Bringing the Outdoors in
Nature Journalling and The Secret Garden
I have always loved journalling. I was given my first journal by my mother-in-law soon after my husband and I started dating. I began writing to know myself. Zak would probe me with questions and ask me my opinions, but I wasn’t always ready to give him an answer. I would write pages and pages as I studied the Bible, copying my favourite passages and lines from other books I was studying as well. This came naturally to me. I could sit for hours at the table in the house with my other roommates, while they were all at class and enjoy the quiet mornings.
I still do this type of journalling, but less frequently. Since having kids I have been narrowing down what is important to me and to what I want to learn with the kids. A mentor homeschooler I learn from talks about finding sites of mutual fulfillment with our children. I love this concept. Now that I am with the kids for almost the whole day, I need to find times during the day to replenish my energy and cultivate a fertile ground within myself that sets the tone for the household. I spend time journalling, reading, praying, and doing yoga by myself and find short bursts throughout the day for a couple of these things if not all. Nature journalling has been a natural fit for myself and the kids, as it is something we enjoy together.
Since making a few zines last year (send me a note if you didn’t get my “Winter Drinks” one last year), I began to develop my confidence in drawing. In my preteen and teen days I had given up on my ability to draw, but something about the journal format brought life back to the idea and gave me an outlet to practice for the sake of enjoyment and study. I began to feel the concept from a quote from Frederick Franck in The Zen of Seeing that “I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen . . . that seeing/drawing become one . . . and that I constantly rediscover the world.” It’s also a beautiful way to slow down and take in my surroundings. I bought a travel watercolour set and sewed together a notebook of watercolour paper with a Japanese butterfly stitch, some boards and fabric from a dress I never made composed the cover. The notepads from the paper store were not that inspiring and I wanted to make something beautiful to paint in.
I am often inspired for our nature journal subjects by the books we are reading as a family. When I initially decided on The Secret Garden, I was looking through classic fiction and found these beautiful editions by Minalima, a husband and wife team of graphic designers. Their illustrations and design style immediately drew me in. They’d also beautifully illustrated classic books such as Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz. I settled on The Secret Garden as I envisioned beautiful fall days where we’d go to the gardens around us in the Annapolis Valley, spread out our blanket and read. When the book did arrive, the kids and I got so excited as we flipped through the book there were all sorts of extra sheets to protect the pop ups and various inserts. There were not just illustrated images, but fold out maps and letters, a pop up coiled snake, a toggling bird with the secret key swinging behind it, and doors that opened into the garden.
The first day we began to read the found that the main character, Mary, lost her whole family. That was not what surprised me most, but rather, the fact that the girl was so wrapped up in herself that she had absolutely no idea that anyone, or almost everyone in her household had died from cholera. She had been spared because she never set foot out of her room and didn’t care about anyone else, only that no one was attending to her in her room. Mary is all alone and has to make her way back to England, where her parents were originally from, to live with her uncle.
Initially, when Mary moved to her uncle’s house in England it describes how she wasn’t very interested in the landscape around her: “Mary went to the window. There were gardens and paths and big trees, but everything looked dull and wintry. ‘Out? Why should I go out on a day like this?’” She commented to Martha who was attending the fire in her room.
Eventually, realizing that there is nothing much else for her to do in the house since her uncle doesn’t keep much to entertain children, she heads outside. She meets the head gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, and a robin. Mary feels the robin is trying to show her something, and this immediately forges a connection between her and Ben and he calls the robin over with a whistle “Doesn’t tha’ know? He’s a robin redbreast an’ they’re the friendliest curiousest birds alive.” Mary watches the bird as he flies over a wall, and she realizes there is no way to follow him as there is no door into that part of the garden and there begins her adventure to discover the secret garden.
Every time the kids and I go out for a hike we keep our eyes open for objects we want to draw for our nature study for a particular day. Sometimes we remember a backpack or a bag to carry these treasures in, other times our hands are full. Many times clumps of lichens, handfuls of pinecones and sticks with mushrooms and moss make their way into our mudroom. Sometimes they make it to the dining room table where we lay them all out for study. Then I haul out the various applicable identification guides and we look up varieties of ferns and mushrooms and lichen. One of our favourite studies was the birch polypore. We learned that not only does it have medicinal benefits (I have yet to use it in any type of cooking or tea), but it also is useful as a sharpener for knives and the outer peel is useful as a natural bandage. As we were watching the video, my daughter immediately started to peel off the outer layer of the mushroom and stick it around her finger. Then we’d paint and draw and record our learned information around the drawing. I didn’t expect too much writing from the kids, but they get to learn and spell some interesting words such as “interrupted fern” and “scaber stalk mushroom.”
My favourite times nature journalling are when I pack up my bag and take it along with me to the kids’ piano lessons. In the fall, as I waited for them outside, I spread out a blanket in the grass and continued to paint.
I take more time with my nature journal, leaving it out, ready for a moment when I can continue to work on my drawing and to study more information about the particular plant or animal I am learning about. Ever since I’ve been taking them on hikes every day and the kids joined a Forest School once a week for 9 weeks through the fall, they’ve gotten more and more comfortable exploring the woods. Now walks look much different and we stop along the way and create bug homes and icicle fairy kingdoms and teepees. We climb trees, walk on fallen logs and try not to get our mittens wet or boots filled in icicle laden streams.
In The Secret Garden, after spending time outside, Mary begins to develop an appetite for the hearty English breakfasts served to her in her room. She meets Martha's brother Dickon, who is well known throughout the area as an outdoorsy boy who knows how to connect with animals and spend the whole day outside. Mary befriends him, and realizes how she’s becoming less harsh and disagreeable and begins to distance herself from the persona she has developed as “Mistress Mary quite contrary.” This ability to find herself anew in the outdoors begins to permeate her being. These lessons take even deeper meaning when she begins to look beyond herself and to share it with others such as Dickon. In the middle of the night she follows a crying sound down one of the halls that has been discretely curtained off and discovers that there is a boy there, Colin, who is not well. It is then that she is confronted by someone who is just as contrary as herself. They have it out at each other with words and find they’re well matched.
My husband has also had a long interest in watercolour and drawing. When a retired woman we know learned that I wanted to paint watercolour with the kids, she invited us to an introductory class to watercolour that she was teaching. She welcomed our children as well, so every Monday night for 4 weeks we joined the class. It was a lot of work to get all 4 of us set up with our paper, boards, paints, water containers, etc. Jean advised us on all the materials we’d need and how it’s is best to have everything ready before we start, since watercolour painting happens fast. I wasn’t sure how the kids would do in a 1.5-2 hour class designed for adults, but they did very well, even if they didn’t do the painting that Jean was instructing us to do. It was beneficial to us to learn the basic techniques.
After reviewing the basic techniques of watercolour, she invited us to an intermediate class (that I started without the kids this time) and instructed us to begin with a sketch—a thumbnail sketch for our larger painting to get an idea of the basic shapes and where the more shaded and darker areas are. As I began to draw, my insecurities came back from my younger days of telling myself I could not draw. I’ve learned so many things as an adult and find now that I am more open to some things than others. Rather than criticizing myself, I realized that I need to paint and sketch for enjoyment before I add another layer of skill—and that’s what happens when I do it with my kids. So rather than continue the intermediate class I decided to put the class on hold and paint with the kids and on my own for now.
After Mary discovers Colin and they begin to talk she realizes how he is bound up by the disabling thoughts he has about himself—that he will have a crooked back, and that he will have to remain in his bed until his worries about having an early death come true. After having a look at him, Mary surmises that he doesn’t actually have a crooked back, and he can actually stand up if it wants to, he’s just very weak from not having moved much. Emboldened by her own experience of the outdoors, she knows just what he needs and she shares about the secret garden with him. They set off to discover it together. Once they make their way out to the garden without any of the adults knowing what they’re up to, Colin’s mood improves and he decides to get up out of his wheelchair and walk. And he does.
We learn by doing together. My initial nature journal entries are modest, but throughout the process I have slowed down and noticed. The kids watch me and we share our struggles. When we started painting together, my son would give up quickly and say he did a horrible job, and would throw is colouring implements across the room or leave the table. I showed my son my first sketch of Mary, reaching her arm out to the robin, and how her face looked pretty funny (faces are hard to draw!). But my second one looked better. Yesterday, we painted a hedgehog, and my son was proud of it. He signed his name on it and was excited to share it with Dad when he got home.
Balsam Fir Sugar
Now that the weather is cooling, I find ways to bring more of the outdoors into my kitchen. One of my favourite traditions now is to get a no spray Christmas tree and find as many ways as possible to use the needles in various recipes. I love to surprise people with a taste of evergreen and watch their eyes light up as they are transported to the forest. To smell an evergreen tree is one thing, but to taste it is another and there are so many benefits to our bodies through the winter months. I love to combine evergreens into my elderberry syrups and other teas for cold and flu season, but they also lend themselves to desserts as spruce and balsam fir pair well with heavy cream and sugar. I made a delicious Balsam fir Pot de Creme this year.
Marie Viljoen has many ideas on how to use Fir sugar in various ways in her blog post here. Read through the post for the simple description on how to make the sugar with 1/4 cup needles blended in the food processor or coffee grinder with sugar. I have tried various evergreen needles. Pine needles are not as strong as a sugar but are more suited to teas or syrups. The flavour of balsam fir and spruce are more robust and citrusy.
Hi Avery,,,Loved the part about your art classes with me. I would just support you in continuing to paint. You will learn a lot about how to use the medium from painting. Yes, sometimes is does not work out… but just learn why and try again. Regarding sketching…. Tip: start with the biggest shape… think where to put this big shape on your page… Think…sky, ground, water, … tree, house …. What is the largest… then just place a few other items.. think round, square, long , short … do not think : I must are it look like ….. think only the large shape…. All else you do later with the brush. I think you are ready to do more and I can help you relax about not being confident to sketch.
Avery, what a lovely, soothing post. I too am practicing with watercolours - it's experimental, humbling, and when I don't judge myself, so calming. Also - thank you for recommending Food Stories to your readers. It means a lot. Truly.