Book Review: "Nature Study For The Whole Family" by Laurel M. Dodge

Nature Study For The Whole Family by Laurel M. Dodge is not normally a book I would ever pick up. I grew up thinking of myself as a person who isn't all that interested in nature, so I'd never have thought to find a book about teaching my kids about nature. But I agreed to review it because my friend (who I like very much) is married to the author, so I figured it would be at least well-written (because of the way his mind works and because of the way he talks about his wife). So I started reading.

And was impressed, and perplexed, and impressed some more. I had to slow down, because this isn't a normal how-to manual written for parents. This is a chronicle of love and loyalty and patience. Laurel (who I've still never met, but really want to now) loves nature--from the beautiful flowers and trees to the creepy wiggly bugs--with an instinctual love. Her parents facilitated that love and supported her as she followed it in school (she has a Master's in Environmental Studies). So she has an unending urge to go toward nature, to be still and walk up to it, to photograph it and sketch it and look at it from all sides. To pay careful attention to life cycles and the seasons and what happens when, with animals, with plants, with insects, with frogs. What I would swat away, she creeps up to and sketches, and shows her children what makes the wings or carapace special.

This book is a love letter to nature, but it's also a love letter to her children, who she's sharing her experience of nature with, and it's a love letter to the reader--ordinary parents like her, who love something and want to share it with their children. Her love is nature, and she knows so much about it and how to start studying it. But as I read I couldn't help but think that her process is a lot like the process I used to let my older son find books, and like I imagine people who love other things (art, music, baseball) used to start their children off with a process of deep knowing.

Her writing is absolutely lovely. It's slightly formal and old-fashioned, and she uses all the accurate words to describe plants and animals, so you may find yourself looking up words as you read, as I did. It's part description, part memoir. Her "how-to"s are more like case studies that you draw your own conclusions from, which makes it even more thoughtful and respectful of the reader. She shares stories of successes and missteps in nature study with her own children (takeaway: little kids don't always care about what you think they should care about), and with other children she's taught as a naturalist. By the end of it you feel you know Laurel, and would let her lure you out to the edge of the pond with her to collect frog eggs, but that you'd also allow her to come into your messy house just to talk about life and parenting and what really matters to you.

Laurel's full-color sketches and photos are scattered throughout the book. I now know what a Blue Vervain looks like, and a Polyphemus Moth. She talks about keeping a record of species you've seen, and how that can be useful for children, as well as how to use field guides with children.

The best thing: I never felt bad about not being a Nature Person. She draws a strong case for becoming interested in nature *as you find it where you live* and entering nature study at a level that's comfortable for you. For me, that means that when I pick up my kids from their dad's and walk home, instead of walking on the sidewalk we'll take the "shortcut" (actually a longcut) through the park and look at the plants along the path. It'll take 5 or 10 more minutes, but that's what Laurel is showing us--that love begins in 5 or 10 minutes of just letting things happen.

Maybe there's something you love,that you thought was too big or complicated to share with your own kids. Or maybe you see your kids getting into something you don't understand, and you'd like to encourage them. Or maybe you miss stopping and looking at nature, and you want to make sure your children have the same memories of lightning bugs on a summer night that you do. I'd recommend, for all of us, reading Laurel's delightful, quiet, thoughtful book.

And now I'm going to go buy some sketch pads and colored pencils for my kids for when we walk home from their dad's.