature Note Book?’” All of the samples read like diary entries, which is not surprising, given that Mason first called the notebooks “diaries.” The entries are always written in the narrative form. Here are a few examples from 1930:

January 22nd. Mosses were found along the top of the walls on the road to Rydal, some of them showing fructification, one green, another with an orange crown, another bronze. Groundsel and chickweed are out everywhere—the latter, with its crimson anthers, is so pretty.

March 11th. The coltsfoot is out on the steep slopes of the Nook. The lovely purple buds are covered up with coloured bracts which hardly acquire a green tinge even when they clothe the stem. The lovely golden eye, appearing as the centre of such a red cup, is a most refreshing harbinger of spring. The florets are both ligulate and tubular.

March 28th. We walked over Shooter’s Hill and by footpaths across the crown woods to Eltham. There is ploughing going on and potato sowing, apparently, and the larks were joyous under a pale blue sky by no means cloudless. Everything seems about as much developed as at Ambleside. Coltsfoot, chickweed, groundsel, pistillate and staminate willow, and elm were the flowers I saw. Dog’s mercury was not open enough to show its sex. The banks are covered chiefly with nettles and ground ivy. At least three of the Umbelliferae were in luxuriant leaf, one, I think, was pignut. In the wood, there were bluebell plants and lords and ladies.

I saw chaffinches and there was a tiny thrush singing in the big willow near the golf course. The bracts of the coltsfoot are not nearly so red as our Ambleside plants, I suppose it is for want of iron. (Drury, 1930, pp. 188-191)

These entries, written by House of Education students, have an obvious literary character. It is interesting to note the frequent use of the past tense. These entries have the flavor of someone sitting down at a table or desk and writing out recollections of an excursion into nature. They do not have the character of field notes, written to record a phenomenon the moment it is observed out-of-doors.

The nature notebooks also contained a third element: dated lists of species observed, in tabular form. Mason first introduced the concept in 1886:

It is a capital plan for the children to keep a calendar—the first oak-leaf, the first tadpole, the first cowslip, the first catkin, the first ripe blackberries, where seen, and when. (Mason, 1886, p. 41)

The nature program at the House of Education settled on tables as the best way to represent this information:

These Diaries contain descriptions of the plants, insects, birds and other animals seen, and records of their habits; lists of plants found, with their times of first appearance, flowering and seeding. These lists were at first kept monthly, and I believe the largest number of wild flowers ever found in one month was just under two hundred. These lists were in the earlier years of the Note-Books, scattered about throughout the Diaries at uncertain intervals, taking up much space which could be very ill spared. They were in this form useless for comparison, without a great deal of reference to and fro. They are now kept in a tabular form, showing at a glance the work of the whole term or even of the whole year. (Geldart, 1898, p. 489)

The House of Education retained this approach, such that in 1913, Drury could describe the canonical form of the three-part nature notebook of a Charlotte Mason education:

1. The use of painting. Form, colour, and gesture all go to make the likeness, and studious observation of the thing one is painting tends to fix it in the memory. It is often much easier to recognize an un-named flower from a painting than from a pressed specimen or from description.

2. The use of notes. They are to date the specimen painted, to describe where it was found, e.g., in wood or by water, exposed or sheltered; to add anything noticeable about the climate or season in which it was developed.

3. The use of lists of flowers found and birds seen. They enable one to compare one year with another, e.g., the day the ryegrass flowered, or certain dragon flies emerged; to compare one county with another, for example, a mountainous with an agricultural region, or a limestone flora with that of a slate country; to compare one month with another, showing for instance, that the daffodil has a very short season and the chickweed blossoms month after month, or which flowers open in June, which in July, and so on. They distinguish the resident from the migratory birds, and show whether the latter return or leave at about the same date. (Drury, 1913, pp. 187-188)

When Drury describes the “painting” portion, she notes that “studious observation of the thing one is painting tends to fix it in the memory.” Again and again we find a link between painting and observation. Unlike the notes, which read like a post-walk recollection, the paintings always involve direct access to the specimen.

Drury’s 1941 article entitled “How to Keep a Nature Note-Book” was later reproduced as a booklet sold by the PNEU (PNEU, 1959, p. 19). This booklet flatly stated the purpose of nature brush drawing:

This opportunity for observation is the primary reason for painting and does not detract from the pleasure of putting brush to paper. (Drury, 1941b, p. 220)

Drury’s instructions for brush drawing include guidance on how to examine the specimen the moment that it is being painted:

This should be propped up in front of him as erect as possible against a back ground of the same colour as his drawing paper. (Drury, 1941b, 220)

Even more detailed instructions were given by Juliet Williams:

… if they are painting in their Nature Note Books, I ask them to look keenly at the exact shape of flower, leaf or bud until they know what shape it is going to be on the paper and where the shadows come so that they can paint it correctly without constant looking in between their brush marks. (Williams, 1923, p. 13)

So while written records may be based on recollection, for painting, each student:

… takes home something to paint. The effort of attention during the time given to painting the twig, flower or fruit, insect, chrysalis, shell or egg, fixes its form and colour in the memory. (Drury, 1923, p. 370)

Hence we find that the normative pattern for nature study in the PNEU is a nature walk, during which a student finds something interesting, and takes it back to the schoolroom to paint:

Many objects of great beauty and interest were carried home, to be made imperishable in the Note Books through the patience and skill of many clever artists. (Thornley, 1912, p. 227)

You have no difficulty in recognising a Scale How Student if you happen to be staying up at Ambleside, for you are sure to meet her carrying, what may seem to you, a few uninteresting looking specimens of flowers or fungi, or examining a weed in a ditch. (O’Ferrall, 1922, pp. 785-786)

Walks and rambles are much more fun if we have eyes for birds and clouds, and the Nature Note Books show with what care and pride, twigs and berries, flowers and fungi, are gathered and arranged for brush drawings. (Leaf, 1933, p. 166)

Nature study collections are sketched and painted in Nature Note Books according to season. (Hewlett, 1935, p. 325)

With willing co-operation from various members of the staff, parties of enthusiastic nature-lovers could often be seen collecting newts and tadpoles from the lake to take back to their class room aquariums, or gathering flowers and leaves to paint in nature notebooks… (Zochonis, 1949, p. 41)

The collection of specimens, however, must never become the sole purpose of the walk:

But we do not go for a Nature walk in order to “find something to paint.” In the country, every walk becomes a nature walk for people who are in the habit of observing things… the study of plants or insects in their natural surroundings is far better than making collections of dead specimens. (Drury, 1913, p. 189)

Over time, however, the practice of bringing “objects of great beauty and interest” back to the home appears to have created a tension. On the one hand, the PNEU had a great reverence for “living Nature.” How can that be reconciled with “plucking”?

Is it too much to hope that the Nature Note habit will help to protect England’s wild flowers? Perhaps some of you saw in the Morning Post a few days ago the description of a Cypripedium that had flourished in Yorkshire until a collector got busy and every plant was uprooted. (Curry, 1925, p. 534)

By 1935, former House of Education student R.A. Pennethorne expressed the dilemma in much stronger terms:

The ‘plucker’ has always been a terror to the real naturalist, and now we have the B.B.C. to support our denunciations of the bluebell ravisher… Perhaps the best deed of my life was to have left a rare S. African wild flower where I found it. (Pennethorne, 1935, p. 49)

What was only a matter of conscience for Pennethorne in 1935 is now a matter of law. Quite simply, on federal lands, it is “illegal to pick or collect plants without a permit” (USDA, 2011, p. 1). Furthermore, on state and private lands:

It is illegal to cut, destroy, mutilate, or remove any native tree, shrub, fern, herb, bulb, cactus or flower from public lands. It is also illegal to take plants from private land without written permission from the owner. (USDA, 2011, p. 1)

These laws are backed up by solid ecological principles and ethics. In fact, one of the rules of the Center for Outdoor Ethics is “Leave What You Find.”

These contemporary ethical and legal considerations make it challenging today to precisely replicate the method of nature journaling observed for at least fifty years by the PNEU. Note the key elements of that method:

1. Nature study is always done in the context of nature (not the florist):

And, having made the acquaintance of a wild flower, so that they can never forget it or mistake it, they should examine the spot where they find it, so that they will know for the future in what sort of ground to look for such and such a flower. (Mason, 1989a, p. 51)

2. The choice of what to write and paint is left to the student:

… his nature diary should be left to his own initiative (Mason, 1989a, p. 55)

The children keep a dated record of what they see in their nature note-books, which are left to their own management and are not corrected. (Mason, 1989c, p. 236)

3. Painting in the nature notebook is based on direct observation at the time of painting, not mere recollection:

We must be very sure that the children paint what they really see and not what they imagine they see; a great deal depends on making them look properly and carefully before beginning to paint, especially when it comes to considering lights and shades in colours. (Loveday, 1909, p. 545)

4. The notebook has three components: brush drawing, diary-style entries, and tabular lists.

5. We must have a reverence for life in nature:

Reverence for life, as a wonderful and awful gift which a ruthless child may destroy, but never can restore, is a lesson of great importance to be taught to each child. Remembering this, we should not allow the little child to pull a flower to pieces, or to injure or destroy any form of life, though dissection of flowers is necessary when more advanced botany is taken in the school, it is quite possible for the little child to gain sufficient knowledge from the growing plant, flower, or living creatures to enable him to make a rough classification. (Cooper, 1909, p. 339)

How can one satisfy all of these requirements? If a child goes out in the field (point 1), finds a flower he wants to paint (point 2), but should not rely on mere memory (point 3), how can he bring it back to paint (point 4), without violating ethical and legal principles for reverence for life (point 5)?

Wood lily

Of course some objects from nature can be collected ethically, depending on where you go and what you collect. But it was a burning question for me years ago as I walked through the beautiful Chiwaukee prairie. I saw the wood lily and I fell in love. I have only ever seen two or three in all my years of strolling through that field. Conscience would not allow me to pluck it—to steal it—from its wonderful home. But I wanted to capture it on paper—not with a pencil, but with a brush. I wanted to paint it, and allow my children to paint it too.

Which principle would I have to sacrifice? Reverence for life? Initiative and interest? Brush drawing? Nature in context?

I decided I would violate no principle. I would only violate precedent. Instead of taking the specimen home to the watercolors, I would take the watercolors out to the specimen. And that is why I bring my notebook and my paints out to the field. Quite often we do bring specimens back to paint at home. But when I spot a wood lily, I am glad I have my field kit on hand. And I think it is a valid option for Charlotte Mason nature notebooks in the 21st century.


Center for Outdoor Ethics. (n.d.). Leave what you find. Accessed May 4, 2018.

Cooper, C. (1909). Nature study. In The Parents’ Review, volume 20 (pp. 337-348). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Curry, V. (1925). The teaching of nature study. In The Parents’ Review, volume 36 (pp. 529-537). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Downton, G. (1931). The charm of nature study. In The Parents’ Review, volume 42 (pp. 184-190). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Drury, A. (1913). Nature study. In The Parents’ Review, volume 24 (pp. 187-190). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

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9 Replies to “Nature Notebooks in the 21st Century”

  1. Beautiful article, Art! Thank you so much for sharing your research and walking us through the thoughts you have regarding how to honor Charlotte Mason’s method in this age.

  2. Thank you for a very thorough article! It is very much helpful and well researched. I was also inspired by Nicole’s most recent article on Nature studies and notebooks. I completely changed my approach after reading her article and today I got out the watercolors! Why have I waited so long? My children watched me and tried to copy how I did it. I decided to cut out a small piece of watercolor paper to paint on and then we can paste it into the nature notebook and add our notes and journal. Our notebooks are sketchbook quality paper and my concern has been that they would become warped and over saturated with water despite trying to encourage a dry brush technique. Also, I wanted to add how I have handled not picking things. I take my phone and we draw (now we will paint) from photos. We live in a very hot climate and sometimes staying out in nature is quite difficult. Thank you, again!

    1. Dear Courtney,

      Thank you for your comment. It is interesting to me that you mentioned pasting your painting into your nature notebook. During my research, I came across the following paragraph in the July, 1898 issues of L’Umile Pianta:

      With regard to the brush-work; at the very first it may have to be left out altogether, but after a little practice the drawing from Nature might begin, and though it may spoil the arrangement of the book it is better that the first illustrations should be on separate paper, which can be inserted or not, as they are worthy or unworthy, because in the latter event (a likely one) if the drawing is on a page and cannot be removed the poor little artist is discouraged by a perpetual reminder of failure. (F.R., p. 6)

      I too read Nicole William’s article on nature notebooks. I actually completed writing my article in early April, before hers was posted, but did not have it scheduled for release until today. It was nice to see how many similar conclusions Nicole and I reached independently.

      I too have tried painting from photos and it hasn’t worked for me. Even displaying the photo on a large computer screen didn’t help. I think the translation from three dimensions to two greatly reduces my ability to observe and understand the specimen.

      Thank you again for comment, and many blessings to you with your ongoing nature study!


  3. Thank you, Art! You have articulated what I have been sensing. I have been trying to figure out how to make our nature study more living to my students! Taking our field kits with us can be a hassle at times (gathering supplies, not losing them on the way, learning how much paint verses water to use, etc..), but it is a necessary habit we must form if we are to truly experience and get to know nature on a deeper personal level. I tested it out in my classes yesterday. It was such a joy to watch my students engaging in their own study and collaborating with one another! I am blessed by all the time you spend researching. Thank you for sharing your finds.

  4. THANK YOU for this incredibly well researched and documented post. I’ve felt some confusion in things I’ve read lately about nature journals and this really helps me to understand the whole perspective of it all.

  5. Thank you for the quote above about painting on separate paper and then inserting into the journal (or not). I have recently begun adding brush drawings to my own nature journal, and have done it this way. It’s been freeing for me, and has been a way for me to begin this habit with a little less frustration and discouragement.

    1. Also, I meant to say in my first comment – this is a fabulous article, thank you so much for the research you’ve done!

    2. I am glad that this has been freeing for you. I actually saw an example of this practice in one of the House of Education student nature notebooks at the Armitt Museum in Ambleside.

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