“Has there been a naturalist in the modern sense of the word who did not keep and greatly value a journal? The earliest journals were perhaps just scratch marks on an antler, recording the passing of days or the phases of the moon, to serve as a calendar to predict the seasons, the timing of animal migrations, or other cyclical phenomena.’ – (Bernd Heinrich, The Naturalist’s Notebook.)
A Brave New World
When I was little, I remember being introduced to the idea of explorers at school- namely ‘that Walter Raleigh who brought back a potato’, while studying the Tudors. I always wanted to be an artist, but for a couple of weeks I had the raging passion that I could combine this with charging off to new lands to learn from the people, animals and plants who lived there- return and teach everyone at home about what I’d found. Unfortunately there were a couple of problems with this plan – 1) I really don’t like spiders (which my Mum gently reminded me there were quite a lot of in most warm or even temperate countries) , 2) I got terribly homesick even while WITH my family on a weekend to Sidmouth, so the chances of me coping thousands of miles away from home without them were fairly limited. I thought it best to focus on the artist part of my plan and set my sights on some smaller adventures for the time being.
There’s a little part of me that never forgets this feeling, though- this is the same part that encouraged me to try navigating the tube the last time I went to London even though it terrifies me, to stand in a field drawing during the freak March snowstorm of two years ago… The brave and adventurous little piece of my brain which will take hold after the rest has finished panicking about new, sudden changes in life, and say “Now you’ve finished, what’s there to explore!?”
When this pandemic came knocking closer and closer down the streets of the world towards us, after a period of mourning for the loss of what I had always known as normal, I began to realise (rather ironically) that although now I was not permitted to leave my home for “unessential” purposes, all the conditions for an adventure I sought in a new land as a 10 year old were now on my doorstep. I had, according to the news, woken to a new landscape, which looked the same as the world I had left behind but filled with new, potentially dangerous situations, all to be treated with kid gloves- for there might be vicious creatures all around (protect your toilet rolls! Don’t drive to Durham!)
Although I couldn’t see them through the thick foliage of this lockdown, my family were out there somewhere- and they were on this adventure with me. Would they get hurt? Would we all make it “home”? It made my chest tight to even think about.
But, after the tears began to subside and focus began to return, my little adventure brain began to concoct a plan of action to cope with this brave new world.
A journal to mark the days; a project to find my feet!
“Art, like science, leads to the preservation of something that is perhaps thought of as fleeting and capturing it in some tangible form is the only way to stay connected to it. The process of writing, drawing, or painting forces us to pay attention to details. How those details vary and change through time is roughly analogous to the phenology of flowers in a field, which also relates to time and place. We can catch bits and pieces that serve as reminders.” Bernd Heinrich, The Naturalist’s Notebook.
“Even brief notes will help fix observations in your mind. Later, if you can’t recall a detail, your journal will supplement your memory. Most important by displaying events and comparing them over time, you will soon be able to uncover patterns in the natural world that you have never noticed before.” Nathaniel T. Wheelwright, The Naturalist’s Notebook.
Helplessness is a terrible feeling. In varying degrees, we’ve all experienced some of how this feels over the past few months- the prospect of being separated from loved ones for goodness knows how long; being at risk at work, being laid off, or being furloughed. Worries for the future, what it could mean for us, for our families, for our children. To go back to my opening metaphor, in some ways, we have all been lost on our own expeditions- ones which we had unknowingly been picked for, pushed out of the safety of normality into a dark jungle full of pitfalls.
During these first few days, it was hard to switch off – driven by an almost obsessive need to be up to the minute, I’m sure I’m not the only one who became a little saturated in the whole horrible cycle of terrifying news checking. As thick and fast as the bad news flooded in, however, little patches of human kindness began to pepper its all-encompassing doom and gloom as neighbours and communities shared ideas of how to look after each other. Where I live, a whopping number of initiatives provided free services to those in need- food, essentials, companionship and support… You name it, people were finding ways to provide it!
The individuals and businesses in my online and personal community were also completely outdoing themselves. I was alerted to an art/illustration business course that was being offered for free, which I leapt on! A friend of mine (who also happens to be the manager of my favourite workplace in the world!) began creating content to support those around her, and has since been writing a hugely inspiring blog as she begins her journey to becoming a qualified hypnotherapist (click HERE to have a peek- it will absolutely make your day better!!) Feeling inspired by her positivity, I started keeping a mini happiness journal- noting down one thing that had been uniquely lovely about that day that I could focus on before bed for a better night’s sleep, and hopefully ultimately to help me figure out how to help in my own way.
I noticed that a lot of the things which were scribbled into my journal in those last sleepy moments were related to nature in some way. Tadpole sightings, the first flowers to bloom in our winter-ravaged garden, a peaceful walk early in the morning or late in the evening peppered with dawn or dusk choruses. An idea began to form in my head… Could I combine a journal about the wildlife I observed as well as the places I couldn’t go and the wildlife I missed (the puffins and seals of Skokholm!) with the unusually essential natural world knowledge I’ve gained from working with young children the last 4 and a bit years (Do worms sleep?) to make something for everyone? This idea began to take shape as a book project, the process of which I could share online for all to see and enjoy- a tool to help reach out far and wide!
Stepping into the wild: Development of Notes from Nature!
All about us nature puts on the most thrilling adventure stories ever created, but we have to use our eyes. I was walking across our compound last month when a queen termite began building her miraculous city. I saw it because I was looking down. One night three giant fruit bats flew over the face of the moon. I saw them because I was looking up. To some men the jungle is a tangled place of heat and danger. But, to the man who can see, its vines and plants form a beautiful and carefully ordered tapestry.” William Beebe- oceanographer.
As the idea for this project first began to form, when I was desperately floundering around trying to think of a way to make a difference in an uncertain situation, I took advantage of this purpose of urgency and began sharing my early thoughts around the web. I hoped that I could connect with people having the same epiphany who might help to spur me on, not just sit on my ideas until I cooled off and had the time to think they weren’t good enough.
The response was overwhelmingly positive- a wonderful, confidence-boosting lesson that sharing unpolished ideas doesn’t actually result in rocks being thrown at you (fellow artists sitting on your sketchbooks at home, squirrelling them away from the outside world- take the leap, it feels great!) I was armed with offers of support, more extra ideas of things I could offer alongside a book project than I could shake a stick at, and most wonderful of all, some offers of paid work!!
I had a message from a lady called Gemma Tilley who runs a variety of activities out in nature. She wasn’t able to run her sessions as normal, and wondered if we might collaborate on a project together to focus on a separate nature-themed topic each week (the facts to come from her, the illustrations from me) that she could use to maintain and build interest in her business online, ready for when her sessions started again. An absolute dream of a project- and a huge inspiration while working on the early stages of my budding non-fiction project! (To find out more about what Gemma does- check out her social media profiles here and here!)
Some of my favourite pieces from this collaboration so far- we’ve been well into our minibeasts!
As I scribbled away on collaborations with Gemma, the inspiration kept on coming for Notes from Nature, the name I had chosen for this non-fiction project. I was missing the sea and all its creatures terribly – particularly the puffins and the seals I had so looked forward to visiting on Skokholm again. I revisited a miniature non-fiction project I created last year for North Somerset Arts Week called “Seal Song” to remind myself of some of the facts that had delighted me so about these speckled, plump and charming creatures- so I could feel as though I was once again in their company.
A recap of “Seal Song” – a non-fiction mini leaflet book project about the life’s journey of a seal pup. Written and illustrated by me! 🙂
All the time, I was noticing more little details in the quiet calm that had fallen outside. More than ever I noticed the bumblebees which began to visit the newly emerging spring growth, wiggling their legs and bottoms waist-deep in flowers. An article that I stumbled across here talked a little about how important bumblebees were and are in the evolution of plants and flowers- referring to a book about the many wonders of these gentle little creatures by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s founder, Dave Goulson. I liked the sound of this book and the person who had written it, and ordered it right away! (N.B. – This book would also provide the first sparks of inspiration for my 2020 entry for the Templar (Big Picture Press) Illustration Award Competition, which as of the 29th of June, I’ve just sent off to be judged! More about that in my next post!)
Bee themed sketchbook studies and patterns inspired by “A Sting in the Tale” – Dave Goulson. Did you know that a bumblebee needs to keep a steady body temperature for its flight muscles to work?
After devouring the first few chapters, I began hungrily rummaging through my bookshelves for more natural wonders- things to learn and more things to teach through the medium of this book project. I rediscovered some of my favourite excitingly chunky books which were always a bit too heavy to read in bed without clunking myself in the head, but perfect for inspiration on many occasions. (N.B- I’ve included a long list of my sources at the end, including all the books I mention throughout this post if any of them pique your interest!)
“Explorers’ Sketchbooks- The Art of Discovery and Adventure” – Some of the deep sea discoveries of William Beebe in his bathysphere (essentially a hollow steel ball!) Notes were recorded in the “Bathysphere Log” relayed through telephone wires to the surface while Beebe was deep under the sea. Perhaps not the sort of creatures you might find kicking around the garden (thank goodness!) – but a huge inspiration in terms of artistic field study! Else Bostelmann would work closely with William Beebe’s descriptions when he surfaced to create the first images of deep sea creatures!
“Explorers’ Sketchbooks- The Art of Discovery and Adventure” – some of the butterflies recorded in the Amazon rainforest by Henry Walter Bates during the middle of the 19th Century. Again- new, exciting, exotic creatures!
Extracts from “The Naturalist’s Notebook” – observations from Nathaniel T. Wheelwright and Bernd Heinrich. This is a wonderful book that makes recording little observations in nature easy, and contains a 5 year calendar for the observer to compare their notes!
These books made it a lot easier for me to embrace and enjoy the limited choice of places I could go- while the back garden or the field next to your house seems a lot less interesting than the Amazon Rainforest or deep under the sea, they’re also places that are really easy to never fully appreciate or look at properly. Being cut off from the world was forcing me to study my immediate environment in much greater detail- everywhere I looked there was a creature waiting to be drawn!
Left: A page from my “Naturalist’s Notebook” 5 year calendar, where I take a couple of minutes at the end of the day to note down what I’ve noticed- it’s a useful tool to keep track of when certain things appear! Right: Some of the colourful characters I’ve been lucky enough to meet and draw from life! During one research session, I pulled every book I had that featured frogs out of the bookcase to go and work in the garden- and lo and behold, a real frog leapt out in front of me and disappeared into our tomato planter! As he sheltered from the heat and the prying eyes of next-door’s rich and diverse garden bird life, I drew to my heart’s content!
All in all, I can safely say that “Notes from Nature” and the opportunities that it helped bring about have saved me during this dark and unsure time. At the moment, NfM remains a work in progress, but I’d love to share what I’ve got so far!!
Out of the Jungle – Plans for the future!
As I make progress with “Notes from Nature”, I’ve been thinking a lot about its future. Now lockdown measures are beginning to ease, how can I use this project and the experience it’s given me to push on forwards? In the current climate, it would be so easy for me to fall into the black hole of “you’re not able to support yourself financially right now on the money you get from this work, so what’s the point?”
I’ve had a very key tool during the last few months to help combat these feelings and keep pressing on- the art/illustration business course I mentioned at the beginning of this post. (I’ll again include a link at the end.) As well as housing an incredible library of resources, it’s served up some encouraging, practical tips of how to approach more of the clients I want to work for as well as stellar advice on ways to support myself financially doing what I love (and of course, making a difference to others is an added bonus!)
During the course so far, I’ve realised that one of my top priorities in creating artwork is to inspire the love that I have for nature in others, particularly in future generations, so they can help protect it for the future!
So, this is what I’m trying to focus on in everything that I make!
Over the next few months, I’m hoping to:
-Continue exploring the world of non-fiction illustration through “Notes from Nature”. I’ve already used some of the animals I’ve looked at in new greetings card ideas, and I’m already beginning to plan the possibilities of making packs for education providers- schools, EYFS settings, Outdoor Learning/Forest School settings, etc. I’ve started planning a simple “skeleton” of a few key relatable nature topics which I’ve already touched on during NfN – for example, garden birds. In the current uncertain situations across the UK I’ve been considering making a start by creating some downloadable content for my website- flashcards and simple fact sheets which educators can easily access and print themselves to use in their settings.
Early drafts of commonly seen garden birds- a starting point for some flashcard artworks!
The next stage- some early flashcard mockups of the aforementioned birds’ favourite foods!
I’m realising more each day that drawing is my gateway to access all the things in life I’m interested in, all the things I want to learn about. Working with young children, my background in illustration makes me passionate about teaching other people how to use creativity to explore the world around them- it’s always been the most effective way for me of understanding even the things I can’t get my head around. When I can’t explain myself in words, I can draw a picture to illustrate what I mean- for example, in my nursery setting when we had finished reading a book about castles and a child asked me how a drawbridge worked, I drew it for him. He and his friends then proceeded to make one for a cardboard castle they had decided to work on. With nature, drawing helps me to remember animals and plants I’ve come across – and recreate a little of that moment for someone else to share in. As the world continues to change, and the impenetrable thickets of the jungle give way to a new dawn, there must always be a future in something that can make life more clear, and more enjoyable for others. As the naturalist Bernd Heinrich says:
“Any attempt to leave a sketch connects some portion of reality and personality… any little sketch, no matter how small and how simple, will enrich what you have seen.” Bernd Heinrich, The Naturalist’s Notebook.
© Carina Roberts and AutumnHobbit. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carina Roberts and AutumnHobbit with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Sources/Further Bits and Bobs
Books: All the titles I’ve written about in this post which have helped me in creating “Notes from Nature”. All the links below will take you to Hive.co.uk, a website which sells a myriad of wonderful books; better than that, they give a percentage of every sale to an independent bookshop of your choosing! (The one I chose I’m already making plans to visit when I’m allowed to!)
“A Sting in the Tale” by Dave Goulson.
A wonderful book all about bumblebees- their social lives, their history and uncertain future,
The Naturalist’s Notebook”– Nathaniel T. Wheelwright and Bernd Heinrich.
A must for nature fanatics!! A 5-year journal, with plenty of guidance to opening your senses even on a 5 minutes stroll – easy to compare observations year on year about the natural world around you!
“Explorers’ Sketchbooks- The Art of Discovery and Adventure”– Huw Lewis-Jones.
The most inspiring collection of explorer’s notebooks I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s a heavy, exciting treat for any book lover- I picked up my copy a few years ago on a short trip, and lugged it around for the whole day. My arms were very sore, but it was worth it!!
https://makeartthatsells.com/online-courses/ – The website to find the aforementioned art business course. I’m not sure that it’s still being offered for free now, but it is probably still reduced- they have lots of other wonderful courses too!
https://www.skillshare.com/home (Has a wonderful array of courses to spark your imagination! I believe they’re still offering 2 months free… I’ve been learning lots about pattern design during lockdown to open up a new market for my work!)