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Nature Study: Not Just a Checklist

Today we want to discuss a mind-set that could be robbing you of some of the richness involved in nature study the Charlotte Mason way. We want to talk about whether your mind-set is a checklist (“Yep, just do that.”) or a relationship in nature study. And here to join me is my friend and coworker, Karen Smith.

Sonya: Karen, I know this is a subject near and dear to your heart.

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: In fact, sometimes you share it with me as your pet peeve.

Karen: Yes, I do.

Sonya: Do you want to explain what that peeve is?

Karen: Many moms treat nature study as just a checklist. “We saw a robin” or some other creature out in nature, and they check it off the list as if that is done with—”We don’t have to do that ever again. Let’s find something else.”—instead of getting to know the habits and the characteristics of that robin or whatever else they’ve been looking at, which is what nature study is all about, getting to know the characteristics and the habits of things in nature.

There are so many things that we can learn about an object in nature if we take the time to notice.

Sonya: That’s the relationship part. How do you get to know or how do you form a relationship with nature friends? It’s more than just a cursory identification: “Oh, I recognized this bird and I found out its name. I’m done.” That’s not a relationship.

Karen: You need to get to know it. Take the time to watch it and to notice what you can about it. What colors are on that object? How are those colors on that object? What’s the size of that object? How does it move? What does it eat? If it’s a bird, how does it fly? There are so many things that we can learn about an object in nature if we take the time to notice.

Sonya: You’ve mentioned before some of your favorite naturalist authors and how they have taken time—to me, an extraordinary amount of time—to study just one thing! Do you want to share some of that with our readers?

Karen: One of my favorite nature authors, R. D. Lawrence, once spent four months camped next to a beaver pond to learn all he could about the habits of beaver in their natural habitat. Another gentlemen, Dr. Rolf Peterson, a professor at a college, has spent decades studying the relationship between wolves and moose on an isolated island, Isle Royale in Lake Superior. Decades just focused on the wolves and the moose and the relationship between predator and prey between those two species.

When you work so hard to identify something immediately because you want to know what it is, that’s a good thing, but don’t let it be the end. Make sure that you learn something about it, too, besides its name.

Sonya: I’m a checklist person. I’ll admit it. In my schooling at large, I want to have a list of what to do and check it off that I’m done. So I guess in nature study what I need to do is make that mental shift between “Yes, I need to schedule that; we’re going to do nature study” and I can check it off that we did do it as scheduled, but not check off that I’m done with this nature friend.

Karen: Because those nature friends are going to come up again and again and again, and you learn something new almost every time you watch them.

Sonya: If you take the time to watch them.

Karen: I can give you an example from my own personal experience. Everybody knows that the robins eat worms.

Sonya: Yes. You see pictures all over the place.

Karen: Some people know that robins also eat berries, which actually make up more of their diet than the worms and the insects. But I have a robin that comes to my feeder every spring, when the robins return to our area, who eats sunflower seeds. Now I would never have discovered that robins do that on occasion if I had not continued watching the robins after I had spotted my first one.

Sonya: Yes. Or after you had seen it eat a worm, and thought, “Okay, robins eat worms period. The end.”

Karen: Right.

Sonya: But it’s not the end. There is so much more to experience and to discover about these friends. Now I do know that Charlotte Mason kept lists, such as a master bird list and a master flower list. “We saw this, and here is when and where.” How does that reconcile to this building a relationship and continuing to observe?

Those nature friends are going to come up again and again and again, and you learn something new almost every time you watch them.

Karen: You’re building the list of what you have seen, but that does not mean that you won’t see that again and observe it at a later time. So, just having the list is a record of what you have seen, but that does not end the relationship. The relationship is more the habits and the characteristics that you’ve noticed of it.

Sonya: Yes.

Karen: My daughter, Becca, has a list of birds that she has seen from our yard; she has a list of birds that she has seen in a year, whether from our yard or from some other location; and then she has a list of birds that she has seen over her lifetime. So she has three, at least three, bird lists. And it’s amazing how many birds are on that list. But when she is out in nature, she’s still observing those same birds and they’ve become friends to her. She can recognize their calls and their characteristics, their markings and their coloring and that sort of thing. So when she’s out there, she can say, “Oh, that’s a Tennessee warbler,” because she’s gotten to know them outside of just keeping lists.

Sonya: It kind of reminds me of, we have certain friends that we invite to the house to have dinner or go out to dinner with them. And so maybe on my calendar, I could look and see, “Okay, here’s the last time we saw that friend,” but that’s not the whole of our relationship. We talked about many things. We got to know each other much better when we were together, and maybe we’ve texted or had a phone conversation since then. So the relationship is ongoing and developing, even if we track when we actually were face to face last.

Karen: Yes, and that’s a good comparison, because you don’t check your friends off the list because you were with them.

Sonya: “Saw them. Check.”

Karen: “Never have to see them again.”

Sonya: Yes.

Karen: But you continue that relationship. And when you’re with them, you probably learned something new about them that you didn’t know before.

Sonya: Because you’re in a different circumstance, a different situation.

Karen: Or you talk about different things and something comes up that you didn’t know before.

Sonya: Yes. And so that robin might be in a different situation than the last time you saw the robin. So now you have an opportunity to learn something new. It seems like it all boils down to not being in a hurry when you’re watching, because you never know when something is going to occur that will be, “Oh, I just learned something!” You cannot dictate what your nature friend is going to do and when it’s going to happen.

Karen: Right! And I think that when you work so hard to identify something immediately—whether you’re using an app or you have your field guide right there—because you want to know what it is, that’s a good thing, but don’t let it be the end. Make sure that you learn something about it, too, besides its name.

Sonya: And continue to go back and learn more about it. Maybe next time you’ll recognize it right away, hopefully, but you can learn more about it during that encounter.

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: Thanks.

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