A Charlotte Mason Education, Homeschooling, Nature Study, Practical Application
Comments 6

As For Knowing the Thing Itself by Art Middlekauff

Wood Lily

Well, I don’t say but you may get to know about most things from books, but as for knowing the thing itself, let me be introduced by him that knew it before me!” (Volume 5, p. 123)

When I began to read Charlotte Mason’s writings in early 2005, my purpose was to become a more effective homeschooling teacher. I trusted that Mason’s method was effective, but I realized that I had to learn it in order to apply it properly. So began the long process of reading, experimenting, applying, and (slowly) improving.

I knew from the start that nature study was an important part of a Charlotte Mason education. This seemed to loom before me as the biggest challenge I would face. How could I follow the Mason method and not do nature study? And yet I knew nothing about nature or how to study it. To the books, then! Surely they will show the way!

My first step was to order several guide books: some field guides, and some books about local parks. I gradually learned where the native wildflowers grow in my community. Finally I approached the Gen Crema Trail armed with a trail guide and photographs to help me identify what I would see. Alas, where I was supposed to see easily identified specimens side-by-side, I found a bewildering maze of tiny flowers of every color, shape, and size. Nothing looked like anything in the photographs or the field guides. I was lost.

I was frustrated and discouraged, but I could not give up. Volume 5 of Mason’s series has a section entitled “Parents in Council.” One of the parents says, “Every one should know something about such facts of Nature as a child is likely to come across. But how to get at this knowledge! Books?” Another replies, “We want the help of the naturalist, an enthusiast who will not only teach but fire us with the desire to know.” That’s what I needed. The help of a naturalist.

Many months later, to my delight I learned of a plant identification class to be held at Chiwaukee Prairie. I signed up months in advance and arrived with enthusiasm on the first day of the class. We went to the Gen Crema Trail, but this time I had a human “field guide,” someone who could disentangle this maze of botanical complexity.

She could identify the flowers all right! I left that first day with a confused jumble in my head. I had heard so many names and seen so many plants, all correctly identified. And yet I remembered nothing. I had no frame of reference for this knowledge! But each subsequent class I brought along my digital camera. I photographed each plant as it was identified and I wrote down the name. As the months went by, I slowly built up my own field guide on Shutterfly.com.

A year later, a new summer, and I was back in Chiwaukee Prairie in the plant ID class. Eventually after so many encounters with the wildflowers, a strange thing began to happen. I didn’t just start to remember the names. I didn’t just start to recognize the species. I actually began a relationship with the flowers. I found that I had favorites. I found that I would take delight in seeing how the spiderworts were doing this month. The thistles and the goldenrods began to be like friends.

Above all the flowers in the prairie, one became my absolute favorite. In unique beauty and exquisite design it was (and is!) unmatched: the wood lily. I learned that the wood lily only bloomed for a few days in July. I put the dates on my calendar, because I did not want to miss the chance to see my special prairie friend.

But nature study is more than identifying specimens. I knew that nature study also involves observation and dry brush. But here I was stuck. First, I knew nothing about watercolors, and dry brush seemed hopelessly difficult. Second, I was not allowed to remove any plant material from Chiwaukee Prairie. How could I do dry brush with my children when we can’t take the specimens home?

The answer to my two questions did not come from a book. “As for knowing the thing itself, let me be introduced by him that knew it before me.” At the ChildLight USA 2011 conference, I (finally) went to the Nature Study workshop led by Deborah Dobbins. There Deborah taught me how to dry brush. My fear of the unknown gave way to my enjoyment of a new activity. But most importantly, Deborah removed my final obstacle. She said that when the class is small enough, the best way to do nature study is to take the watercolors to the plants.

Take the watercolors to the plants? Of course! Nothing I had read gave me that idea! I needed the help of someone “that knew it before me.” Once I understood the principle, the execution was straightforward. Within weeks, our family had a portable plastic dry brush box. And what a delight to see my children make their first dry brush of flowers by the Gen Crema Trail.

Two months ago in July, it was time for the wood lilies to bloom. And it was time for my nature study adventure to finally bloom as well. My children and I found the lilies and my son made his dry brush:

The first chapter of “Parents in Council” ends with parents deciding what to do next. “We must learn what we should teach,” one parent says. Indeed I know that – that’s why I began to read Mason in the first place. But now I realize what those “Parents in Council” understood. Sometimes the teacher needs a trainer. And sometimes that trainer is not a living book, but a living person.


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. Tammy Glaser says

    Art, it took only six years for you to learn what has taken me much longer! I’m looking forward to sharing your insight to friends new to Mason’s ideas. Nature study is also like handwork. Sometimes, the best way to learn is through relationships with those who know.

    Your wood lilies make me smile for my favorite flower from our time in Alaska was the chocolate lily. In Colorado, my friends were the columbine. Here in South Carolina, I love the wisteria.

  2. Art, I resonate with this article so very much. We are just finding out how valuable it is to have a naturalist accompany us on our walks. I look forward to sending our school families to read this article on the blog! Thank you for writing it.

  3. amy in peru says

    “…the long process of reading, experimenting, applying, and (slowly) improving.”

    Oh, this is how my whole walk with Charlotte Mason has been so far. I wish I could know more and faster so that I could become practiced and ripe before the time my children are grown and gone!

    Your nature study evolution sounds quite similar to ours finally having come to a culmination at this summer’s conferences as well. Nature walks we have done and are now practiced at identification (though that with some struggle as we live in S.America… it was some time before I found field guides!). But like you, the break through where we found the most success was with the local people (our own best naturalists)! They could tell us easily and accurately what many of the plants were. Oh glory be. It was wonderful. That was only the beginning. Naturally I was developing a relationship, my own relationship with things that has since transformed my nature study into nature love 🙂

    But I was stuck as to dry brush. We’d been sketching all along, which I wasn’t dissatisfied with; I only wanted more. So, this summer at the CLUSA conference and also at LER I had a chance to learn to wield the dry brush from experienced others firsthand! And now, there’s no stopping of course 😉

  4. Janet Pressley-Barr says

    Thank you for this post, Art. I will be pointing the families in our newly formed Mason co-op here in Cincinnati to this post to help them jump into Nature Study where they are. Thanks for your honesty.

  5. Jeannette says

    Art, you expressed so much so well here! I too found that those who loved and knew wildflowers became my introduction to the friendships I now have with the wildflowers. There is an instant camaraderie with a fellow wildflower enthusiast as if to say, “you too are rather crazy about these ephemeral beauties – we must be kindred spirits!” My favorite – wood betony.

  6. Lucinda says

    Art, the title of this entry caught my eye. For many years I have studied education and carried a quote from a George MacDonald book titled, Lilith…

    “Could you teach me to know a prayer-flower when I see it?” I said.
    “I could not. But if I could, what better would you be? you would not know it of yourself and itself! Why know the name of a thing when the thing itself you do not know? Whose work is but your own to open your eyes? But indeed the business of the universe is to make such a fool of you that you will know yourself for one, and so begin to be wise!”
    pg. 26 (2000 edition) (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Michigan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s