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.
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!
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!