… To sit quietly on the grass, to switch off the world and come back to the earth, to allow the eye to see a willow, a bush, a cloud, a leaf … I have learned that what I have not drawn, I have never really seen. [Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing, quoted in Keeping a Nature Journal by Leslie and Roth.]
I have an almost uncontrollable urge to buy books for reading on long journeys. This flight to Toronto was only a couple of hours by plane, and I had the usual growing pile of technical journal reviews that required attention, so I had convinced myself not to succumb to the temptation of buying another new book – or so I thought, until I entered Porter Square Books, out of habit more than anything else, for that is what I do on holidays.
In the small but tastefully equipped section on birds, animals, gardening and nature, I chanced to find a book called Keeping a Nature Journal written by Clare Walker Leslie, an artist and naturalist, and Charles Roth, a journalist. The book is about augmenting one’s enjoyment from nature by sketching and/or painting what one sees – a diary of sorts but with drawings instead of words. I had passed by it once before and not bothered to open it. Last week, I turned the page. And then another. And then another, until I had to have it.
I stopped drawing and painting on a regular basis many years ago in middle school, after taking a state-level drawing exam. I did fairly well; the grade would probably have helped if I had chosen to pursue a career as a commercial artist. But I turned to science and much of my drawing skills rusted from disuse, resurfacing on rare occasions in spurts of inspiration and bouts of melancholy. Recently, I started doodling again, tentatively – while writing posts on this blog (for instance: here, here, here), or in my own journal, and most recently in the fount of long letters that seems suddenly to proliferate through my pen. So, it was a happy coincidence to find Leslie and Roth’s book, but it wasn’t their teaching that convinced me to buy it. It was their artwork.
There is exquisite pencil and watercolor artwork of literally everything under the sun – a congregation of robins, the phases of the moon, flowers in a garden patch, a naked tree in winter, a nuthatch on a branch and a mockingbird on a tomb, pug-marks of dogs, views of a lake, oak leaves on the ground and weeping willows. This is not art meant to be sold; it isn’t polished in that sense, but it has personality and a playful lightness that immediately warms the heart. Close to the sketches are little notes by the artist – simple things like the time of day, the nature of the wind, a lyrical take on the surroundings, questions about bird identification, and so on. One drawing is an example taken from one of Clare Leslie’s very young students: It is the cover page of a nature journal. Framed by a plethora of nature totems are the words, “May there always be frogs and spiders […].” I did a little conspiratorial jig in the airplane.
It is relatively rare for me to read a book by a local author: CWL lives in Cambridge and, as I was to find out to my great delight, she loves Mt. Auburn Cemetery. There are lovely sketches of the Cemetery in the different seasons – yes, she has sketched dozens of robins there! As if that was not enough, there are drawings made at Plum Island in Newburyport, that Mecca of birdwatching that never fails to amaze me with its avian secrets. How could I keep from reading?