Natural (Poopy) Beauty

“European House Sparrow” from The new and heretofore unfigured species of the birds of North America by Daniel Giraud Elliot (1869), open access from https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/

I love the idea of keeping a nature journal, but had no idea of the crap I might get myself into by starting one. When we moved to an established suburban neighborhood three years ago, I didn’t expect it to be chock full of wildlife, but I see more animals here than any other place I’ve lived. Granted they are exactly what you’d expect to see in the suburbs: squirrels, woodpeckers, finches, hummingbirds, bunnies and chipmunks. We also have loads of bugs. The first summer we were here, we had a family of foxes galavanting in our backyard, the kits chasing each other and leaping privacy fences like they were nothing more than a decorative edger. A couple weeks ago, I saw one running along the top of my neighbor’s 6-foot fence balanced like a squirrel. (I still don’t think my husband believes me.)

So I thought what better way to connect with nature and learn about my environment than a nature journal? I love the idea of getting my son involved in deep-looking at his own environment and any excuse to draw and be outside is alright by me. But of course, there are no peaceful nature excursions with a two-year-old. This morning, we went for a walk to a little park near our house. It’s plopped directly into the middle of a grassy no-man’s-land behind houses and the community building – no streets, no sidewalks, only a snatch of manicured countryside tucked into the suburbs. I brought my Field Journal and my son’s and set up camp on a park bench with my colored pencils while he played on the equipment.

It was idyllic. The sun shone through the branches of a black walnut tree and I began working to capture the lines of the branches and the shapes of the leaves, glancing regularly at my son to make sure he was still entertaining himself safely. Every few minutes, I would attend to some need of his, but I was beginning to think I’d hit on a perfect formula: independent play at the park equals some brief sanity for Mom.

Fat chance. After exhausting his enjoyment with the playground equipment, my son was exploring various items on the ground near the bench where I was drawing when I heard him say “Ant poop, ant poop,” and come to me chewing something. The Suburban Naturalist was immediately replaced by Freaked Out Mom when he pointed to the “ant poop” which turned out to be squirrel entrails!

Had he just eaten them? What sorts of diseases did squirrels carry? Or rotting innards of any sort? I checked his mouth – nothing. So I stuck my finger down his throat and made him throw up a couple times just to be safe. As I was dealing with the “ant poop” situation, I realized we also had a dog poop situation – all over his knees. I’d failed to plan ahead and had no water or wet wipes. So I poured my (cold) coffee onto his knees and used the walnut tree leaves I’d previously been studying to wipe them. So much for carefully documenting the pastoral landscape.

As we were walking back home for some fresh coffee (for me) and a mid-morning bubble bath (for him), I realized I’d thoroughly enjoyed the adventure, and felt a swelling of gratitude – a feeling I haven’t fully experience in several years (probably since I found out I was pregnant). My tow-headed-two-year-old has the power to make dog poop and squirrel guts magical! But as I walked, I realized it’s actually the fact that I’ve primed the pump by thinking, looking and reading about art that allowed me to be open to the gratitude. My monkey of a son isn’t doing anything differently. I am. Suddenly the indignities of being a mother begin to seem charming instead of draining.

I hope your nature journal outing involves less body fluids and organs than mine did, but do make it happen! Here are a few steps to do as I say, not as I do:

Step 1: Gather your materials

You need paper and some sort of writing or drawing material. What appeals to you? I ended up using a cheap mechanical pencil and a travel notebook because simple lines still appeal to me more than anything. Find something that speaks to you. 

Step 2: Find a spot in your area to observe nature

This can be the walnut tree at a nearby park, the dandelion pushing through a crack in the asphalt, or a 1-inch by 1-inch section of land anywhere. Don’t limit yourself. Nature is not confined by humanity and finds a way to take back the earth. If you’re in an urban area, find nature coming through the cracks. If you’re in an environment you consider boring, challenge yourself to look deeply at a small section of earth. You can even make a 1”x1” viewfinder to help you focus. What is going on in that miniature world? 

Step 3: Draw or paint what you see

It doesn’t matter how it comes out. What matters is that you are taking the time to really look and to appreciate. And that you are trying to capture that in some way. Draw inspiration from Georgia O’Keeffe, Walton Ford or Ernst Haeckel. Do a contour drawing if you are concerned about your drawing abilities. They may look odd, but the lines and details have inherent beauty. 

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