Nature Noticing Excursions: Making Connections at Camp through Seeing, Story, and Drawing

Merrie Koester, PhD
January 2016
lichen and oak

In the November/December 2015 issue of Camping Magazine, I wrote about a phenomenon I called Noticing Deficit Disorder (NDD), a culturally induced form of vision loss and nature blindness, which I believe camp can help cure. Those with NDD will frequently walk down a street and completely fail to notice, much less appreciate, the beauty of the natural world around them. Invariably, they are too distracted by their hand-held digital devices. As an antidote to NDD, I proposed that camps create Nature Noticing Excursions (NNEs), inquiries of the natural world mediated through the aesthetic practices of observation, story, and drawing.

The Nature Noticing Excursion model I propose is driven by the overarching themes of knowing and caring. Over five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci taught us that to draw something is to know it. The act of drawing requires a stillness and focus increasingly absent in the lives of today's overly busy children and adults. Camps provide settings where drawing in nature can restore the sense of sight and profoundly deepen connections with the environment through acts of sustained, aesthetic noticing. Aldo Leopold, author of the Sand County Almanac and considered the father of wildlife management in the U.S., believed that care for nature is rooted in establishing opportunities to directly experience its beauty (1949). I believe that drawing can bring one into a deep, caring relationship with nature, not just for it. To develop an NNE model for camp, I recruited my former student and now graphic artist, Edward Kornya, who is a counselor mentor at Green River Preserve (GRP) nature camp. At GRP, there is already a strong emphasis on the creative arts, and campers are regularly engaged in aesthetic inquiry of nature, with Edward leading daily hikes to different parts of the preserve.

During his time at GRP, Edward has had the opportunity to be mentored by experienced nature educators who introduced him to the importance of being still with nature, studying field guides to acquire deep knowledge, and engaging campers through story and questions. This nature immersion curriculum has been strongly informed by the work of Young, Haas, and McGown, authors of Coyote's Guide to Connecting with Nature (2010). I highly recommend this book filled with the "wisdom of the ancestors," for any who seek to turn back the tide of Noticing Deficit Disorder.

Edward and I met to consider what a counselor might say and do as he or she led an NNE. We decided to split up to conduct our own action research: Edward would lead an NNE on his own to a site called Long Rock, and I would accompany professional nature guide and storyteller Hawk Hurst on a different hike with another group of campers. I asked Edward to take photos of his experience, and I planned to do the same on my outing with Hawk. We would meet afterwards and reflect on what happened.

The day of GRP's inaugural NNE dawned bright with promise. We all piled in to the old school buses that were to take us to our respective nature destinations. To my delight, on my bus, we were barely out of the parking lot before the singing began. Led by infectiously goofy counselors were chorus after chorus of old camp favorites like "Black Socks" and "The Forest Is a Wonderful Place."

The forest is a wonderful place,
Filled with frogs and snakes.
I want to see a salamander's face.
The forest is a wonderful place (I want to go there . . . )

I was ten years old again and back at summer camp. I recalled again Maxine Greene's descriptors of an aesthetic experience: participatory interaction, joyful, deep emotional commitment, and a sense of freedom (2001). Oh, would that every child could go to camp!

Nature Hunting with Hawk

In what seemed like no time at all, my group arrived at the trail head, disembarked, and followed Hawk. He instructed us to gather in a circle. For the next four hours I was transfixed, as I observed the skill with which Hawk used storytelling to teach us natural history. The trail we took was part of the oldest road in the Carolinas — the Pony Express route from Greenville to Asheville. Before that, it was the footpath for Native American peoples. How awesome that we were walking over ancient footprints.

"Everything you need to survive can be found right here in nature," Hawk said. "Look here," he said, pointing to what I thought was an ordinary wildflower, Queen Anne's lace. "This is the wild carrot. It lives two years. It puts out a white taproot you can eat the first year and a flower the second. Let's find some first-year growth." We did, and tasted an earthy but delicious tiny, pale carrot.

"Still hungry?" Hawk asked, and pointed to an ox eye daisy. "Both the leaf and flower are edible and nutritious."

"Ever had a flea bite?" he asked, marching on. "The native Americans knew that the plant we call f lea bane had natural insecticidal properties." Hawk pointed to the plant, but then another grabbed his attention. Hawk brought us to a small shrub from which he plucked a leaf. He then instructed a camper to take out his water bottle and let a single drop of water fall on the leaf 's surface.

"Ah!" came murmurs of amazement from the campers.

"Looks like a tiny jewel, doesn't it?" Hawk asked. "The jewelweed has special oils in it that can ease poison ivy."

While we played with the jewelweed, Hawk spotted another medicinal plant. "What if you got an infection from your poison ivy while you were out in the woods?" he asked. "Over here is a plant you could use, but only if you were very careful. Healers in Native American cultures know that the poke root in small amounts is a natural antibiotic, but too much can cause hallucinations and insanity." We gave this plant a wide berth.

"Which plant would you never want to be without?" asked one camper.

"That would have to be plantain. Five leaves daily will give you all the vitamin C you need. Also, if you get stung by an insect, just chew up some leaves and make a poultice out of it. The chemicals in the sap pull out the poisons."

Hawk taught us that pilgrims used the seeds of the plantain to treat constipation. In their dried form today, the plantain seeds are called psyllium. If you eat the undried seeds, they'll act like a natural insect repellent. I marveled. The world was surely a better place because of the plantain. We had barely hiked a hundred meters, and I was already so much smarter.

Hawk stopped in front of a tree embellished with an impressive fox grape vine. I had never seen such big grape leaves.

"Anyone ever had one of those protein food bars?" Nearly all of us nodded. "Well," he said, picking off one of the huge grape leaves, "the Native Americans used to take bear fat, combine it with dried berries, and wrap the whole mixture in one of these fox grape leaves. This was the first food bar, and it had enough calories to sustain them for hours."

A few paces ahead, Hawk stopped again in front of another tree. It was the witch hazel, well known for its natural disinfecting and astringent properties. Within moments of Hawk telling us that a former counselor with whom he had worked had completely cured his acne with this leaf, half the campers were rubbing their faces with it.

On and on we went, stuffing our brains with plant knowledge that might one day save our lives. Sourwood would give us extra vitamin C. If we burned a hornet's nest, the toasted larvae could sustain us for days. Wild ginger could settle our stomachs afterwards. We were warned to beware of all mushrooms and to be particularly vigilant for the Death Angel, or Ammonita, of which we saw quite a few. Hawk told us somberly that there is no antidote for ingestion of this fungus — hence its name. We walked away in contemplative silence.

I let myself lag behind the others a bit and scribbled in my journal as I considered what was happening here. Without the natural history and the compelling human story, this experience would have been, at worst, a very pleasant walk in the woods. At its best, as it was here, we were all being drawn into deep and caring relationships with nature and our ancestors before us. I could hardly wait to learn what Edward had said and done on his own excursion, and what drawing would add to such an experience as we had shared with Hawk this morning. As we headed back on the bus to the dining room, I felt happy and enriched.

At lunch, Edward and I had made plans to meet during his break. "Tell me everything you remember that you said and did," I prompted, adopting my researcher's stance.

Edward's NNE

"First, we did our safety talk — things like what to do if there's lightning or you get a bee sting. I taught them about giving a venomous snake a way to escape. This is called the open circle rule."

Like Hawk, Edward had taught his campers a lot about nature's medicine cabinet. For vitamin C, Edward had invited his group to chomp on sassafras leaves and white pine needles. They brushed their teeth with the Carolina sweet shrub. When they arrived at a cave that was utterly dark, he invited them to sit for one minute of pure silence, honing their senses to what was there. (He also shared that there were extra counselors along in case some campers were anxious about being in total darkness.) After the silent minute, Edward pulled out two quartz crystals and smacked them together, surprising his group with the spark and the smell of the photochemical reaction. Next, he lit a candle and read to the campers from a book of nature lore. He said he could feel their breathing slowing as they relaxed. He pointed out cave crickets and salamanders. Then he pulled out a jaw harp and they all were astonished by the way its beautiful tones reverberated off the rock walls of the cave.

Edward reported that the previously boisterous campers seemed transformed and introspective. Quietly, they emerged from the cave to begin the 15-minute hike up to Long Rock, a "bald" granite outcropping surrounded on all sides by trees. Once they reached their destination, he asked them to take out their sketchbooks and pencils and to find a place by themselves on the rock. It was time for the "solo-sit."

Once situated, they were to "go inside themselves" as they contemplated what was outside in the nature before them. Edward asked them to make drawings and write about what they observed, designing their pages in any way they wanted.

Young, Haas, and McGown (2010) regard the "sit spot" as one of the "core routines" of coming into connection with nature. They characterize this experience as one where campers can meet their curiosity, feel wonder, face their fears, and grow past them. The sit spot is the place where "they meet nature as their home" (p. 37).

Artist Frederick Franck (1993) has written eloquently about what can happen when one draws to see nature while sitting silently with it. He describes an "eyeheart- hand reflex," a moment of grace in which you realize you are a living part of a living universe. When I looked at the pictures Edward had taken of these children drawing in nature on that rock, I knew they had seen and felt nature and gladly received its gifts.

Facilitating the NNE

The Nature Noticing Excursion is an experience that can be facilitated by one who has deep knowledge of natural history and a repertoire of compelling stories. When campers are also asked to observe and draw nature during a solo-sit, they can develop powerful, caring connections with their surroundings. However, I believe that campers who have also been given some basic training in the art of nature journaling will have a higher level of self-efficacy and confidence about drawing in nature than those who have not. Edward's campers all had seen him keeping a nature journal. They observed his practice and deep respect for nature, saw his work, strove to be like him, and will not soon forget what he taught them.

I believe American poet and painter E.E. Cummings said it best when he wrote of the transformative power of being in nature, with its "leaping green spirits of trees and the blue true dream of sky, and for everything which is natural and which is infinite which is yes . . . now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened" (1959). Photos on pages 42–45 courtesy of Merrie Koester, PhD.

Additional NNE Advice

To broaden awareness of nature and the importance of preserving it, Edward Kornya advises counselors to encourage campers to contemplate the following questions during their own Nature Noticing Excursions:

  • How many different kinds of things do you sense here?
  • For example, how many different kinds of leaves do you see?
  • What sounds do you hear?
  • What does nature (this leaf, tree, etc.) smell like?
  • Is anything edible?
  • Are there signs of wildlife?
  • How are we affecting the surroundings?
  • How can we preserve this wilderness?

References
Cummings, E.E. (1959). I thank you God for most this amazing. 100 selected poems. New York, NY: Grove Press.
Franck, F. (1993). Zen Seeing. Zen Drawing. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Greene, M. (2001). Variations on a blue guitar: The Lincoln Center Institute lectures on aesthetic education. New York and London: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.
Leopold, A. (1949). Sand County Almanac. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Young, J., Haas, E., & McGown, E. (2010). Coyote's guide to connecting with nature. Second Edition. Santa Cruz, CA: OWlink Media.

Merrie Koester, PhD, is a science educator, novelist, and director of Project Draw for Science for the University of South Carolina Center for Science Education. Her book, Science Teachers Who Draw: The Red Is Always There, describes her research and narrates the stories of educators who achieved dramatic student turnarounds by teaching science through drawing and aesthetic forms of inquiry.