Midnight had come and gone. We stumbled through the darkness, our flashlights barely illuminating the trail through the woods. The cold seeped through my winter coat and into my bones. Ahead of us, a long net stretched down the path and into the blackness.
“We got one!” someone cried. Carefully, he untangled the little bird from the mesh and placed it in a small, cotton bag. It was a Northern saw-whet owl, the smallest owl we have in this part of North America.
Somehow, through a friend, I had found myself at a research station in the wee hours of the morning, watching these little birds as they were weighed, measured and banded. It was a dream yet real—one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
It was nature study at it’s finest.
What is nature study?
Quite simply as the name suggests, it’s learning about nature. The idea of nature study as a school subject was introduced in the late 19th century by educators and naturalists (such as Anna Botsford Comstock, for example).
Over the next few days, I’m going to share a little bit about nature study: how we do it and some of our favourite resources. Nature study is an incredibly important component of education. Charlotte Mason, a revolutionary British educator who lived at the turn of the century, said this:
“We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.” (Home Education: Volume I of Charlotte Mason’s Original Homeschooling Series)
The Bible talks about nature study. For example, 1 Kings 4:32-34 describes the type of knowledge that Solomon had that made him so wise:
“He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all nations people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.” (NIV, emphasis added)
That tells me that to learn about nature is to acquire wisdom. We know, according to Proverbs 9:10, that “[t]he fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” so how can learning about nature make us wise?
The answer is found in Romans 1:20. It says, “For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.”
Psalm 19:1-2 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.”
There is a quote commonly attributed to Martin Luther that puts it this way: “God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars.” Nature declares God’s glory. And when we learn about the things He’s created, we also learn how big God is and how much He loves us.
That wintry night, I stood at the back of the room, quietly watching as the researchers finished banding the small, wide-eyed bird—a female.
“Would you like to hold an owl?”
Me? Hold an owl? I could barely stammer out a yes. I carefully took the bird, holding her just the way they showed me so that her talons couldn’t injure my hand. Carefully, I carried her outside. As the owl fluttered from my hand onto the branch of a juniper tree, the yips and howls of coyotes filled the crisp, wintry air and a million stars glittered overhead.
In that moment, all I could think about was how amazing God is.
These are the experiences I want my children to have. These moments of knowing that God is real. That He’s majestic. And that He’s good.
This is why we do nature study.
Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about what it looks like for us, so stay tuned!