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Book Review: In Season: A Natural History of the New England Year

In Season: A Natural History of the New England Year
Field Illustrations and Notes by Nona Bell Estrin
Essays by Charles W. Johnson
University Press of New England, 2002
Age Range: Illustrated Field Notes-All Ages, Essays-Adults

Growing up in a big city, like I did, you can easily feel disconnected from nature. Turns out growing up in small town Massachusetts, like The Four-Year-Old, is not that much better. The world around us still feels pretty well-groomed and not terribly wild. Even if we do have a rabbit living under the shed in our backyard.

I’m attempting to counter the domestication of nature to some degree with regular visits to places like the Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary. But let’s face it, when your fear of ticks and the Lyme Disease that they carry is as well-developed as mine is, teaching your Four-Year-Old to feel a deep connection with nature is no easy task.

That’s where this book comes in. I first picked it up as a way to help myself see the hundreds of subtle changes that happen every day as the calendar progresses. If I could see them, the theory went, I could point them out to The Four-Year-Old and help her become an active observer (and hopefully appreciator) of nature.

Half illustrated field notes, half essay reflections on nature’s survival strategies from month to month, In Season is all about reconnecting with the environment around us. Estrin’s field notes chronicle the thousands of small events that make the seasons. A sudden proliferation of grouse, porcupine, coyote, fisher cat, and fox tracks in the snow as all the animals come out to stock up on food in advance of a big winter storm. The cacophony of crows as they gather for roosting at the end of the day. The many types of snow.

I’ve lived in and around Boston for twelve years now and I’ve never appreciated the many fine details that go into a simple snow and ice storm. Sure I’ve noticed the huge flakes at the beginning of the storm and the hard pellets that fall thick and fast like rain near the end, but I’ve never thought about the boilerplate — the glaze that coats everything when the storm is over with what Estrin describes in her field notes as “a soft mat finish.” Nor have I stared at the individual flakes closely enough as they fall to note their symmetry or lack thereof, as Estrin does in one memorable entry on page 25.

Jan 13 (’99): Fine bullet-type snow pouring down all morning. Roads horrible. Then, SUN (suddenly as an arctic cold front comes through) for most of the afternoon into early evening. None of the snow crystals are symmetrical, but a light fluffy snow, consisting of conglomerate clusterings of small, varied ice crystals, each crystal reflecting light and with darker holdings where the light seems ‘drawn out.’

Oh, I thought as I read this entry. This is how the Sami developed hundreds of different words for snow. (OK, OK, I actually thought Eskimos, but Wikipedia tells me that’s an urban myth. The Sami people in Europe are the ones with the impressive collection of snow words.)

Reading this book has become almost a meditation for me. I am savoring it in small chunks as the days pass on my own calendar. I take small bites of Estrin’s notes with The Four-Year-Old cuddled up beside me as the days tick by, then swallow Johnson’s essays at the end of the month in one delicious gulp.

The book has inspired The Four-Year-Old and me to start our own Caterpickles Field Guide to record what we see in the world around us. Every day just after breakfast, we break out the printer paper and colored pencils so that we can draw the objects that captured our attention the most the day before.  I love comparing notes at the end of the session to see what each of us discovered about the world. I tend to notice and remember birds. The Four-Year-Old is much less predictable. Her Field Notes from January include everything from the orange caution cone parked outside our neighbor’s driveway one day last week to the fly that invaded our guest bathroom on Saturday (it’s been an unusually warm winter) to the grackle that was pecking for food along the side of the road as The Four-Year-Old made her way to preschool Monday.

We date, label, and sign each picture, and if the spirit moves us, add a sentence about where and when we saw whatever it was we documented. We’re collecting them all in an accordion file. As we complete each month, The Four-Year-Old creates a title page with the name of the month and staples our drawings together to bind them into a book. At the end of the year, we’re going to have quite a nice little collection.

From the Caterpickles Field Guide. The grackle The Four-Year-Old saw looking for lunch on our way to preschool last week.

And now it’s your turn. What are you reading this week?

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