Friday, April 7, 2017

Keen Observer

Keen Observer
I hesitate suggesting one more thing for you to do. Especially near the end of the school year. This suggestion, however, promotes a refreshing change.

Would you like to take a break from doing the subject of English indoors? How about taking credit for doing English-Outdoors . . . on a beautiful day?

Description of Place 
During my winter reading I'd been noticing descriptions of "place." Now in spring it feels good to be walking on the lawn in bare feet again, observing "place" in person. Spring makes me feel like dancing.

Not long ago I posted a suggestion on Facebook on observing "place." With spring brightening the landscape, living things catch our notice.

Children are observant. We can refine this natural attribute. We can encourage them to be keen observers, then, require that they describe what they see.

This is one exercise that goes into making a descriptive writer. A walk downtown would draw forth a description of a different sort than a walk in the country. But both are useful to the keen observer.

Firm Roots in Narration 
Yes, children gain an enormous benefit from narrating good books. They pick up descriptive style, polished grammar, paragraph construction that develops a train-of-thought, etc. from all the reading we do aloud and all the reading they do silently. The benefit of narrating from books is immeasurable. Not only do these strengths show up in the student's writing, they find their way into a student's speaking, countenance, inflections, etc. Narration develops a student's ability to reason, discern, and form opinions. I could go on.

Here, however, I'm suggesting another form of narration. For this Outdoor-English assignment the child describes what he sees, and hears, smells, feels, or senses in his soul - all and only from what he observes in his surroundings. In Story Starters I explain the use of what is commonly called, "sensory language." With sensory language we paint a picture and sense of "being there" for others. It is one of the warm-up exercises in Story Starters for descriptive writing.
Laura Ingalls Wilder - Her Powers of Observation
I just finished reading a biography: Donald Zochert's Laura - The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. About halfway into the book Laura returns to the Big Woods of Wisconsin. Pa's two summers of wheat crops were devoured by grasshoppers. In an interim the Ingalls live with extended family. One of Laura's chores is to bring home her uncle's cows. She loved this chore. It was difficult to separate how much of it was play and how much of it was work. The two merged together amicably.
See the Conestoga wagon in the back? (Landis Valley) 

"Bringing home the cows is the childhood memory that oftenest recurs to me," Laura said when she had grown up. "I think it is because the mind of the child is particularly attuned to the beauties of nature and the voices of the wildwood and the impression they made was deep."*1

An ox (Landis Valley)
Laura dilly-dallied along the cow paths, unmindful of milking time and being corrected yet-again for her tardiness. While daylight was softening and coming to a close she lingered, gathering wildflowers, wading in the creek, watching the squirrels, listening to the birds twitter as twilight approached.

When I reached the part where Mary becomes blind as the result of being "very sick" I remembered reading on-line that it is now surmised that Mary's symptoms match those of meningitis.

After Mary looses her sight Laura becomes even more of an observant child. You see, Pa asks her to be Mary's eyes for her.

Now that [Laura] must see for Mary as well as for herself. Laura saw everything - the way the wind bent the grass, the way the land rose to meet the sky, the way the sky seemed lit by a strange luminescence.*2

Mary and Laura sit in the back of the covered wagon on their way west to Silver Lake. Keenly and accurately observing "place" awakens the artistic sense in Laura.

"Necessity had sharpened her perceptions, and [Laura] struggled for words to express them. When she saw a white horse and a rider and the sun come together where the rim of the prairie touched the sky, she saw more than a man and his horse and the red blazing sun. She saw something wild and free and beautiful. When she tried to tell Mary about it, she felt how poor words were for telling what she had seen. She tried to find the right words, but there were some things which couldn't be fitted into words."*3

An Intelligent Exercise 
A daughter's Nature Diary
To describe our surroundings is a bit more strenuous of an exercise than narrating description painted for us on the pages of a book. We have to come up with a description ourselves (from scratch). What we see in person, we tell in person or on a page.

Yet years of narrating books gives us the vocabulary (and a wide range of other people's experience) from which to draw.

Sketching in a Nature Notebook is a kind of narrating. And yet it cannot describe the sound of geese overhead, the sound of rustling leaves in the treetops, the gurgle of shallow water moving over round rocks in a shallow creek bed, a bumble bee humming rhythmically flower-to-flower, how soft and cool a bed of spongy wet moss feels under the toes, what odor a skunk leaves behind, or what it feels like (afterwards) to be bit by a secretive mosquito.

"Summer Senses for Country Folk" is a chapter in A Charlotte Mason Companion. It provides pages of examples of the kinds of things to notice in our surroundings.

The suggestions are quaint. My efforts were to make them inviting, close-to-home and serene. Don't let "quaint" fool you. They are educational exercises none-the-less.

I like making pin cushions for gifts. I may keep the yellow chicken. The round ones are oft-used. 
Add Onomatopoeia for Some Fun
Like Laura's mix of play and chores, I hope you and your children will find "observing place" and describing "setting" enjoyable. As spring brings its joyful days of living things, of going bare foot again, hearing tree-frogs chirp, and watching blossoms unfold, let us observe and "tell." Try one or two sentences. This brief description can be copied into a Nature Diary. Story Starters also has instances for the use of onomatopoeia; words that mimic sound such as: atchoo, bang, buzz, caw, clip-clop, cock-a-doodle-do, flutter, hee-haw, hiss, hoot, howl, ker-plunk, meow, peep, rumble, screech, snap, splash, vroom, whip-poor-will, whoosh. Invite your child to invent one of his own.

High School 
Describing "place" is a legitimate English lesson, even though it be English-Outdoors for a high school age student. Here's a challenge. Take a description and reform the sentences of prose into verse. Thus the high school student will be making a poem out of what he observes akin to William Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, or John Greenleaf Whittier. I like Whittier's "Barefoot Boy."

I added a new scrappy doll quilt to my wall. The pieces in the nine-patches finish at 1 inch. 
Feel free to share some lines of your child's outdoor observation here in these comments, prose or poetry.

I also invite you to share a description of your own for keeping up your Mother Culture.

Always happy to hear from you,
Karen Andreola

End Notes

Link to my book, Story Starters. 

Link to Laura by Donald Zochert on Amazon

*1, 2 & 3 Donald Zochert, Laura - The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Avon Books, 1976, page 132


  1. As always with your blog posts, they are filled with words to savor and beautiful pictures. I always feel like I'm taking a special little break from my day to focus on reading one of your posts. Your mention of the biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading Laura's original autobiography, which was only published a few years ago. "Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography." What a fantastically done book for those of us wanting to know more about Laura. :)

    1. Oooo, thank you, Lisa. I'd like to read "Pioneer Girl" next. Dean saw "Laura" at a local bookshop for a $1.00 and handed it to me. I re-used some of today's photographs from some back posts and added some new ones Dean took at Landis Valley.

    2. I read Pioneer Girl too. I liked the preface, but I think I would have preferred a more condensed version of notes, rather than reading the entire original manuscript.

  2. Karen your blogs are always interesting and beautiful. Have you ever visited the Little House On The Prairie website? The site offers projects and stories on the Ingalls family. The books are
    for all ages. They can be read over and over again without being bored. i love the doll quilt. Very pretty.

  3. Thank you for the suggestion, Karen! It is just what we need! Love the violets entry!

  4. Karen, your chicken pincushions are just charming. šŸ”
    A written "sensory" description would make a nice addition to a vacation scrapbook over the summer. I am getting ideas...
    I read a quote this week: "Despite the forecast, live like it's spring." (Lilly Pulitzer) It makes me think of the John Newton poem in your 'Pocketful of Pinecones' that begins, "Kindly spring again is here." The lines, "Lord, afford a spring to me / Let me feel like what I see" have come back to me in difficult moments.
    Thank you for enriching our lives!
    I pray your Easter is blessed.

  5. Good to hear from all of you.

    I just popped over the the Little House website, Marion. I remember watching the television program when it originally aired in the 1970s. I was a teen then and impressed by the family loyalty and love, and how they were so relational. We have some episodes on DVD. It is one of the best programs that ever aired. I've used some of the Little House quilting cotton in my doll quilts.

    Oh, how dry we can become. And lonely. Or sorrowful. Or just plain dull. We long for heaven. Those are some of my difficult moments. That poem speaks to me, Kristyn. I'm so glad to hear that you've connected with it, too. And that it ministers to you. I can't remember where I came upon it. I wasn't looking for it.

  6. Thank you, Karen, for your posts. They are so encouraging. I appreciate the reminder to take advantage of this beautiful season in our home education. It is important to me to get my girls outside year round, but the season of spring enables us to linger out of doors longer and read, observe and play. As I sat outside today resting while my girls ran and played and reconstructed their "fairy town", I thanked the Lord for this beautiful season and for a day of worship and rest. Reading your post encouraged me to get out our favorite outdoor quilt so we can head outside this week with books and binoculars and enjoy God's creation. I enjoy the "boost" this gives our homeschool. I look forward to trying out your suggestions of "nature narrations" with my girls this week. I have been wanting my oldest to add more writing to her nature journal, and this seems like a good springboard to achieve that goal. We use Edith Holden's country diary as a part of our nature study repertoire, and we love that resource. It is a lovely example of all that a nature journal can be... It really is a beautiful work of art!

    First my daughter added poetry to her journal, now I think she can add some observations little by little. Thanks for the inspiration!

    A blessed Holy Week and Easter to you and your family!


  7. We have certainly benefitted from Laura's well exercised descriptive powers

    Just yesterday I walked in our yard bare footed for the first time this season. We have a large patch of zoyzia grass. It is cushy and springy. Children always end up rolling and tumbling and playing in it. Uninhibited adults make a bee line for it and brush their feet through the grass over and over. Inhibited ones will inevitably saunter over in stealth mode and, as if they are surprised to find the grass there, begin to speak scientifically about the properties and behaviors of the species. Makes me laugh every time.

    Happy Spring!


  8. Karen,
    As always, your post inspires me and gives me a moment of loveliness to enjoy. I am enjoying watching spring unfold from the large bank of windows in our new home. I've seen the advent of every season but spring. This has been a special year of observing. I have been trying to slow down a bit and savor the beauty of it all. God is so good to use nature as a means of reminding us of His care and that hope abounds and that He does, in fact, keep His promises.