In a world where everyone carries a camera everywhere they go, taking the time to stop and draw the natural world can seem like an old-fashioned and even pointless pastime. Snapping a picture takes a few seconds. Drawing takes a few minutes at least, and a lot longer in some cases. Besides, a drawing is less accurate than a photo and can’t capture all the information a photo can. So why bother to draw?
1) It forces us to slow down. This supposed drawback to drawing is actually one of the benefits. When I draw, I am in one spot longer than I would be if I just took a photo and moved on. As a result, I get to see more and learn more about the animals I watch. Because I spent nearly an hour sketching at a prairie dog town, I got to see a burrowing owl chase a prairie dog that got too close to its den. Similarly, I got to see barn swallows feed their chicks while I was drawing their nest.
2) It makes us really look at what is in front of us. On a hike, I sat down to draw a wildflower so I would be better able to identify it when I got home. Shortly after I started, I realized what I thought was eight petals was really four large overlapping lobed petals. I would never have been able to identify this evening primrose if I hadn’t taken the time to draw it.
3) It increases our appreciation of the natural world. In our day-to-day observations of plants and animals, we tend to gloss things over. We see a bird, think “That’s a robin” and we’re done. In fact, birds vary from one another as much as humans do, as I discovered when I was painting the barn swallows that grew up on our porch this summer. Every time I draw the horse skull I own, I am in awe of the amount of detail and complexity in the bony part of a horse’s head. Nearly every drawing of nature I do leads me to a greater appreciation of the wonder all around me.
4) It helps us to be in the moment and to remember what we saw and heard. Flipping through my sketch books, I remember vividly where and when I made a drawing, other things that went on around me, the individual animals I drew, even the people I was with. When we draw, we can look like we are removed from our surroundings, but it makes us aware in a special way, one we can appreciate when we look at our drawings later.
5) It is a great opportunity to improve our drawing skills. I have drawn cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens for the first time in my life this year. My brain thinks it knows what these animals look like, but it is wrong. Seriously wrong. This is the essence of drawing from life: getting past our know-it-all brains, connecting our hand movements directly to what our eyes see. Taking the time to draw the world around us gives us more practice developing these skills.
There is a barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) nest right outside our front door, on top of the porch light. We had swallows last year, too. I would hear their chittering song through the open window, but I didn’t really watch them. This year, I was ready to try nature journaling. I made an effort to draw them daily. As a result, I learned a lot.
July 2: Barn swallows nesting on our front porch. The parents are flying around and chittering at me and sitting on the neighbor’s roof.
The babies are pretty big before I even notice them. I see their heads poking out over the edge of nest and point them out to Kurt. He takes pictures. I stand on the porch as far from the nest as I can to draw the nest. It’s surprising how fond I am of these grumpy looking birds. Their white frowns and slanting brows give them a permanent angry scowl. I love them anyway.
July 4: The nest is like a layer cake of straw with white fecal frosting. Feeding: Mom and Dad fly in one at a time. All the babies open their mouths, but the parent already knows who will be fed. They are in and out in an instant. One of the parents came in at least three times before realizing I was here. Now they are calling and the babies have hunkered down to hide. Mom and Dad were on top of the wind chimes. Flew off when I moved.
The parents do not like it when I’m on the porch and take off whenever they see me. I’m afraid I am keeping them from feeding their family, so I keep my sketching sessions under thirty minutes and draw as fast as I can. We stop going out the front door. Keeping the birds’ stress level low is one of our priorities.
July 5: The babies are flapping! Extended periods of beating their wings while sitting on the edge of the nest. Getting ready to fly. Note: sit inside with the door cracked. Better view of the nest and the parents don’t mind.
It’s a challenge to draw the birds because they move so much, but I do my best. Looking through the cracked door or the front window is makes it easier to draw the birds, but I still keep my sessions short, because I know that they can see me. These are wild birds. I don’t want them to get used to me. Some people will be kind to them, but some won’t, and how are they supposed to tell the difference?
July 6: They look like hoodlums. Waiting for food from Mom and Dad — and snapping on their own at any insects that come close.
I read about people knocking swallow nests off their cabin porch with the helpless nestlings inside. I am horrified. There is a downside to swallows on the porch: bird poop everywhere. But it’s not really everywhere. Mostly the mess is directly under the nest and their favorite perches. We usually live with it, but it’s bad enough that I scrape and wash the porch before company comes. While I think the work is worth the joy of sharing my porch with swallows, I start thinking about ways to make this job easier in the future.
July 7: This morning at 8 AM, one of the fledglings was on our porch bench. Haven’t seen any of them out of the nest since. More wing flapping today despite the crowded nest — they will stand on a sibling to do it!
I can’t get over the fact that there are five baby birds in such a little nest. Our field guide says barn swallows lay from three to seven eggs at a time. I try to imagine seven birds crammed in that little cup and can’t do it.
July 8: The fledglings are leaving the nest. I saw them fly as far as the neighbor’s roof and then back again, but their favorite destination is our wind chimes.
July 9: The fledglings have been flying all over today, spending more time out of the nest than in. Preening, stretching, and begging.
With the birds out of the nest, I do my best to capture their shape and colors. I experiment with my new watercolor paints. I’m still learning how things work, just like the birds I am watching.
July 10: Woke to an empty nest. Are the barn swallows gone for good?
My heart breaks when I see the empty nest. The grumpy faces that have been making me smile every day are suddenly nowhere to be seen. There’s a quiet hole where feathered lives used to be. It reminds me of the hush in the house after a beloved pet dies. The empty air where I expect to see a dog wagging her tail — or a nest full of swallows — feels like a cold vacuum.
I share my dismay on Facebook. Friends assure me the swallows will be back next year, and I know they are right. Last year, the swallows managed to raise two clutches of eggs in a single summer. Secretly, I cross my fingers, hoping for more nestlings before this summer is over.
July 18: Lots of activity at the BARS* nest on the porch this morning which is unusual because the kids have been gone for a week or so. Wondering if the breeding pair have new eggs…
There are only two swallows, so I assume the parents are back to try again. Because of the height of the nest, I can’t see into it without help. I have to stand on a step stool and use a telescoping mirror to check for eggs. I take the time to find the tools I need. I must be hopeful because I also buy a plastic tarp to lay on the door step so it will be easier to clean up the mess.
July 22: There is one brown-speckled tan egg in the barn swallow nest on the porch!
When I look out, the mother swallow is usually sitting on the nest, watching me warily. On the rare occasions when she’s off foraging, I check the nest. The female lays one tiny egg a day, until she has a total of four. Now she is on the nest more often than not, so I know we will have hatchlings soon.
I can’t wait for the fun to start all over again. I wonder what else I will learn about them?
UPDATE: August 10: I finally got to peek in the nest this morning, and the eggs have hatched! I think the babies are a few days old at most — pink, gray, bald, and tiny. I’ll be keeping a close eye on them and drawing again as soon as I can see them without the mirror and stool.