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THE NATURAL ART OF SEEING

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book is "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

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Recently, I asked folks to send stories about animals who had changed their lives. Artist Susan McDonnell sent me her story, told through a painting.

As an explanation for the painting, here is what she wrote:

“In the early 2000s, I lived in a house with a small garden pond. In the late Spring, a Red Darner dragonfly took up residency. I started taking photos at a distance and got closer and closer. Over time the dragonfly let me get within inches and then let me lightly touch its wings. This dragonfly showed up every morning around 10 and patrolled the pond until around 4 pm for about 4 months. We ‘visited’ every day and I spent a lot of time quietly observing and marveling at the dragonfly’s beauty. As you can see from the photo this dragonfly was a bit of a ham.”

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The dragonfly who inspired the artist.

McDonnell was already an accomplished artist, but her moments with the dragonfly were transformative. “It was at this time my paintings became more focused and detail-oriented in subject and technique,” she wrote. “All that slowing down, observing and being completely delighted every time I went to the pond and saw the dragonfly had returned had a huge influence on my paintings from then on.”

Today, young or old, our vision is curiously, simultaneously, pulled back and extended. At the edge of a yard (if we’re lucky enough to have one) or from an apartment window or condo balcony, we might just see what McDonnell saw. A butterfly spiraling, a hawk circling, a blinking fence lizard still cold from the winter.

By nature, young children are inclined to see life as new and encompassing. So can we, if we pay attention.

The art of seeing is about resilience and transcendence. During the research for OUR WILD CALLING, I interviewed artists and scientists who had learned how to look deeply at life. In the looking they found their own resilience. At Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Paul Dayton told me how he teaches students about the “X-ray” tradition of Australian Aboriginal art, which exhibits an elaborate understanding of the bone and organ systems of animals, “even showing the split lengths of snake lungs.” He marvels at their mythology of animals, plants, and even rocks, and their concept of Dreamtime, where all lives and stories exist forever.  “These people were and are spectacularly accomplished naturalists. When you look at those images, if you let yourself fantasize, what do you think these animals dream about?” He challenges his students to go beyond the lab, to have the courage to dream the lives of other animals, an ability they were perhaps born with but atrophies in a society and education system disconnected from nature.

Here is a moment for your children, for you, to look — to paint, draw or photograph what you see. Keep an indoor/outdoor illustrated journal. Set up a table next to a window, with art supplies. In her book The Nature Connection, naturalist and artist Clare Walker Leslie writes, “I often draw little landscapes in places where nature seems hard to find—out a classroom window, along a highway, or outside a hotel. Do you remember ‘Where’s Waldo?’ If you look, you’ll be surprised at what you might find.”

Beyond seeing is becoming.

Robert Bateman, a Canadian icon famous worldwide for his paintings of wildlife, is deeply concerned about that disconnection. Now in his eight­ies, Bateman began his artistic career as a boy painting birds viewed from his bedroom window. He saw the world as a bird would and for the rest of his life experienced the world from that viewpoint, of how a bird might sense the world combined with his own insights. Such sensitivity is felt both from outside one’s own body and from deep within it. At the opening of the Bateman Center in Victoria, British Columbia, I realized for the first time how his paintings were truly meant to be seen—as portals. Some of them are wall-sized. On the walls, yes, but also coming out of the walls, which seem to bulge: a bear turning toward the visitor; a bison exhaling clouds; wolves; eagles—all of them alive.

I was stunned. Later I asked Bateman how he accomplished that feat. He said, “Think about the Ice Age artists of Europe twenty-five thousand to thirty-five thousand years ago.” Look carefully at those ancient stalking lions, he added, those hulk­ing cave bears, those magnificent horses flying through the millennia with their heads together, legs straining, manes flowing in the wind, mouths open and breathing, their eyes looking straight ahead. Describing these animals, Bateman’s voice grew distant. “I can practically smell them, they are so real.” Then he answered my question directly: “I become the bear.”

We can do this, too. Perhaps not with a bear, certainly not with a prehistoric horse. But we can become the dragonfly just beyond the windowpane. We can see in its wings the pattern of the universe. And then, with a pencil or brush, share what we see with someone we love.

We invite you to send us a digital copy of your or your child’s artistic rendition of “seeing” nature by tagging us on Facebook (@childrenandnature), Instagram (@children_naturenetwork) or Twitter (@ChildrenNature). We’d like to share your art in the coming months on social media or our website.
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Richard Louv is co-founder and chair emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, and author of “Last Child in the Woods,” “Vitamin N,” and “The Nature Principle.” His latest book is “Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs,” from which this column is adapted.

Resources:.
To see more of Susan McDonnell’s nature-inspired art, click here.
For more family activities during the time of the coronavirus, visit C&NN’s FindingNature.org 
The Robert Bateman Foundation offers free-to-download education materials based on its flagship Nature Sketch program.
Thinking Like a Mountain by Robert Bateman
Drawn to Nature: Through the Journals of Clare Walker Leslie 
The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling

3 Comments

  1. As always…such a rich moment…with nature in various ways. This is so appreciated. What an experience with the dragonfly..we do need to observe!

    Sheltering means miss Vitamin N…ugh! Memories help us navigate through these dark days. Must call on life opportunities to truly enjoy the world around us.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  2. This was an amazing article and discussion of the interaction of the artist / photographer to the dragonfly… as it took me to so many photo stories I’ve documented in the last 5 years.. Several of the photo images are in a book Take A Closer Look by author: Barbara Sims and I , the photographer. I love to get my grandkids and other children involved in nature adventures and see how easily they become very interested and turn into nature explorers. This last summer in Michigan I was able to capture more images of dragonflies and damselflies that I had before … on reason was a bridge was closed down because of high water and the marshy areas near it are always active with a variety of creatures. This last year was unbelievable as many creatures came closer to my world …the bridge and bridge road. ….and seemed much more calm and I felt some were inquisitive about me as I was about them..No car traffic was a big factor …and few pedestrians also for any length of time…and few fishermen. I felt like Susan McDonnell did …that the dragonflies were coming to see me at times and birds and frogs didn’t move away so quickly. With a soft whispering voice I seemed to be able to give them a calming trusting feeling that they could stay in the area. . My family thought perhaps I was really “over working” my imagination but I felt I could see behavior in their family relationships that I saw in my family when my children were little. I have put several short stories together from a variety of interactions and observations. One special story was with a young girl who had her camera and observing and taking pictures with me …in a quiet calm mode. She followed my quiet slow approach and soon she seemed to be able to entice a dragonfly to fly to her hand and actually stay there for several minutes. I felt the emotions Susan expressed and the smile on my young friend showed me she felt the close interaction with the dragonfly that I had witnessed. Rich, you do a great job expressing these priceless connections with nature ( really spiritual much of the time) and it’s remarkable how many you have touched with the documentations that you’ve written . To see your mission grow every year is wonderful and hopefully the more parents and teachers learn from you , the more our children will benefit and we’ll see we have more children finding ways ,through nature, to cope with stress in life’s journey. ( didn’t mean to go on and on …but you and Susan hit some key points in my mission of working with kids in education and healthcare fields)

    Reply
  3. Today a short break. So I took time in my backyard. New visitors this spring. A red wing black bird. And is that sound… yes the wren l. Checking out the different bid houses for just the right spot. Their joyous sound.

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