Earlier on this summer I was visiting my parent’s house and waiting for me was my grandmother’s nature diary from 1931-32. As you can see from the cover, this was part of my gran’s course work. She was studying to be a governess at Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside, Cumbria. She must have been 20 years old.
In those days, using ink was the norm, so mistakes could not be deleted and presentation seemed to matter. Check out my gran’s gothic lettering and the wee illustrations in each corner…
I’ve no idea what guidance my gran received from her tutors for compiling her Nature Notes. Each month has the headings in gothic lettering as indicated below along with a relevant poem.
During the course of the year, my gran’s flower paintings definitely improved. The only thing she really struggled to illustrate were fungi.
The text is not particularly riveting. To give you an idea, here’s the entry above for 12th April 2031:
“I went for a walk through the games field and along the stream by the Rothay, to look for flowers. One plant of the yellow …, which first came out last month, was nearly withered, but there was one plant still alive. Not far from it we found the m… which I had never seen before; it is a dainty-looking plant, with a splendid floret and the little yellow stamens like dots in the centre of each petal. There were a great number of opposite-leaved golden saxifrage flowers on each bank of the stream. They looked extremely pretty when they are in a mass. There are quantities of wood anemones all of the grassy places, at present – by the streams and hedges as well as in the woods. They are very like the wood-sorrel flowers, but the leaves are entirely different. The leaves of the wood-sorrel are trefoil shaped and decorative in themselves. Going on to Rydal Road we found ivy-leaved toadflax just out on one wall.
At the back of the book, all her findings were systematically recorded. This was really helpful in that it gives a good indication of the range of wildlife she found locally on her walks and also on her travels. She managed to get around quite a bit – over to Northern Ireland, down to the south of England and back to her home in Yorkshire.
As the entry below indicates, my gran recorded a total of 324 plant species. The columns record: English name, Latin name, natural order, habitat, the months observed and the numbers of plants observed.
The bird lists was less comprehensive as the Latin name and order has been omitted.
Regardless, it is a fascinating record. I wonder when the practice of keeping a nature diary was deemed out-dated and removed from the course. I do know that although my gran stopped teaching after she had children, she continued to make good use of the knowledge acquired. She would always show us different plants and talk about birds when taking us on walks. In fact, I remember my first concerted effort to remember plant names happened when walking along with her. My gran was also an avid gardener. Her garden was her love and a perfect place for a child to wander with interesting nooks and crannies. She also didn’t mind us helping ourselves to any peas, strawberries or other seasonal food available.
I am aware that these days, many primary and early years practitioners do lack confidence when it comes to identification of different plants and animals. Whilst it shouldn’t deter any from going outside with a class, it would be interesting to see if there is any merit in providing opportunities for students and teachers to increase their skills. Greater knowledge of, and familiarity with, plants, animals and fungi, can help relieve concerns related to working outside with children. If we learn and share stories about different plants and animals, this can help us re-establish a connection with the natural world which is largely missing from most of our lives.
There are also many options now for recording findings in more interesting ways. Journalling is an art form in itself and digital technology provides a multitude of platforms which can appeal to adults and children. I like the databases which can be used online and apps which allow our recordings to be shared wider.
I also believe that the old-fashioned nature table needs to be flagged up as a hands-on display that gives children time to discover, explore and investigate the natural world. I wonder what my gran’s advice would have been about using these in the classroom.