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Could Drawing Change How We Relate to Nature?

As a kid, I absolutely detested everything related to science. Yet, because I loved outdoor adventure, I toyed with a natural history major in college as a way to work outside. This inclination wouldn’t last; on a rainy field trip to diagram glacial layers in a Minnesota gravel pit — yes, in a gravel pit, not even on a dramatic mountain scarp — I ditched the idea for good. I decided that I wasn’t curious enough. And I certainly had no interest in quantitative documentation.

But what if, back in science class, the teacher had taught me to draw? That question drives my work at Hoonah City Schools, where I now teach observational art skills as a way to understand the Tongass National Forest.

When my husband Ben and I moved to Hoonah, we reveled in Alaska-sized adventures. But after three years of back-to-back, multi-month Brooks Range expeditions, I had severely injured my right foot. Suddenly, I had no way to explore the outdoors in my standard, over-the-top athletic style.

Observational art became my route back to the wild places. I could experience nature without having to move around constantly. I realized that, actually, I am fascinated with how things work, and, yes, I do have countless questions. But I had to slow down long enough to notice. Trying to transfer onto the two dimensions of paper what I saw in 3D focused me on the observation and questioning that science classes had driven me away from.

Pre-injury, I acquired the names for things: this is Thimbleberry; that’s Nootka Lupine. Now the names interest me less. I drop out of verbal gyrations and into capturing what I see because the details are so unexpected. Wow, the purple-brown petals of the chocolate lily have yellow-tinged veins! Or, when a skunk cabbage’s golden spadix erupts from the soil, it’s encased in a reddish fibrous tube!

What directions might I have pursued if I had found my way into art sooner? Maybe this has a lesson for organizations focused on environmental preservation: might more people connect to our environment if they could draw it?

(published in a slightly different form for a social media takeover sponsored by the Sitka Conservation Society @sitkawild, July 2022)


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