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Reviving Your Nature Studies This Spring with Dallas Lore Sharp’s Nature Books

by Lisa Ripperton

​March 7, 2019

When the first signs of spring appear after a hard winter, the urge to spend time out of doors is stronger than at any other time of the year. "How eager and restless a healthy child is for the fields and woods with the coming of spring! Do not let your opportunity slip," writes Dallas Lore Sharp in his The Spring of the Year.  

In keeping with Sharp's proclamation, we believe that the springtime presents an ideal opportunity for taking your children out of doors and pursuing nature studies with them. And Sharp's nature book series serves as an excellent guide to this end. These books offer a variety of activities to try, along with a good idea of what to expect at each season.

Establishing or renewing a nature studies practice

Spring can bring renewed vigor to the practice of a family already exploring their natural environs several times a week. For those who have yet to start, it offers a strong impetus. At this time of the year, there are so many exciting things to observe, coming in quick succession. To begin with, you could take your children to a place nearby where they can see green shoots emerging. There, encourage them to watch for returning birds and buds bursting into bloom. Perhaps they will even begin a list of the birds you have spotted and one of the types of frogs you have heard!

Sharp's vivid pictures of spring

In The Spring of the Year, Sharp shares some experiences in spring he finds exhilarating, then offers a whole chapter of Things To See This Spring. He doesn't merely list them, though. Sharp instead paints a vivid picture of each. Consider this description of the lowly skunk cabbage as an example:

​You must see the skunk-cabbage abloom in the swamp. You need not pick it and carry it home for the table—just see it. But be sure you see it. Get down and open the big purple-streaked spathe, as it spears the cold mud, and look at the "spadix" covered with its tiny but perfect flowers. Now wait a minute. The woods are still bare; ice may still be found on the northern slopes, while here before you, like a wedge splitting the frozen soil, like a spear cleaving through the earth from the other, the summer, side of the world, is this broad blade of life letting up almost the first cluster of the new spring's flowers. Wait a moment longer and you may hear your first bumblebee, as he comes humming at the door of the cabbage for a taste of new honey and pollen.

In another section, Sharp describes the piping sounds of the spring peeper:

You should see a "spring peeper," the tiny Pickering's frog—if you can.  The marsh and the meadows will be vocal with them, but one of the hardest things that you will try to do this spring will be to see the shrill little piper, as he plays his bagpipe in the rushes at your very feet. But hunt until you do see him. It will sharpen your eyes and steady your patience for finding other things.

Guidance for young naturalists

Later, in the chapter on Things to Do This Spring Sharp inserts some advice to the budding naturalist along with the activity he suggests:

Boy or girl, you should go fishing—down to the pond or the river where you go to watch the birds. Suppose you do not catch any fish. That doesn't matter; for you have gone out to the pond with a pole in your hands (a pole is a real  thing); you have gone with the hope  (hope is a real  thing) of catching fish  (fish are real  things); and even if you catch no fish, you will be sure, as you wait for the fish to bite, to hear a belted kingfisher, or see a painted turtle, or catch the breath of the sweet leaf-buds and clustered catkins opening around the wooded pond. It is a very good thing for the young naturalist to learn to sit still. A fish-pole is a great help in learning that necessary lesson.

Listening to hear the grass grow

Lastly, in the chapter on Things To Hear This Spring, Sharp describes a number of bird songs. Then, without delay, he encourages the youthful explorer to hear the grass grow!

What! I repeat, you should hear the grass grow. I have a friend, a sound and sensible man, but a lover of the out-of-doors, who says he can hear it grow. But perhaps it is the soft stir of the working earthworms that he hears. Try it. Go out alone one of these April nights; select a green pasture with a slope to the south, at least a mile from any house, or railroad; lay your ear flat upon the grass, listen without a move for ten minutes.

Sharp continues on by asking questions of the student. Although in part rhetorical, in doing so, he also encourages students to experience the wonders of the natural world for themselves.

You hear something—or do you feel it? Is it the reaching up of the grass? is it the stir of the earthworms? is it the pulse of the throbbing universe? or is it your own throbbing pulse? It is all of these, I think; call it the heart of the grass beating in every tiny living blade, if you wish to. You should listen to hear the grass grow.

​Sound advice for going afield

Sharp gives six bits of sound advice for going afield in The Fall of the Year that apply throughout the year. We include the first two here as examples. To begin, Sharp's first recommendation is:

Go often to the same place, so that you can travel over and over the same ground and become very familiar with it. The first trip you will not see much but woods and fields. But after that, each succeeding walk will show you particular  things—this dead tree with the flicker's hole, that old rail-pile with its rabbit-hole—until, by and by, you will know every turn and dip, every pile of stones, every hole and nest; and you will find a thousand things that on the first trip you didn't dream were there.

In the first place, start where you are even if that means in a small backyard. Within a small space you may have ants to watch or logs to turn over. (There you may even find pill bugs and centipedes hiding underneath!). To illustrate, in our small front yard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, we had a chipmunk living under our breezeway, a cardinal nesting in the bush outside our dining room window, a towhee scratching under the bushes by the walk, a skink who sunned himself on our front stoop, and a spider that spun webs crossing our path to the driveway.

Next, Sharp's second piece of advice is :

When you go into the woods, go expecting  to see something in particular—always looking for some particular nest, bird, beast, or plant. You may not find that particular thing, but your eyes will be sharpened by your expectation and purpose, and you will be pretty sure therefore to see something.

Awakening to the natural world

Even if you do not encounter what you expect to see, the mere suggestion that you might activates the senses. As a result, you and your children will likely be more alert to whatever presents itself than you otherwise would be. As an illustration of this very phenomena, Nicole William has a remarkable story on her blog at Sabbath Mode Homeschool where she writes about what her family was able to discover in a familiar woods when they were primed to look for a particular thing.

Charlotte Mason herself writes, "The real use of naturalists' books at this stage is to give the child delightful glimpses into the world of wonders he lives in, to reveal the sort of things to be seen by curious eyes, and fill him with desire to make discoveries for himself." (Home Education, p. 64) We have found that Dallas Lore Sharp's seasonal books satisfy those criteria on all counts.

Ages

Although originally targeted for ages 12 to 14, The Spring of the Year, Summer, The Fall of the Year, and Winter can be enjoyed by all. Older readers, however, may find that they get more out of them than younger ones.

In the 2017-2018 Alveary, these books were scheduled for Natural History in Form 1A (Ages 7-8). Some students even reported the Sharp books among their favorites for the year!

​Learning more

To learn more about the use of naturalists' books, we especially suggest listening to Episode #21 Nature Lore from A Delectable Education.

In addition to In the Spring of the Year, Sharp's books on the other three seasons have similar content. All have chapters on Things To See, Things To Do, and Things to Hear, interspersed with stories of his own discoveries in that time of year.

Please share any experiences inspired by these books in the comments below!

Purchase Books at Amazon

The Spring of the Year
by Dallas Lore Sharp

The Fall of the Year
 by Dallas Lore Sharp

Winter
by Dallas Lore Sharp

Read Online

Get Ebooks

Get access to the ebook editions of The Spring of the Year, Summer, The Fall of the Year, and Winter by purchasing the Yesterday's Classics Ebook Collection, Nature Study through the Seasons

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com.
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The Betsy-Tacy Series

by Rebecca Ripperton
March 4, 2019

When I think of books that defined my childhood, the Betsy-Tacy series books are the first to come to mind. As I was growing up, I read them more times than I can count. I loved these books with all of my heart then, and to this day, I still enjoy reading them!

The series is about a young girl named Betsy, and her bashful, redheaded friend Tacy. The girls meet when Tacy’s family moves into the house across the street from Betsy’s family. Betsy is excited to discover that Tacy is exactly Betsy’s age, although Tacy initially refuses to speak to her due to bashfulness. But the girls befriend one another at Betsy’s 5th birthday party and soon become inseparable.  Together they share the difficulties and joys of growing up, going on countless adventures – both real and imagined.

The books are set around the turn of the 20th century in the small Minnesota town of “Deep Valley.” The series then follows Betsy throughout her adolescence and concludes during World War I with Betsy’s first year of marriage.

In total, there are 13 books in the Betsy-Tacy series. Maud Hart Lovelace wrote 10 books that center on Betsy, and 3 more that focus on other Deep Valley characters. As the series progresses, the reading level of the books also advances, so a child can read about Betsy and Tacy growing up as they themselves are maturing (which is just what I did and recommend). Apparently Maud Hart Lovelace told these stories to her daughter at bedtime before turning them into books. As her daughter grew older, so did Betsy and Tacy. Over time, the two developed into fuller characters, and their stories became more involved.

The magic of Deep Valley

As a child, these books felt magical to me. Deep Valley seemed like an ideal place to grow up, and Betsy Ray’s “crowd” felt like the sort of friends that anyone would be lucky to have. There was such richness in Betsy’s experience of the world. I loved that Betsy and Tacy played dress up and with paper dolls, just like me. I also loved reading about the many ways in which their lives differed from mine.

In the winter, they would ice-skate on a frozen pond together, and throughout the year, they regularly congregated in living rooms to gather round the piano and sing. When Betsy was in high school, she and her friends would even roll up the living room carpet to hold “dances.” The activities they engaged in weren’t extravagant, but they always seemed celebratory, imaginative, and full of merriment. A strong sense of community is also a constant current throughout the series.

Betsy as an “authoress”

Throughout the series, Betsy aspires to be an author, or “authoress.” As a child, she scribbles short stories and plays that she keeps in an old cigar box. And just like in Little Women, Betsy puts on performances of her plays, recruiting neighborhood children to take part in them. 

Betsy also grows up reading classics like Ivanhoe and Don Quixote. Familiarity with great literature is a given in her family, with references to books and poems appearing throughout the series. The world of Deep Valley, particularly in the Ray household, is a place where books and ideas matter.

Betsy’s whole family supports her in her writing and takes great pride in her work. Her mother prepared a writing desk as a special surprise for her, and her father encourages her to establish a regular habit of going to the town library to continue her literary education. In high school, Betsy competes each year in the high school’s essay contest, which is both an honor and a responsibility she treats very seriously. As a child who also wanted to grow up to be an author, I loved reading about Betsy’s relationship with literature and watching it deepen as she matured.

A love for music and art

Another aspect of this series that I especially appreciate is the emphasis Maud Hart Lovelace places on music and the arts. Music plays a very important role in Betsy’s family. She and her two sisters all learn to play the piano at a young age, with both parents encouraging their musical talents. 

Betsy's older sister Julia has an exquisite voice and takes singing lessons, eventually becoming a professional opera singer in her adulthood. As a teenager, Julia took occasional trips to the Twin Cities to go to the opera with her mother, and eagerly devoured new musical scores whenever she can get her hands on them. All of Betsy and Julia’s friends seem to love music, as well, regularly singing in groups at social gatherings. Betsy's parents also frequent the theater and model an appreciation of the arts for their daughters. 

Despite the smallness of the town, or perhaps because of it, there’s a tremendous value placed on art as an important means of enriching our lives throughout the entire series.

Ages

The first book, Betsy-Tacy, could be read by children ages 5-8, either as a read-aloud or independently, depending on the child’s age and individual ability. I recommend reading at least Betsy-Tacy aloud in order to give the child a sense of the style and to familiarize them with the Deep Valley and its characters, and perhaps also Betsy-Tacy and Tib, the next book in the series.

Betsy-Tacy and Tib is appropriate for a slightly older child, somewhere in the range of 6-10 years old. Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown could be read by children ages 8-12 and 10-13, respectively. The remainder of the books are generally ideal for children ages 12-18, although the final two books of the series are about Betsy’s adulthood, travels in Europe during World War I, and the first year of her marriage, so an older reader might appreciate them more than a younger one.

Giving a child ownership of their reading

After reading the first two or three books with a parent, I would let a child take responsibility for when and how they read the remainder of the series. You could even consider letting them take responsibility for finding the books, which is what we did in our home.  

When I initially began to read the Betsy-Tacy series, we had the first 2 or 3 books at home, and then I slowly collected the remainder of the series over time. It was always exciting to go into a bookstore or library sale and look to see whether or not they had the next book in the series. Our local library also had several, which I checked out to read at home.

For me, the process of hunting for each new book definitely generated a lot of excitement, so even though you can now purchase all of the books from Amazon at a single go, I definitely recommend encouraging your child to look for them for themselves at libraries or at book sales. It’s a great way to give them some ownership of their reading habits.

Share your experience

Have you ever read any of the Betsy-Tacy books? Please leave us a comment below telling us about your favorite memory of these stories!

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