I picked up a branch of leaves and observed the shifting shadows as it spun between my fingers. There I sat, starring at an unassuming desert plant. My three-hour plant study had only begun. As I sat in the scorching sun, I wished the plant could create enough shade to accommodate me. I began my observations by noting the obvious features of the plant. Its leaves were garnished with sharp points on every end and grew out of snarly branches. Dusted winter green colored the leaves, with little evidence of possible flowers. Maybe it was too early to tell. After noting every distinguishable feature, I dissected the stem in order to gather a visual on its circulatory system. I noted the details detectable by my naked eyes. Then I moved to speculate about the location of my plant. It seemed to grow close to the stream bank as well as far up the steep canyon slopes. My plant could withstand direct sunlight and possibly had adapted to only living close to a water source, judging by it proximity to the stream and absence later down canyon where the wash ran dry. I hadn’t done much independent speculation of the natural world before the plant study. I’d grown accustomed to stifling the imagination that nature can inspire. Science books and nature guides were often my first stop before employing my own speculations.
During the plant study activity we were required to creatively express our plant in any way we seemed fit. I thought for a while about whether to write a poem or story. I decided that the words I had might not do it justice. I drew, instead, the shadows projected by one of the branches on to my paper. Every incremental movement, as it spun, created a different complex shadow. I soon began to trace the shadows and attempted to explore the myriad of shapes that appeared. I remember thinking they were oddly geometric as a result of the pointed leaf lobes. Each leaf seemed to shade itself while taking into account its particular position under the desert sun. The challenge of capturing one of these shadows on paper consumed me. Soon enough, three hours had passed. I followed the small stream back to the head of the canyon to meet the rest of the group.
As we shared our findings, the depth of observation and expression of everyone’s plant study presentation happily surprised me. We engaged our scientific observational skills as well as our expressive techniques. During our discussions in class we talked about the two sides of natural history. The scientific and the interpretative aspects of natural history inform each other. Ella’s plant study offered a great example of this. She named her plant the pillow. She observed the composition of the plant. She speculated about adaptations the plant might posses and the ways it is best suited for its environment. Her creative component especially struck me. She wrote,
In the form of a tiny green bud
Not all of a flower or leaf,
But of a plume softer than fleece.
Its details are pristine
Fit for a fairy queen
Pink and black and white and green
They inspire a pleasant tune
That’s hummed about them by the bees.
She artfully used her scientific inferences to inform her expression. As a member of the audience her poem was memorable and incorporated her personal experience within the plant study. She was not alone in her creative expression; Nate wrote a short story about his plant relating it to a little brother. Aly personified her plant as a grandmother because of its small dusty petals that resembled hair curlers. In each case their close observation informed their interpretation, creating a greater depth to our study of the natural world.
Thomas Fleischner wrote in an article titled, Natural History and the Spiral of Offering, about the complexities of natural history. He suggests that a wholehearted naturalist employs a variety of observation methods to be more receptive and “cultivate awareness.” Fleischner emphasizes how important expression is to the practice of natural history. Ultimately the expressive component allows naturalists to present their experience and findings to their community. Expression is not only important to convey findings but it can also add a degree of humanity to the study of nature, for the people who might not be drawn to the natural world independently. In some circumstances the expressive portion can be crucial for inspiring other people to feed their naturalist spirit or to question their environment. The plant study demonstrated the importance of nurturing a creative lens when practicing natural history, not only to present your work but also to inspire others.
Before the plants study, I wouldn’t have looked at the pillow willow, formally known as the Coyote Willow, and thought of it in the same manner as Ella. Her presentation allowed me to have a connection with the plant as well, that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Nonetheless, it has encouraged me to see the natural word with a variety of lenses. Fostering unique personal expressions to nature could have a similar effect on a community as it does on a group of students in a remote canyon. By inspiring everyone to be a naturalist in there own way, a new widely shared reverence could inspire us to take a second look at the way we treat our environment.