MacBeth Derham November 15, 2013
Recently I took some students on a hike in a familiar swamp. They trod the well-marked trail, and chatted cheerily, remarking on the many changes to the trail since the storms of last autumn. Trees were down, or, if they had fallen across the path, had been cut and removed with nothing left to remind us of their former glory other than a broken trunk or uprooted stump. Every change was remarkable, as were those things left untouched by the storm: A tulip-tree —the tallest tree in the state according to the sign –stood as testimony to good roots, aerodynamic development, and lucky location. The only requirement I had for students on this hike is that they draw one thing. Of course, every student is different, and students of various ages and skill levels will show me drawings as individual as each —well— individual.
But one boy, nearing high school age and lacking nothing in skill, presented me with a drawing of a featureless blade of grass. His older sister chided him and sighed. I asked him if he planned to embellish the drawing later. He had no such plan. Was this drawing, I wondered, an indication that this was all he could see in nature? Some might give up on such a lad, and expect no more of him on any future hike. Not I…though I was not sure exactly what the next approach to encouraging him might be.
While I was pondering the matter, another mom took some students, including our young friend, to a nifty outdoor art center in the nearby Hudson River Valley. Each fortunate child was loaned a digital camera and set loose to photograph the art and the environment. Our lost boy took 435 photos, and not one photo was of a plain blade of grass. He photographed the art, his friends goofing around, lunch, and of course, others taking photos. But he also captured a series of images of a crow on an embankment, a set of solitary trees, hay waving in the wind, blue and distant hills beyond the road, willows weeping over walls and water, and more. Each image showed an eye for moments of beauty that one would never have guessed from that too-simple drawing of a blade of grass.
There are many methods of preserving the moment for our passionate student-observers of nature. Some may be skilled artists, while others might take instruction well and learn the art. Others may write vivid descriptions of landscapes or wild life. Some may whistle like warblers or collect natural objects like a bower bird. Still others take photos. In our digital age, the added advantage of instant high resolution photography and seemingly unlimited space for taking and storing photos has led to some students swiftly developing (ha!) a good eye for image-taking that would have meant years of practice in the age of film at a cost of thousands of dollars. Freed from the fetters of film, students like this boy can practice the art of photography without concern for wasted materials.
Granted, photography is not the same as drawing by hand, nor should photography always replace the good old nature notebook. But drawing also differs from writing a poem or a descriptive passage, and no one would argue with the value of these activities. So let the children use technology if they prefer. You might be surprised by the nature they surely see.
Photo credit Sean Tuffy