Though I am still feeling sick, we went outside. It was a good day for it  and Amie really wanted to.  It was bright, with some clouds moving in, a few gusts of wind but otherwise not too blustery, and unseasonably mild (mid 40s). We bundled up and went for a long walk around the block. Our neighborhood is what they call “semi-rural,” so there are lots of trees and some wildlife,  and very few cars on the roads.

  • Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study

In the meantime I had read quite a bit of Anna Botsford Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study (free download here).  The book was written in 1911 for elementary school teachers. First there is a introduction on the philosophy of “teaching” nature to young children. Then it launches right into lessons about the individual objects of nature study (animals, plants, earth and sky). Because it approaches nature study through the eyes of the child, the lessons are simple and I don’t think the more recent changes in biology, zoology and genetics for instance have outdated it much.

It’s a clunker, running to almost 900 pages, so a bit intimidating, but paired with the Handbook of Nature Study website, which offers a flexible framework of weekly challenges, I feel more confident in getting good experiences out of it.

  • Simple

Comstock’s is the kind of nature teaching I wish I had had as a child and that I want Amie to begin (and continue) with. Comstock sums it up:

“Nature study consists of simple , truthful observations that may, like beads on a string, finally be threaded upon the understanding and thus held together as a logical and harmonious whole” (p.1).

A lot in that dense sentence appeals to me. First, the calm and methodical progression from particular and personal experiences, which are nothing but basic observations that employ all the senses of the child, to their slow synthesis by the understanding into a coherent body of knowledge. In fact, I like most of all the beginning of this progression: that color of that bird at our feeder, that sound of that gust of wind through our now almost leafless oaks, as they occur to that child. My child.

Truly, what else is there to a child of three like Amie than elementary pieces of experience? I can indicate, or try to tease from her with questions of “how?” at most some very simple indications of cause and effect, but really she still revels in the particular present. That is where she starts. That then is where her study of nature should start.

  • Truthful

The child should be able to make observations that are “truthful” in that her senses should accurately grasp and process these simple facts. That is not so self-evident, for children or for adults. How often do we come home from a nature walk with literally nothing? Perhaps we were overwhelmed with experiences, but that’s doubtful. More than likely we were simply not tuned in, not paying attention.

Paying attention to the presence of life going on all around us takes practice and, for us adults, some pretty conscious effort. Kids need mostly practice and a little guidance. They’re naturals at sucking it all up, but they’ll stayed “tuned” only if we nurture it from the beginning.

The only way to find out if the child has accurately observed something is to ask her to verbalize her experience. So part and parcel of “getting tuned” is “getting words”. Comstock writes that nature study cultivates in the child “a perception and a regard for what is true, and the power to express it.” It “aids both in discernment and in expression of things as they are”. (p.1) Words should of course never be forced upon the child as vocabulary lessons, but the adult should know them (for instance by reading the “lessons” in the book in advance) and simply use them often and as naturally as she can.

  • Moral

“All things,” writes Comstock (still on page 1), “seem possible in nature; yet this seeming is always guarded by the eager quest of what is true. Perhaps half the falsehood in the world is due to lack of power to detect the truth and to express it.”

Here Comstock embraces the moral dimension of nature study. That is, if the child can see something in nature for what it really is, she won’t grow up in ignorance and falsehood about herself and her fellow beings.

She will first of all be tuned into what is naturally right and wrong. “Perhaps  the most valuable practical lesson the child gets from nature-study is a personal knowledge that nature’s laws are not to be evaded. Wherever he looks, he discovers that attempts at such evasion result in suffering and death. A knowledge thus naturally attained of the immutability of nature’s ” must ” and “shall not” is in itself a moral education. The realization that the fool as well as the transgressor fares ill in breaking natural laws makes for wisdom in morals” (p2).

In other words: the (now older) child will see that we can’t mess with nature with impunity.

  • Life

That brings us to another essential element of nature study as Comstock envisions it: “The child should see definitely and accurately all that is necessary for the recognition of a plant or animal; but in nature-study, the observation of form is for the purpose of better understanding life. In fact, it is form linked with life, the relation of ‘being’ to ‘doing’.” (p.8)

That word, “life”: how we take it for granted!

If the child observes that something is alive, just like she herself is alive, and all that that entails, that it is a liveliness that is unalienable and inseparable from the vast web of everything else… And if the child would then not take life for granted: her own, that of her fellow human beings, that of the earth and of her other creatures… It is too big a hope for me to speak out loud, but I carefully and quietly nourish it within myself.

  • What do I do?

As for my own role, I am eager to accept many of Comstock’s other reassurances:

1. That “nature study is science brought home” (p.21) and that it can unfold in our own backyard and neighborhood.  Good, because that trip to the Grand Canyon is looking less plausible by the minute.

2. That fifteen minute walks are plenty. Also good, because on some days Amie soon asks to be carried, and the more she grows, the less I’m up for it.

3. That “In nature-study any teacher can with honor say, ‘I do not know’.” Phew: I say that all the time. That’s why I have so many books: to look things up in and go “Wow! Listen to this!”

4. That in that regard, the teacher “establishes between herself and her
pupils a sense of companionship which relieves the strain of discipline, and gives her a new and intimate relation with her pupils.” That is what I am looking for: companionship with my daughter.

5. And that we really shouldn’t teach in the usual classroom sense of the word. I don’t want to be her teacher: I want her to be able to teach herself and to teach me.

  • Today then

So today we took up the Handbook of Nature Study’s first Challenge… but I will report on it tomorrow!

Maybe you recall Amie’s observational drawing of her “Owlie bank” last week. It wasn’t finished yet. We returned to it over the weekend and she water colored it in.

She has taken over my habit of trying the paint in the margin, to see whether it’s the right color. Is that the right orange?


She observed that she had left out the orange and purple feathers on the owl’s forehead. But she was cool about it: “It’s okaaaay. We’ll do that next time.”


All finished. Now what?


Besides birds, we have also been observing the resident squirrel eating our three ears of Indian Corn and guarding it from other squirrels. He/she somehow got it down from our porch light.

Amie was enthralled by how he carried a kernel in his mouth, ran along the balcony ledge, then down and through the drain hole, just a little bit out into the front yard, there dug a little hole, dropped in the kernel and covered it with some leaves.

“He’s making little cupboards!” she said. She laughed, seeing him so jittery and secretive and going back and forth and back and forth.

He is very used to us now and often looks in on us. Very quaint. He sits on the balcony’s ledge, on his bum, looks straight at you, holding and rubbing his little front paws under his chin, stretching his body up, up… I love the thick white pelt of his belly. Sometimes he just stops and stays, not moving, for a minute or so. Amie and I wave at him and jump up and down (a mere three feet away, with the window in between) but he doesn’t budge.

On other news: the novel is totally, absolutely, finally finished, edited and formatted and everything. I’m sending it off on Monday.

I’m not going to give too much away. I’m going to try. If you know us, please look away, or not too closely, or don’t look at the pictures (okay, I won’t put any pictures). Sigh…

We are making all our Christmas gifts this year ourselves and out of materials we already have (most of them trash and recycling bin bound stuff).

Funny, writing that: “all our Christmas gifts this year”. We’ve actually never been Christmas gift-givers. True, we don’t celebrate Christmas, but you know what I mean: it’s the holidays, and it’s nice to give, and receive. The reality is that I did always have the ambition to give my loved ones that something special, but when I considered the cost of treating everyone to what they deserved, I was too daunted to go ahead even for my closest friends. In the end not even DH got anything, and neither did I. :(

But now we are doing this frugal living experiment (we spend a max of $125 a week on food and all consumer goods, including books), in the spirit of the Riot 4 Austerity. And when the time to think of gifts came around, I found that I am no longer daunted! Shedding  any considerations of the money cost of gift-giving has liberated me to now get to giving!

Amie and I started early, several weeks ago. We made up a list of what we could give and who we would give to. Then we started gluing and painting and drawing and cutting and sewing, oh it’s been a feast!

The cost as well as the crippling expectations have fallen away. It’s home and handmade, by myself (not known as a particularly handy or crafty person) and a three-year-old… People will just have to love it! Not that that stops me from putting heart and soul into it. On the contrary, oftentimes I find myself still at it while Amie drifted away an hour ago.

Okay, so there are some expectations, but they are not the usual ones that come with Christmas gifts (did I spend enough? is it what they expected? is it the right color? will it get lost in the pile of other gifts, more fabulous than mine?). These gifts, simply because they’re home and hand made by my daughter and I, are of a wholly different world altogether.

You’ll see…


I’m warm because I’m sitting in the sunlight, but it’s coooold out here: 20 F this morning (there’s no wind). The Red-Bellied Woodpecker that is supposed to be in Florida is still here. Can it really be our bird feeder that keeps him here? The day before yesterday I believe I saw a new bird: a Slate-Gray Junco, but I’m not sure. In any case I get pretty excited about it, and Amie caught on.

We spent most of that day and yesterday watching the birds at the feeder (through the living room window), talking about them, listening to their songs “in” this book, and looking them up in the bird guides, mostly Sibley’s Field Guide and also a big book with Audubon’s original watercolors.

Then I said: I’m going to draw that Junco in my art journal. All the while as I drew it, I talked about how the bill is yellow, and the legs grayish and look at those claws and what a small eye that is, and is this the right shade of gray? Amie was hooked.

First she wanted to copy the (made-up) owl I had drawn in my journal earlier (to the right in the picture above). She’s very into water colors now. One of the attractions is that I let her use them all on her own. The acrylic paints are in big bottles and when mixing them even I spill them all over, and they’re of course not so easy to clean up. But the watercolors and water bottle are all hers. I will look out for a nicer set of paints for her. Right now we use a $2 set from CVS.

She drew the big owl in felt pen and spelled the word O W L for me to write. I encouraged her to make it big, to add some legs (how many? two legs and two wings?), and helped by water coloring  in the left wing. The rest is all hers. It is such a powerful image! And then she spontaneously drew that little bird next to it. Can you see it? I was so surprised! She must have been paying very close attention to my more realistic drawings.


Then she wanted to draw the Robin and the Cardinal. We selected a new art journal for her from my stash. The earlier one didn’t work out because the paper is colored and lined. This one is a real sketchbook, “Like yours, Mama!”. This one too is a collaborative effort, though: just like she often draws in my art journal, I (when asked) will draw in hers.

We looked really closely at the birds in Sibley’s guide, which  features not pictures but paintings (which might be easier to copy?). Amie then requested that I draw the bird and she color it in (bird on the right below). While we worked we talked about the look of the birds’ shapes and colors, even what it would feel like to hold one in our hand, how small and soft and scared it must be, and maybe we could feel its heartbeat… We used a lot of words, tried to make our descriptions more accurate, and blended a lot of senses and experiences.

Then she drew and colored in the Robin on the left.


We talked about how it looks very much like a baby bird, with little wings, and a big eye. Notice the claws: she was surprised and impressed that birds have claws. We discussed how they need them to climb and live in trees. We took care to name the bird: Robin is its last name, Tom its first. We also practiced some reading and spelling while we were at it.

We came back full circle when she noticed her “owly-bank owl” observing our doings on the window sill. She wanted to paint that as well.


The painting you see in the picture isn’t finished. She was tired after an hour of painting birds. But she was by now paying such attention to the shape of the object that she was almost drawing blindly: that’s why the lines don’t hook up. It was amazing to see!

In the evening Amie returned to the birds and draw a Cardinal:


For all of this I am of course getting lots of information and inspiration from the Camp Creek Blog. And DH managed to download Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study, and it arrived at the library for me, so we’ll be following the Handbook of Nature Study blog challenges as well.

I hope Amie gets a lot out of this: fun (first of all!), relaxation, skills to express herself in drawing and painting, language and observation skills, and an understanding and love of nature.

Sharon – without knowing it, apparently – started  The Competence Project:

“I challenge each of you to pick some area of your skill set that’s kind of weak and strengthen it.  And when you feel like you’ve gotten competent, well, pick a new skill. “

One of my visions for our new place was to have chickens, but then it turns out you need at least an acre before the town will permit any livestock. I mourned this for a couple of months – though I do still plan to pursue it with the town at some later date. (UPDATE Jan 2009: done! We can have chickens!)

Then I realized we consume more honey than eggs (and chicken). So when Sharon challenged me, the first thing I thought of was:


I located a bee school nearby that will have classes this coming February and I will be there.

Think of the honey, and all the yummy foods you can cook with honey! And how the garden will profit!

My town, as far as I know, has nothing in its bylaws and laws about bees. I will consult my neighbors, of course, but all our properties are large enough, I believe, to accomodate a hive or two.

I am thinking of participating in Barb-Harmony Art Mom’s weekly “Outdoor Hour” challenges, which follows Anna Botsford Comstock’s book Handbook of Nature Study. Gotta get hold of the book first, though. I’m waiting to get it through the inter-library loan.

This, by the way, is why they call him the Red-Bellied Woodpecker (click on image to see larger):

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Tomorrow at the library I’m picking up A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long, as well as Sharon’s Depletion and Abundance. That’ll  make for a good mix.

At the library book and cake sale last weekend I picked up some great books, among them some books by Wendell Berry, Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder (old edition) and some great gardening books for $1 a piece!

Too many books to read! But I read one here and another one there, and the ten other ones in the middle, and if all goes well they all mix together wonderfully in my mind, like good watercolors. In the end I can’t quote from any or even remember which message or interesting bit of information came from whom, but it’s cool. I’m done with “learning as information”. I’m into lived learning now.

While perusing the marvelous Camp Creek Blog and emailing Lori about some of her entries there about observational drawing outside, I happened to mention (and realize, to begin with) that when Amie draws “from something” outside, she will attain a realism that is (to me) uncanny.

Like the drawing we did a while ago at Drumlin Farm.

Amie's drawing of two stones with Amie, Drumlin Farm (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

This was the situation as captured by the much less inspired camera eye:


I was blown away by her rendering of the boulders and of the tree and  the addition of the leaves.  It was the first time she drew a tree. She could so easily imagine herself on top of the boulder. She had some trouble with the sky: where to put it? It was interesting to see her grapple with that problem. (We’ve been talking about how “air” is all around us, even if you can’t see it, and I can see her mind trying the grasp the difference between air and sky – fascinating!)

It was the first time she had spent so much concentrated effort on getting something to look like it actually does to her eye. And I didn’t have to ask her. She saw me trying to get “a good likeness” in my own journal and decided to try that herself.

But what I think really got her going was the fact that we were outside. Has anyone else noticed that with their kids, that the outdoors, nature especially (maybe), changes the child’s artistic mindset to more realism?

While we’re on the topic of art, Amie has a new workstation. It’s a big desk that can grow with her (the top can be raised). We got it for free through Freecycle, in mint shape! It’s big too, with lots of space for several art projects at once: playdough, drawing on the small Biggie, painting on the big Biggie, and cutting out snowflakes…


I’m so happy my comfy chair still fits in the corner, but from now on I think I will simply sit next to her at the desk more often. I might get a nice sitting cushion, though. Those little chairs aren’t very comfortable for bigger bums.


Tea party on the kitchen floor with “Pooh Bear” (the bear to the left: I know, he doesn’t look like Pooh to you, but he does to her!), Caillou, and (outside the picture) Gloria (another bear) and Roo (her kangeroo). It was a rainy afternoon but I didn’t have to turn on the light, or doctor the photo afterwards. I love my new bright kitchen!


Yesterday our first pumpkin orphan was brought to us! Amie and I were just coming up the street froma beautiful Fall walk/bike (can you believe this weather: it’s 9 November and 60F!) and we saw an elderly man cradling a big pumpkin approach our mailbox. He put it down so gently near the sign we put up. We waved in thanks and he waved back. Another neighbor was just driving by and stopped to chat, saying she loved the idea! I was quite relieved: I wasn’t sure how the initiative would be received.

All the beech leaves are falling now too: of the big trees they’re about the last to release their leaves. Everywhere is littered with so many leaves you can hardly distinguish the street from the drivewaysfrom the gardens. Yesterday I saw, for the first time, the moon from our bedroom window, unobstructed by the thick canopy that  usually surrounds us. It was a magical moment.