AMC Outdoors, July/August 2003
An entry in a nature journal, says Nona Bell Estrin, is “like an artifact of that time spent. I could look back at it three years later and always remember this day.” Nona began keeping a journal as a girl in Indiana, where she took care of orphaned animals. “I returned them to nature to follow them and see what they were doing. I kept notes, and started illustrating to help find my entries more easily. I put pictures on the page as a visual index,” says Nona. “I was not great, but I got better and got more demanding of myself.”
Nona started carrying a paint set and developed a quick technique for getting her impressions down on paper. She used a card-deck-sized box of paints and a tiny Murine bottle for water. For years, Nona would paint on her lunch hour and while leading hikes around Vermont on weekends, often with a little notebook tied around her neck. Today, she teaches workshops and has published In Season, a book of her drawings with essays by her husband, naturalist Charles Johnson.
“I’m retired, so I don’t have to do this to make a living, but it needs to be shared with the world,” she says. “There are so many ways to slow down. But this is a tried and true method, guaranteed to give you deep satisfaction. We all have a yearning nostalgia for contact with the natural world.”
And the urge is understandable, Nona adds. “We have thousands of years of hunter-gatherer in us. That’s actually why people shop,” she says. “They notice form and textures and remember where things are. I led hiking holidays in Europe for 15 years and found the people who are consummate shoppers are the best observers. They can tell in two seconds what’s in a store. Teenage boys can look down the street and know every car.” And, she says, “even a fledgling journalist can make profound observations. You are satisfying your hunter-gatherer.”
Though it’s possible, and recommended, to just dive in to this work, Nona says not to overlook the importance of having a teacher. “A good teacher is a person who can show you techniques, who knows nature and can validate your observations. For me, my approach in teaching is very land-based. If we’ve had rain and mushrooms are coming up, we’re doing mushrooms. It’s less about art and more about nature observation.”
To begin, Nona suggests, “First find something outdoors that you love. Make notes. Make a quick cartoon.
“Then take three colors. For instance, I’m looking out the window and I see a rhubarb plant and blueberry bush with old pine needles under it. Decide on three colors — the dark green of the shadow of the rhubarb, the brown of needles and the reddish leaves of the blueberry … Now just paint with little swaths of color.”
“I love to be inaccurate,” she says, noting that outside you don’t see colors and shapes like you see in a guidebook. “When you see orioles, you just see a blur of color. So you just draw what you see.”
“Now, I’m focused on my backyard. My pages are covered in writing. My handwriting is appalling slapdash, but it doesn’t matter,” she says. For the writing on her pages, Nona says she just jumps in. “I usually start with something like, ‘What a disaster. They shaved that hill and, oh my god, there’s another house.’ Then after 10 minutes, I ask, ‘What am I seeing here?’ I see 20 feet away, for instance, a pile of sawdust near a hill. Those despairing asides find their way in, but then give way to hardcore nature — and you’re soon hot on the trail of what you’re seeing.
“All of us have things we do that help ourselves and others,” Nona concludes. “This work heals the world.”
—Madeleine Eno is publisher and co-editor of AMC Outdoors.