The following is an excerpt from “The Heirloom Gardener” by John Forti, published by Timber Press on June 22, 2021, and available wherever books are sold.
Did you have a teacher, relative, or friend who taught you to love nature? Perhaps someone who taught you the languages of your environment, like plant names, bird calls, animal tracks, celestial bodies, and cloud formations?
Cloud means something different today, and internet screens are crafted to reel us in. The recognition of nature-deficit disorder, introduced by Richard Louv in 2005, turned into a call to action to help balance out our children’s time. A call to get kids back outside and create meaningful legislation to provide equal access to our shared resources. But we are not the first generation called to reengage kids in the outdoors. As we shifted from an agrarian society to an industrial nation, Americans saw waves of children working in mills and factories; in response, many Victorians took to botanizing—the study of plants in their natural habitat—in order to deepen connections to the natural world. With a 19th-century passion for fresh air, crafts, and science, parents and children headed to the woods and meadows with sketch pads, books of identification, magnifying glasses, and a flask of switchel lemonade.
Hand in hand, they documented the flora where they lived. They pressed botanical specimens in herbaria, wrote all the names and identifiers they knew, and documented cultural conditions to blend art and science in the field and on the page. They romped through woodlands to identify lady’s slipper orchids and pipsissewa. On their way home they picked from the seasonal bounty, foraging for fiddleheads, raspberries, and hickory nuts; once there, they sipped wintergreen tea and made terraria, berry bowls, and herbal crafts with what they had collected. Expedition field days were in fact fun science lessons from nature’s classroom which helped families learn and remember household botany together.
To further educate children about local plants, kids were often taught how to craft their own herbarium. Herbaria are collections of pressed and dried botanicals made into reference books. They included details like cultural notes, common and scientific names, culinary and medicinal attributes, and the date and location where the specimen was gathered. They were used as personal plant identification manuals, derived from the student’s life experience and environment; and they taught science and stewardship to any child with a naturally inquisitive mind. They also became an artful component of botanizing that paired creativity and lifelong learning in a personalized document of place and time.
Herbaria served as scientific worksheets for young household botanists. Kids adapted the skills learned to dry and press flowers for decorative arts and crafts, including bookmarks, tea trays and tables with specimens under glass, and framed floral art to hang in their homes. Young women would keep herbaria as part of an ongoing life lesson, similar to the way in which they would stitch a sampler as an expression of the accumulated skills they had learned (alphabet, numbers, sewing, embroidery). Herbaria were also kept by doctors, pharmacists, and explorers dedicated to scientific analysis of medicine and the natural world. The ones kept by Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau and others help us to understand environmental stewardship more deeply today; by analyzing bloom times, regional plant communities, plant dispersal and other valuable long-term data, we can better document the impacts of plants and climate change.
Today, herbaria continue to offer great interdisciplinary science lessons from the schoolyard or home garden. And making an herbarium remains one of my favorite crafts for engagement in the natural world; it’s a fun do-it-yourself way for you and your family to share time and explore nature together. At any time in life, if you want to make your own herbarium, just follow this simple guide:
- Find a botanical specimen.
- Cut or pull your specimen from a place where you know it is abundant.
- Try to collect as much of the plant as possible (roots, shoots, leaf, stem, flower, seed).
- Identify your plant (use a field guide with keys, send a photo to an expert, or look online).
- Press and dry your specimen.
- Attach it to an herbarium sheet with paste, ribbon, or narrow strips of tape.
- Write the common and scientific names of the specimen along with the date/location where it was found, and any other details that will help you remember the plant and the excursion years from now.
Maybe someday your herbarium will become a family heirloom, or an ongoing history of place in a university or museum!
In addition to spending time in nature, botanizing reinforced the skills of household botany and the domestic arts, which modern culture has abandoned in the age of consumerism. It helped people create place-based food, beverage, and medicine along with ephemera like May baskets and holiday wreaths. Inadvertently, botanizing also taught us to create tangible heirloom keepsakes, a process that enabled each maker to elevate craft to a personal expression of art, whether as a sketchbook, an embroidered flower, a collection of recipes or an herbarium. For those that endured the ages, they linger like a flavor, forever associated with the time and place of the maker.
At the historical height of botanizing, many with the means traveled great distances, not only across North America but to Europe and Asia, but most people engaged just to notice and celebrate the first fragrant mayflower or the autumnal combination of aster and goldenrod as they walked home from school or factory work. Regardless, nature does far more than simply provide us with food, shelter, and data. It civilizes us, too, inspiring people to create a national park system that preserved places like the Grand Canyon from greed and exploitation. These Victorian botanizers also raised a generation wise enough to tend Victory Gardens and put by the harvest before those skills were lost.
When we pause to reconnect with the cycles of nature—maybe even long enough that we forget to recharge the laptop—we remember how important it is to disconnect. I don’t worry too much about the next generation. I watched too much TV as a kid (and I don’t even own one as an adult), but along the way, anyone can be taught to love and respect nature.
My first nature teacher was my aunt Claire, a child of the 1920s with her head in the ’60s. She emulated Saint Francis, and her love of nature was infectious. She taught me to walk silently and to hold still long enough for a chickadee to land on me. Together we would lie flat on pine needles, surrounded by ostrich fern, looking up to see the shapes of clouds; we examined skunk cabbage melting snow as it rose through the ground in the dell where springs flowed to the river. We identified catkins and bird calls and raised countless generations of orphaned squirrels, chipmunks, and fledglings until they were old enough to release back into the wild. I still think of my aunt Claire and smile, knowing that I owe her a debt of gratitude for helping to raise me in habitat instead of fear.
I was also drawn to nature by the magic revealed daily in the schoolyard by our science teacher, Miss Parsons, who encouraged us to explore a fascinating world I hadn’t yet realized was my own. I learned that respect and curiosity were the keys to wandering in that realm, and once that door opened, I came to know the feeling of cool moss underfoot, the snap of wild asparagus, and the tang of sheep sorrel in my mouth. I learned the secret ways of snails, the coded language of wrens, and—with a little help from my flora and fauna friends—the art of coexistence.
Maybe your naturalist elders are still living, but Aunt Claire and Miss Parsons are gone, and we are the rising generation’s mentors now. We need to share our love of the environment with our kids, grandkids, neighbors, and communities. We need to hit the reset button and take a walk where we live. Who are you mentoring? Think back to your favorite experiences in nature, or the foraging walk you took with your mentor, and head outside to botanize with a young one. You will remember enough. The rest will follow.
This excerpt has been edited for clarity and length.