As a kid born in the 1970’s, my own childhood was free-range and mostly outside. Or rather, those are the vivid memories I have—on a bike, digging in the dirt, or playing with our dog in the park near my house. The reality is more mixed. We had cable TV and a Nintendo, and I probably spent many hours of beautiful sunny days cooped up inside with Martha Quinn and Mario.
But I don’t really remember those inside days. I do however remember the time I found a robin’s nest with eggs inside while climbing a tree, and catching lightening bugs, and the time my Dad taught me to fish. And science explains why – just being outside in nature boosts your concentration and memory.
In between catching ’em all on his Pokemon games, I hope my 10-year old kiddo will have outdoor experiences that make memories like this.
As summer comes to a close and fall adventures begin, I wanted to share how my son Isaac and I have been spending some part of every day outside on a nature adventure. Sometimes it’s in our backyard to observe busy juncos or photograph spiders, and sometimes it’s in the Cascades skipping stones into a mountain lake. Here are a few wonderful books by Northwest authors that have been our companions on adventures this summer, and will continue to inspire us to explore through the coming seasons. I hope they inspire you as well!
Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide, by Molly Hashimoto
On a walk through Seattle’s Volunteer Park we spotted a young woman in overalls in a camp chair painting with an easel. She appeared to be painting a landscape, or perhaps the female mallard duck that was resting in the grass near the reservoir. “En plein air” I said to my son, impressed I’d gotten a chance to use the phrase just days after learning it myself.
My source for the french term for painting in the outdoors was the new book Birds of the West, An Artist’s Guide by Molly Hashimoto, an artist and art educator who teaches her students how to connect with nature by observing, sketching or painting it. This latest book, her second published with Seattle-based Skipstone, is all about connecting with birds.
Birds of the West is part coffee-table book–the 130+ sketches, watercolors and bold block prints of nearly 100 species of birds alongside descriptions of and stories about the bird species are beautiful to look at and a delight to read. And without being explicitly instructional, the book also manages to teach, empower, encourage and inspire you to get out a sketchbook, pick up a pencil (and your kid’s drugstore watercolor palette, if you’re me) go outside and see what happens.
We started in our back yard. The family of raucous American crows nesting in the doug fir were our first subjects, followed by a pair of chickadees tending to a nest box we’d anchored to our fence. We used several tentative strokes to create a loose sketch of the chickadees, avoiding a solid unbroken line, as Hashimoto points out this technique helps create energy and gives a sense of movement and life to your bird.
Over the next few weeks, our pencils and sketchpads went along with us on hikes, joined by a few watercolor palettes and brushes one afternoon at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge north of Olympia. I remembered Hashimoto explaining the importance of incorporating a bird’s habitat into your representation. When our boardwalk path took a turn alongside a marshy area, my son quietly pointed in the direction of a heron. Some mallards and gadwalls dabbled nearby. A kinglet was flitting around in the canopy above our heads. We spread out a blanket for our sketchpads and paint supplies, and we painted those birds, en plein air.
As a longtime birder who keeps a life list, I found the process of slowing down to observe and sketch these common birds gave me a different lens into their lives and behavior. I also noticed something about myself–in my sketches, I strived for realism and stayed in the lines. My niece and son, both creative types who march to the beat of their own drummers, created impressionist and expressionist masterpieces* respectively, as you can see below.
To join Molly Hashimoto for an upcoming discussion of birds, art, and her new book “Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide,” see the schedule of her author talks and watercolor workshops, including at North Cascades Institute.
*I may be a tad biased.
Curious Kids Nature Guide: Explore the Amazing Outdoors of the Pacific Northwest, by Fiona Cohen, illustrated by Marni Fylling
- look in your garden flowers, there may be a spider in there waiting to pounce and eat a bumblebee looking for nectar!
- an old tree with blackened bark shows a fire was in that forest long ago!
- pill bugs have fourteen legs, and seven plates on their backs!
- gulls are like people – they’ll eat everything from french fries to clams!
- if you see small geese on the beach in winter, they may be Brant!
- slugs are hermaphrodites!
I’m a nature guide hoarder, ignited by the Stokes Nature Guides I started collecting in my college years. I store them on the lower shelves, and my curious son can grab whichever guidebook to mushrooms or shorebirds or dragonflies draws him in. So when I came upon Curious Kids Nature Guide: Explore the Amazing Outdoors of the Pacific Northwest at a Vashon Island bookstore I thought it might be too basic for my little naturalist, but I admire the writing of the author (journalist Fiona Cohen) so purchased it anyway, and I’m glad I did. It’s so awesome!
Organized by four common habitats of the Pacific Northwest (forest, beach, fresh water, and backyards / urban parks) this book spotlights a variety of flora and fauna with charming full-color illustrations, curious facts, and ecology lessons.
It’s the perfect book to take along for a beach stroll, lake paddle or forest walk to gently prod kids to stop, look, listen and observe the critters and plants all around them.
50 Hikes with Kids: Oregon and Washington, by Wendy Gorton
The surprise twist in this 50 Hikes with Kids guide is the addition of scavenger hunts for every featured trail. And they aren’t generic scavenger hunts, but custom created with flora, fauna or trail features that you and your kids are very likely to come upon! Each hike’s description features five objects to find, with photographs and descriptions of the objects. I love how this entices children to hit the trail with the goal of locating a special object, like a ponderosa pine cone or blooming lupine. The book is also set up for children to access other information about the hike to help with trip planning, navigation, and to spot points of interest.
The book showcases 32 kid-friendly hikes in Oregon and just 18 in Washington and a handful of those are in southwest Washington, so Portland-based families may get a bit more use out of it than Seattleites.