By Noreen S. Moore
“An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day” -Henry David Thoreau
In the early days of the pandemic, I felt completely overwhelmed. My husband and I were now working from home while also parenting and homeschooling two young children. We were jolted out of the finely-tuned routine we came to love and rely on and we all felt lost. After allowing my children to binge watch their favorite Netflix shows on those first few mornings of Covid-19 home isolation, I decided that we needed a new schedule to get us going each day. We also needed to find joy. And, we needed to find mental and spiritual strength. In this dark moment, my first inclination was to turn to nature and writing as these have been two calming influences in my life. So, we started to take family nature walks together each morning and these walks evolved to include drawing, sketching, and writing.
The nature journaling practices I describe in this blog post are inspired by several strands of literature: 1) Place-Based Education (Sobel, 2004); 2) Western naturalists like Henry David Thoreau and John James Audobon who kept journals to document their observations; 3) guidebooks to nature journaling (Leslie & Roth, 2003); 4) research in writing instruction (MacArthur, Graham, & Fitzgerald, 2016; Anderson, 2000; Feldgus & Cardonick, 1999); 5) and the social-cognitive theory of learning (Bandura, 1976). The confluence of these bodies of literature allowed me to envision using nature walks to inspire a love and learning about nature in one’s community (or classroom) while simultaneously inviting children to engage, experiment with, and appreciate the power of writing.
It is also important to note that alongside these core strands of literature that frame my thinking about using nature walks to inspire writing, my children frequently request that we read nature picture books and poetry such as Anne Mazer’s The Salamander Room, Lynne Cherry’s The Great Kapok Tree, Amy MacDonald’s Little Beaver and the Echo, and Patrick Lewis’ National Geographic’s Book of Nature Poetry. We read these for enjoyment, but I also adopt Katie Wood Ray’s concept of “reading like writers” when I read to my children to help them to notice the writer’s craft and imagine how they could use writing techniques in their own writing. Although children’s literature was not directly part of our nature walks, the nature fantasy stories and poetry that we were reading together at this time appears to be indirectly influencing how they write about nature in their journals.
Finding Stories on Nature Walks
“The world is but a canvas to our imagination.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
One of our first walks was on a cold, gray, March morning on the neighborhood nature trail. Drawing on Philip Payne and Brian Wattchow’s (2009) “slow pedagogy of place,” and Leslie, Tallmadge, and Wessel’s (2005) three elements of observation, I encouraged my children to stop, slow down, and observe a spot in nature during our walks. At first, we focused on Leslie, et. al’s (2005) first and second elements of observation: description and interpretation. I encouraged my children to use their five senses to observe and describe a spot or a thing in nature: What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? What is it like? I also encouraged them to use their imaginations to interpret the spot or thing: How did it get here? Why is it this way? Where did it come from? My five-year old, Keegan, chose to stop and observe a large pileated woodpecker hole on the side of an Ash tree. I encouraged Keegan to observe by asking questions: How big is it? How deep is it? What shape is it? What does it feel like? I also encouraged him to interpret: How did it get there? Who made it? How did the woodpecker make it? Although in warmer, drier weather, we would have brought our journals to help facilitate the process of slowing down and observing a spot in nature with all of our senses, in early March, we had to improvise due to the cold and snow. Instead of writing down our observations, we talked about them afterwards and then captured them in our journals when we arrived home.
When we arrived home, we sat at our kitchen table and drew the observations we made on the walk. My five-year old, Keegan, drew the rather large pileated woodpecker hole in the side of an Ash tree along with a pileated woodpecker with a very sharp beak. Because I was interested in helping Keegan develop his literacy skills in addition to his appreciation of our community and nature, I used the picture he drew as a transition into Kid Writing. After he drew his picture, I asked him to tell me about it and he said that the woodpecker was making a big hole. I used questions to help him interpret his observation further and plan his writing: Why did the woodpecker make this hole? How did the woodpecker make this hole? He thought for a minute and then told me that “the woodpecker’s beak was as sharp as a knife” and pointed to his drawing to show me. I encouraged him to stretch out his words and use his invented spelling to write his beautiful simile. After he finished his kid writing, I wrote his sentence in adult writing below it and praised him for stretching out the sounds in a very long and complicated word! One empty hole in the side of an old Ash tree invited a morning of imagination, drawing, writing and storytelling.
On warmer and drier days, we were better at slowing down to take notice of the smallest details in nature. On one afternoon walk on the Boundary Trail at the Baltimore Woods Nature center in Marcellus, NY, a shelf fungus climbing the side of a tree like a flight of stairs caught my eight-year old son Luke’s eye. I encouraged Luke to look very closely using his five senses to notice small details about the fungus: What does it look like? What colors do you see? How does it feel? Each shelf fungus was carefully placed like steps on a rock-climbing wall, reaching up underneath the canopy of the tree. We stopped to notice that each fungus shelf had a unique pattern of concentric rings running through it. The lines swirled around the fungus, each new ring a different shade of white, khaki or gray. This multi-colored banded pattern reminded us of the inside of a precious geode. After we did some observing together, Luke took out his journal and he worked on more observing and sketching of the shelf fungus on his own. When he finished, I asked him to tell me about his sketch. He talked about how he was interested in the idea that the fungi looked like steps up to something. I encourage him to use his imagination to interpret, “Why do you think it is here?” Luke spent a few minutes thinking, and then, with a smile he said, “I think the fungi are stairs for either a troll, gnome or fairy!”
When we arrived home, we sat again at our kitchen table and took out our nature journals again. Luke decided to write a fantasy story to pair with his nature sketch. Since I was interested in using our nature walks and observations as a springboard for engaging in the writing process, I decided to do a writing conference with Luke after he wrote his draft. I used Carl Anderson’s questions to guide the conference and encourage revision. After conferencing with Luke, he added thought dialogue and adjectives to help readers visualize the scene. Here is a little snippet: “Once upon a time, I saw a shelf fungus on a tree and thought, ‘these look like stairs.’ Sure enough, I think I saw a quiet fairy going up the shelf fungus stairs to a little hole in the tree.” He was excited to share his writing with other family members over zoom and email. After that day, we all agreed that shelf fungus were not just fungus, but magical stairs to important places where fairies and gnomes watch over enchanted forests.
Looking for Hope and Meaning in Nature
“Sometimes carrying on, just carrying on, is the superhuman achievement.” – Albert Camus
Walking and noticing nature became meditative for us as a family. Not only was walking and noticing nature calming, it was conducive to developing ideas and answers about life. Nature pushed me to contemplate big questions about life. I asked myself: What is nature trying to tell us? What does nature have to teach us? Because my pedagogy as a writing teacher is heavily influenced by social-cognitive learning theories (Bandura, 1976), I try to write with my children as much as possible in my own nature journal. In addition, I often do think-alouds and modeling for my children while I write. My think-alouds and modeling were key to helping Luke and Keegan move their observing practices from description to a third element of observation called speculation (Leslie, Tallmadge, and Wessels, 1999). During the speculation stage of observation, one asks what something in nature has to teach us.
On one walk after an April snow we decided to look for something “inspiring” or “hopeful” to write about. As we walked, we noticed yellow daffodils and purple crocuses peeking out from under a light coat of freshly fallen snow. The juxtaposition of flowers and snow caught our eye. My boys were fascinated by two intertwined seasons. “Spring is coming!” Keegan exclaimed joyfully. During our observation of the flowers covered in snow, I thought out loud with my children. “I think nature is trying to tell us something,” I said. “I think nature is trying to give us hope. Right now, it feels all of our plans and fun events are being cancelled. It is difficult to find something to look forward to. But, nature is not being cancelled – look the seasons are still changing! More sunshine and warmer days will be something for us to look forward to and nothing can stop that.” On another April hike along the forested shores of Skaneateles Lake, we noticed beautiful pockets of ephemeral wildflowers blooming. Typically, life is so busy in the spring that we do not notice them or we miss them. However, this year we slowed down enough to be able to see the Trillium carpeting the forest floor before blushing gracefully in pink. We found Trout Lily with its starburst yellow flowers and perfectly imperfect mottled trout skin leaves. And, we discovered Coltfoot’s surprise—its star-like flowers bloom and turn to white puffballs before it has time to sprout its sea-green leaves. As I sketched these flowers I thought out loud with my children, “Isn’t it so cool that these flowers only bloom for a short time and we actually got to see them? Why do you think they only bloom for a short time? I think the flowers have something to teach us: “memento vivare,” remember to live. These flowers only bloom for a short time, but in that time, they live so fully, confidently, and gracefully. And they do this no matter what is happening around them – even a pandemic!” Nature was teaching us that life will move on through difficult times and to live in the present and these were two messages that were important for us to hear right now.
Luke and Keegan were inspired by my journal entry about the ephemeral wild flowers and the flowers pushing out from the snow and were interested in finding their own answers about what nature had to teach them. As temperatures rose, our walks took us closer to water to look for tadpoles, crayfish, salamanders, and fish. After a hiking trip to Guppy Falls, a trail which begins along a stream and winds its way up to a small waterfall, we chose a spot alongside the stream to stop and observe. Keegan was focused on a large frog hiding behind a rock in the stream and after a few attempts, he caught him and examined him closely. In his journal, he drew a frog and wrote about the silly and surprising feeling of catching a slimy frog. He composed orally, stretching out the sounds he heard in the words and then used invented spelling to capture his poems. He wrote: “I see a silly, slimy, stinky frog” and “Here is a fat, friendly, floppy, funny frog.” I encouraged him to think about what the frog was trying to teach him and he responded, “I think this frog is trying to tell me to be happy and laugh!”
Luke observed a small, delicate, crayfish picking up a rock with this claw. He chose to write a haiku:
“Hi, little crayfish.
Your red pinchers look so strong.
Can you hold a rock?”
When I asked him about his poem, he said that it was amazing how something so small could be so strong. “And, what does this little crayfish have to teach you?” I asked. Luke respond, “It doesn’t matter how big you are, you can still be strong. Don’t doubt yourself!” he replied confidently.
In a world that seems dark right now, my children were finding happiness, meaning and confidence in exploring the water and the creatures that live there and then drawing and writing about them. I, too, was inspired to write about water that day, but my thoughts turned to the sheer power and resilience I saw in water. Water flowed so effortlessly, yet so powerfully and forcefully. It ceased to stop for anything. It didn’t stop years ago for that massive boulder I sat on while watching my children play in the stream; instead it pushed its way through over time. When water comes face to face with obstacles, it pushes through with honor, tenacity, and resilience. I was encouraged by this thought. Today, we are all being asked to be like this waterfall and stream. We all face obstacles, but instead of stopping and giving up, we must push through. We cannot stop; we need faith that we will get to the other side. And when we do get there, we will be able to look back at the beautiful gorge we created.
Noreen S. Moore is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Writing Studies, Rhetoric and Composition at Syracuse University. Although her research writing focuses on revision, she has a personal interest in nature and writing about nature. One of her favorite places to explore and enjoy nature with her family is in the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.