Learning to See: Clare Walker Leslie
AMC Outdoors, July/August 2003
Clare Walker Leslie sees the divine in squirrels and pigeons. In our conversation, she describes talking with two little boys seated next to her on a recent plane trip. “They asked about my religion. I said, ‘It’s all around me. It’s birds, trees, plants.’ They got it.”
Back in 1978, Clare, now a master teacher and author of many books, began sketching trees and flowers and scribbling notes, chronicling the world around her. Now scores of filled notebooks overflow a box on the floor of her Cambridge, Mass., home, and teaching people how to use drawing as a means of connection with the natural world has become Clare’s driving mission.
“I’m sad because we seem to be backslipping,” she says. “People are less connected to the land. I meet children who’ve never seen an anthill before. There is an incredible hunger to have an excuse to be outside. To sit and watch. The journal lets you sit and do something.”
What she notices more and more these days is that people are staying closer to home. “They say, ‘I’m not going to go to the Galapagos. I’m going to learn about my town and take a journal to the river.'” From growing attendance at her workshops and the sales of her books, Clare concludes that “people are looking for new ways to be in nature — for quiet spots and something noninvasive, with no fancy equipment and no big expense.”
Simply put, says Clare, “nature journaling is the regular recording of observations, perceptions, and feelings about the natural world around you.” And even better, it doesn’t cost more than a basic paint set and sketchbook, you can do it alone or in a group, on the trail or in your backyard, and you don’t have to be an artist.
All you really have to do, says Clare, is look. It’s not a matter of having a beautiful, wild spot to observe either. She describes a classroom visit in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, where “they’d blasted the hell out of a red-maple swamp” to build the school. “It was a mega-city of a school. Just caked dirt outside. I made the fifth-graders stand there outside. It was so moving. We heard a mourning dove — and then all the kids imitated it.”
Clare — who has sketched while standing in front of someone’s yard and in the labor room before the birth of her children — travels much of the year teaching workshops. She now works with Jane Goodall on a program called Roots and Shoots to bring this work to kids all over the world, with the goal of creating future stewards of the land. “I have a mission to teach,” she says. “If we can get people connected back to the land, then it’s worth the exhaustion of doing this. I desperately want people to care about the earth.”
—Madeleine Eno is publisher and co-editor of AMC Outdoors.