Friday, January 18, 2013

The Power of the Outdoors: A Magic That is Deeper Still

by Megan Hoyt

"For we are an overwrought generation, running to nerves as a cabbage runs to seed; and every hour spent in the open is a clear gain, tending to the increase of brain power and bodily vigour, and to the lengthening of life itself." (Charlotte Mason's Home Education, vol 1, p 42)

To those of you who know me, this is going to sound utterly ridiculous. Me? Spend time outside enjoying nature? Palefaced, tea and toast, read a book by the fire, indoors Megan? Well, yes. 

I've learned a few things along life's journey, and one of them is that staying inside all day is depressing. Living inside is not what God had in mind when He created the garden of Eden. I'm pretty sure of that. If He had, He would have created the cottage of Eden instead. The hut of Eden? The skyscraper of Eden? The office building of Eden?

In our early years of homeschooling using Charlotte Mason methods, the one area that I always felt I was failing in was Nature Study. I didn't take the time to provide any form of organized study -- learning about trees, birds, plants, wildlife, flowers, etc. We studied from books, mostly, and we did it inside. It wasn't until I began reading aloud a delightful book called Plants and Their Children and found a crumpled apple blossom within its pages that I had my first aha moment. This book wasn't meant to be read inside at the kitchen table but outside amidst the fragrant apple blossoms of early autumn whilst sipping fresh apple cider!

Our lives were never the same.

I have to credit my good friend Stephanie McGuirk for really invigorating my enjoyment of outdoor life with that first gorgeous nature walk we took together in Nashville, despite the fact that for much of it I was carrying a tired ten-year-old on my back. By the way, I strongly suggest that you find a nature mentor to help you begin your journey into nature study -- someone who lives the outdoor life, someone for whom it's as second nature as breathing to meander through the woods identifying each and every plant and explaining its medicinal and aesthetic value as well as its history. In fact, I highly recommend finding a mentor for every subject because they are likely to ignite a passion for it within you, too. And YOU can be that person to your own students.

I'm so thankful that we made that first foray into outdoor life, even though it's been mostly baby steps and starts and stops for this big city girl ever since. Here are a few highlights from our early years to whet your appetite for this ultra-important facet of a Charlotte Mason education.

In Open Fields of Wildflowers

One day, in the middle of a rushed journey to either ballet class, gymnastics, or violin lessons, we drove past a park that had been overtaken by wildflowers. It was tucked away in an older neighborhood subdivision and had been somewhat neglected. I glanced at my watch (before the era of cell phones) and realized if we stopped we would be late.

We stopped anyway.

I watched my two girls skip, run, and dance through an open field of wildflowers, laughing giddily as they ran. And I took a mental picture that I will cherish as long as I live, just as Miss Mason said I would:

"Fifty years hence, they will see the shadows of the boughs making patterns on the white tablecloth; and sunshine, children's laughter, hum of bees, and scent of flowers are being bottled up for after refreshment." (vol 1, p 43)

Miss Mason was right. And she wasn't the only one to suggest it. Wordsworth stored a nature memory and later wrote about the value of it in his poem, Daffodils:  

I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

A band I like, Jars of Clay, wrote a song called Love Song for a Savior that embodies the idea of this carefree enjoyment of God's creation. The lyrics include "She thanks her Jesus for the daisies and the roses in no simple language. Someday she'll understand the meaning of it all." I think that's the most important reason to enjoy the natural world. It leads us to a stronger understanding of God, the Creator who left this planet in our keeping.

Treasured Moments

Our children once made a hammock out of an old sheet and hung it in the willow tree in our backyard. When I went outside to check on them, I found one of my sons reading aloud to his three-year-old brother in their newly formed sheet hammock. I was tempted to take it all down. After all, it was precariously hung and they might at any moment fall to the ground (which wasn't terribly far from where they had put the hammock). But I stopped and listened instead. I savored this moment between my two sons. Drew was cradling Jesse in his arms and reading from The Blue Fairy Book. He had only just learned to read a few months before, so it was quite an accomplishment.

The hammock swayed gently in the fragrant spring breeze. It was another one of those special "take a mental picture to savor later" moments. Actually, I went beyond that. I grabbed the video camera and captured it on tape. I could tell it brought Drew great joy to use his newfound reading skills to create a happy experience for his brother up in the willow tree. I didn't want to forget this day. And what a blessing that we CAN document these treasured times. That's a tool that Wordsworth and Charlotte Mason didn't have at their disposal.

So let those moments come. Don't interfere even though it's not official nature study and notebooks aren't being filled with detailed analyses of trees and plants, fully illustrated. That will come later. The initial "falling in love" with nature is important because the habit of living life outdoors is being cemented and established. Just be. That's okay to do sometimes. I know as homeschoolers we doubt it, but it's true.

A Moveable Feast

Thomas Cole's The Picnic
 Some people love picnics, and others, like me, are bug avoidant and can't stand them. But if I'm going to follow a Charlotte Mason education, I have to fight my tendency to avoid this (ahem) pleasant pasttime:

"Besides, the gain of an hour or two in the open air, there is this to be considered: meals taken al fresco are usually joyous, and there is nothing like gladness for converting meat and drink into healthy blood and tissue." (vol 1, p 43)

I'm working on this. I make no guarantees! We are all works in progress, right?

Creating Beauty

This is the most exciting part for me. I know cataloging plants and learning about different types of bugs and birdwatching are all part of nature study as is drybrush watercolor painting and just the overall scientific study of the natural world. But I am very right-brained by nature so for me, creating things outdoors (painting like the Impressionists amid nature, for example) is key to forming relationships.

That's why I'm so excited about Andy Goldsworthy. And I hope you soon will be, too.

I first learned about Goldsworthy when my husband was searching for what to make out of bamboo. Our son had come home from a walk in the woods with several long sticks of bamboo, and they wanted to make a shishi odoshi. But google took me elsewhere. I found myself immersed in the art of Andy Goldsworthy. Here's a clip from his website:

For me looking, touching, material, place and form are all inseparable from the resulting work. It is difficult to say where one stops and another begins. Place is found by walking, direction determined by weather and season. I take the opportunity each day offers: if it is snowing, I work in snow, at leaf-fall it will be leaves; a blown over tree becomes a source of twigs and branches. 

Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. I want to get under the surface. When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave it, these processes continue.

Andy Goldsworthy is extraordinary. Rather than placing his art in a gallery or museum or on someone's coffee table or above their sofa, he creates art outside in nature. Take a peek:

                               "Art, for me, is a form of nourishment." Andy Goldsworthy

The beauty of nature is encapsulated within Goldsworthy's art. He calls himself a naturalist artist, and I think that's a very appropriate name for what he does and who he is. Learning about his life and art opened up so much of the natural world to me. It showed me that I can express myself through nature as well as observe its systems. Charlotte Mason's insistence that education is the science of relations makes this man's work especially important. It helps students relate creating to understanding the natural world. It insists on careful observation rather than zoning out and ignoring the world around us. His art is inspiring but not out of reach. So much to consider! To learn more, watch his Rivers and Tides documentary.

I wish you joy in the journey. And may much of it come from a life lived outdoors.

“In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mother’s first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it spent for the most part out in the fresh air.” (Vol. 1, p. 43)

"Supposing we have got them, what is to be done with these golden hours, so that every one shall be delightful? They must be spent with some method, or the mother will be taxed and the children bored. There is a great deal to be accomplished in this large fraction of the children's day. They must be kept in a joyous temper all the time, or they will miss some of the strengthening and refreshing held in charge for them by the blessed air. They must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education few are worse than this––that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder––and grow. At the same time, here is the mother's opportunity to train the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and to drop seeds of truth into the open soul of the child, which shall germinate, blossom, and bear fruit, without further help or knowledge of hers. Then, there is much to be got by perching in a tree or nestling in heather, but muscular development comes of more active ways, and an hour or two should be spent in vigorous play; and last, and truly least, a lesson or two must be got in." (vol 1 pg 45)

For a practical look at how to implement Nature Study, click here
For a closer look at how to study great works of art, click here
For a nice, meaty biography of William Wordsworth, click here.  
To download a PDF of Wordsworth's A Guide Through the District of the Lakes, click here. 

Also, since I wrote this blog post, I have discovered that there are several naturalist artists worthy of recognition. Here are a few names to research for yourselves. Enjoy!

Richard Long

Nils Udo
Robert Smithson
Richard Shilling
David Nash
Michael Heizer

From Richard Long:

"In the nature of things:
Art about mobility, lightness and freedom.
Simple creative acts of walking and marking
about place, locality, time, distance and measurement.
Works using raw materials and my human scale
in the reality of landscapes.

The music of stones, paths of shared footmarks,
sleeping by the river's roar."


  1. I just found another naturalist artist. He calls his work "land art." It's also gorgeous!

  2. I just smiled and smiled at your "take a mental picture to savor later" comment! I think CM approach opens the way for us to experience many moments like the ones you describe. Thanks for sharing your outdoors transformation - it is a real inspiration to others!
    Thanks for the links to Andy's works! Awesome!

  3. Love this! I too am a city girl trying to become "that person" to my own littles. Nature study is not natural to me, but I am finding that the more I learn, the more I want to know...and I'm happy to say that my children will grow up with an enthusiasm about the natural world that I never had as a child thanks to that. Your sharing here is very inspiring!

  4. Thank you all for stopping by. I am definitely still a work in progress in this area! I do better in the fall and spring when mosquitos aren't eating me alive and the heat doesn't make me sweat. I can take winter in small doses, too. See, a work in progress... lol! I think it helps to surround yourself with other moms who will encourage you to get outside.