In loosely following the Ambleside high school years with my 16-year-old son, I have been reading aloud with him Volume 4 of the Series, Ourselves. According to the AO website, Ourselves is Charlotte’s character curriculum written to children to teach morals and self-control. Book 1 is for children up to 12, Book 2 is for high school students.
I must admit there was some resistance when I started to read this aloud to the aforementioned son. It starts out with an allegory that my son objected to on the grounds that it was too juvenile and whimsical. I had to find substitute words to replace some of the rather fanciful ones used by dear Charlotte.
However, our perseverance has yielded many worthy lessons in much more than just character and morals. In Ourselves, Mason includes her rationale for the importance of many of the lessons in her curriculum such as art, music, poetry, Shakespeare and the subject of this post— nature study. Although sometimes viewed as “extras,” these lessons should not be given short shrift. They contribute inestimable riches of beauty to our children’s souls.
This year our local support group has been focusing on nature study. We have scheduled several nature outings with delightful results. We have started nature notebooks with our children as well as begun or contributed to our own, we have shared resources and motivational tools such as cookies for inspiring the reluctant child. No, Charlotte may not have stooped as low as that to motivate but one does what one must (thanks to Karen Rackliffe and her book, Wild Days)!
In Ourselves, Mason introduces nature study as one of the instructors of our conscience. Several passages resonate with my spirit in considering the importance of nature study.
Mason talks about the importance of knowing the names of things in nature. With our group, this often becomes an obsession amongst the moms. We have been known to study the smallest details of a certain leaf or pinecone with several field guides and smart phones in our quest to identify a tree. “Come on Mom,” the children plead in vain. Many times we will take a picture of an unknown find and research it further when we come home from our outing. There is a sense of rejoicing when the correct name is discovered and shared. Mason sees this knowledge as a duty.
“People are beginning to know that it is a shameful ignorance to live in this rich and beautiful world and not know the things about us even by name. The inheritors of precious collections recognise it as a duty to know, and to know about, the things they own: not to do so would be boorish ignorance. Here is a duty that lies upon us all; for we all enter on the inheritance of the heavens and the earth, the flowers of the field and the birds of the air” (vol. 4, p. 97).
But in addition to the reward of just knowing the name, we also gain a relationship.
“[A]nd, 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.”
I love this idea of greeting the old friends of previous years by name. We have a naturalist in our area who leads wildflower walks in the spring at our local nature center. The first time I went on one of his walks, I was utterly charmed at his reaction when one of the participants innocently pointed to one of the many spring ephemerals inquiring, “What’s that?” Mr. Green gave it a quick glance, broke into a big smile and said, “O, looky there, you found Dodecatheon meadia, Dodecatheon meaning twelve gods because this flower is in the primrose family which was under the care of the gods. The common name is Shooting Star, it is also known as American Cowslip, Mosquito Bells and Rooster Heads.” Mr. Green knew the Latin and common name for everything we found that day. I became determined to start learning their names as well. I am truly delighted when I can look at a patch of wildflowers or even weeds and greet them by name. We have a relationship.
“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.” (p. 98)
How often a simple walk through God’s creation can still our restless and worried souls.
Mason tells about two men whose lives were hugely affected by their observation of the natural world. One was Nicholas Herman, otherwise known as Brother Lawrence, author of the beloved devotional classic, Practicing the Presence of God. Brother Lawrence attributed his conversion to his reflection on a winter tree in the midst of the Thirty Years War when he was a young and discouraged soldier.
“We know the story of that young footman Nicholas Herman who, oppressed by his clumsiness, was brought to a sudden standstill when upon an errand by the contemplation of a leafless tree; the surprising wonder of the fact that the tree would presently break out into leaves arrested him. All the fitness and beauty of God’s ordering of the world was presented to his mind. The leafless tree converted him; and, almost from the moment, he became eminent as a saint of God, beautiful for his humility and simplicity of life.” (p. 99)
A contemplation of a tiny bit of moss is what gave Mason’s second example, Mungo Park, the Scottish explorer of the Niger River, the courage to go on during an especially dangerous situation in Africa.
“[T]hough the whole plant was not larger than the top of one of my fingers, I could not contemplate the delicate conformation of its roots, leaves, and capsula without admiration. Can that Being, thought I, who planted, watered, and brought to perfection, in this obscure part of the world, a thing which appears of so small importance, look with unconcern upon the situation and sufferings of creatures formed after His own image? Surely not! Reflections like these would not allow me to despair. I started up and, disregarding both hunger and fatigue, travelled forwards, assured that relief was at hand; and I was not disappointed.”
The child who is outfitted with a jeweler’s loupe of 10x or 16x magnification can see whole worlds in his examination of a simple clover or dandelion. What comfort and wonder in seeing the minute detail of God’s design.
The last lesson mentioned that is taught by nature is the lesson of gratitude.
“What daily and hourly thanks and praise, then, do we owe to the Maker and designer of the beauty, glory, and fitness above our heads and about our feet and surrounding us on every side! From the flower in the crannied wall to the glorious firmament on high, all the things of Nature proclaim without ceasing, ‘Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty’ … With this recognition will come gratitude; and the thankful heart is the glad heart. Truly, a joyful and a pleasant thing it is to be thankful!” (p. 100)
My hope is that this little ramble has inspired you to not neglect nature study with your students. One helpful idea is to keep a bag packed with your nature notebooks, field guides, pencils or paints and brushes, magnifiers, water supply, paper towels for dry brush, cookies for inspiration (!), bug spray and Ziploc bags to hold your finds.
I will close with one of my favorite Mason quotes on nature study.
“It would be well if we all persons in authority, parents and all who act for parents, could make up our minds that there is no sort of knowledge to be got in these early years so valuable to children as that which they get for themselves of the world they live in. Let them once get touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life. We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.” (Home Education part II, p.61)
© Jeannette Tulis 2013