Pamelia Markwood keeps several copies of Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” in strategic locations around her house. It’s her favorite book. Ever.
“I’ve read it five, six, maybe seven times,” said Markwood, who co-owns with her husband, Craig Neff, Naturalist’s Notebook, a Seal Harbor shop that opens for the season Saturday, June 21. “It’s so light and fun, and yet so thoughtful and well-researched. It’s required reading for anybody.”
The humorous, accessible tome explains science through the stories of the people who made the discoveries. Scientists ranging from Albert Einstein and Mary Leakey to lesser-known figures, such as eccentric 18th century British chemist and physicist Henry Cavendish, and Rosalind Franklin, one of the co-discoverers of DNA, who was sidelined by her colleagues Francis Crick and James Watson.
Markwood and Neff had that accessibility in mind when they created Naturalist’s Notebook. It’s more than just a shop, though — it’s part shop, part gallery, part miniaturized natural history museum. As their website states, it’s for “anyone even a little curious about the past 13.7 billion years (give or take).”
“Somewhere in between art, nature, writing and science is what we’re trying to do,” said Markwood, a freelance photographer and artist who lives with Neff in Trenton. “We want to pull it all into a whole.”
Each room, and in some cases wall, in the Naturalist’s Notebook deals with a different topic. When you first enter, it’s nature photography, done by Markwood herself, with up-close shots of starfish, birds, periwinkles and other marine animals on the Maine coast. To your right is a scale model of the solar system. To your left is a wooden board with the “Naturalist’s League,” a listing of the origins of all baseball teams with nature-inspired names, such as the Detroit Tigers and the Florida Marlins. Neff is an assistant managing editor at Sports Illustrated magazine, so there had to be some sort of sports reference.
Then there’s a wide-ranging display on sustainable agriculture, with dried blueberry bark from Highland Farms in Stockton Springs; fair trade, bird-friendly, organic coffee from Utah-based Caffe Ibis; jams and jellies from Hatch Knoll Farm in Jonesboro; and a variety of honeys from Maine and beyond. Hand-knitted hats and scarves from Ellsworth fiber artist Betsy Higgins sit just under the back window.
Upstairs is a tribute to the great biologist E.O. Wilson and his famous research on ants. That’s next door to Markwood’s detailed paintings of dahlias the couple grow. Another room features a display on the 25 biodiversity hotspots around the world, a list maintained by the organization Conservation International. Just off that room is a display case full of small skeletons and specimens. More than 1,000 titles that compose the natural history book collection of MDI-based naturalist Tom Vining are on shelves throughout the shop. They’re also for sale.
“Shopping is just one part of it, so it can be sustainable,” said Markwood. “It’s a vehicle for our interests.”
Interests are something Markwood and Neff have a lot of. They are vast and varied — and the couple wants the Notebook to reflect that. There’s an awful lot of information crammed into the two-story, 19th century building, located in quiet, pretty downtown Seal Harbor, near the public beach.
“We wanted it to change each year,” said Markwood. “Whatever important subject comes up at a different time, we want to be able to do something in the shop that addresses it. It’s like a new issue of a magazine, each summer.”
Neither Markwood nor Neff, who moved from New York to Maine full time three years ago, has any scientific background. They just have a great deal of curiosity about the world, which is why they plan to bring in experts in various fields to offer lectures, workshops and nature walks throughout the summer.
Coming up in the next few weeks, the couple will host two “Night at the Notebook” events. At 4:30 p.m. Friday, June 25, a reception will be held for Maine-influenced, New York-based artist Rocco Alberico, whose Acadia-themed sculptural construction will be on display all summer. At 4 p.m. Friday, July 9, the Notebook will celebrate the Maine- and New York-based Woodman family, which includes Bill, a Bangor native and former New Yorker cartoonist; Anne, a painter and jewelry maker; Betsy, editor of “Sesame Street” books; and Jowill, who designed the Naturalist Notebook logo.
That’s in addition to the five-day-a-week, summer-long nature photography walks and bike rides around MDI, led by photographer and naturalist Tom Lawrence of Seal Harbor. Mondays will feature Jordan Stream and water ecosystems; Tuesdays will be at Little Long Pond; Wednesdays will focus on the geology of Ocean Drive; Thursday will feature an Acadia Carriage Roads bike and hike; and Saturdays participants will scale the mountains of Acadia.
“[Naturalist’s Notebook is] a way for us to communicate ideas and concepts that we find fascinating, and to link different stories together in a big web,” said Markwood. “But it’s also a way for us to contribute something fun and interesting to the community here on MDI. We’re amateur naturalists, certainly, but we’ve surrounded ourselves with experts and artists and friends who can explain things even better.”
Markwood and Neff renovated their building over the course of a few years, and added an expansive back deck that’s open to any and all. They encourage Notebook patrons to have lunch, read a book, sketch, write or use the free wireless Internet.
Curiosity about the world around you is a natural human trait — though our increasingly fragmented attention spans mean the kind of discovery so beloved by Markwood and Neff is sometimes a rare thing.
“We’re curious about everything,” she said. “From animals and plants to astronomy and agriculture and geology. It’s all interesting to us. I think in our society we tend to be so gadget-oriented and so easily distracted, that we forget that the greatest gadget we have is in our heads.”
The Naturalist’s Notebook is located at 16 Main St., Seal Harbor, on Mount Desert Island. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. seven days a week. For information and a full list of summer activities, visit naturalistsnote.wordpress.com, or call 801-2777.