Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower: Curating an Appreciation of the Natural World

Sarah Welcome—

Since I can remember, I have loved being outdoors. All of the senses are engaged and I find the natural world infinitely fascinating and entertaining. I’m inspired by everything, from the sight of a proud robin hopping around in the grass, to the sound of a bumble bee buzzing along from one flower to another.  I’m delighted by the simple, warm feeling of the sun on my skin while collecting shells on the sea shore, and by the taste of a freshly picked wild blackberry.  I’m entranced by the petrichor scent of a rainy day and by an indecisive butterfly flittering in the air, only landing when it has found just the perfect spot.

Whether my attraction to wildlife and the outdoors is innate, or if it is the product of having been a child required to spend most of her time playing outdoors, is difficult to discern. I’d like to believe that nature trumps nurture in this case.  As an adult with three children of my own, I strive to instill in them my personal admiration and amateur understanding of nature. Of my three children, my eight-year-old daughter shares my enthusiasm for observing the natural world the most.  During our frequent nature hikes or even just spending time in our yard, she has proven to be a great partner in spotting interesting things and is often far more methodical about her collecting and recording.  In fact, she may have inspired me to collect and record natural specimens during a trip I took to Edinburgh last spring. In the past, I’ve often picked grasses and flowers and tucked them into books, but I never really took the time to carefully place them in a notebook and record where I found them.  Here are some examples of a notebook she kept during the fall of 2012 and the one I kept in Scotland in May of 2013.

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Throughout my life, I’ve been observing nature and occasionally collecting specimens, without much concern over how or why I do it; I’ve just done what came naturally.  To be perfectly honest, I never considered the time I’ve spent observing, collecting, and recording to be anything but a pleasurable way to pass the time.  This has changed dramatically over the past year thanks to the work I’ve done with Elisabeth Fairman and her curatorial masterwork of the immensely inspirational exhibition, “Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower”: Artists’ Books and the Natural World. Working with Elisabeth on the organization and display of over 300 carefully selected objects allowed me to develop a new, conscious passion for the natural world.  Learning that there is a name for someone who loves nature and that there were countless others throughout the centuries and today who share the same interest was very exciting for me.

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Over the past year or so, I’ve been using Instagram as a means of combining my respect for the natural world with my love of photography. Initially, it was an aesthetic experience, although I knew in some way I was documenting a specific plant, animal, or landscape.  Yet, I was only attempting to capture a memory.  Now, when I photograph a natural subject, I make an effort to record the location and use hashtags to not only identify what I’m photographing, but to also to connect with other amateur naturalist photographers capturing the same subjects.  I’ve learned that being an amateur naturalist is always evolving and it has everything to do with awareness.  Now that I’m more aware of how I’m interacting with nature, my senses are sharper and my curiosity leads to further knowledge and discovery.  The more I take the time to notice, the more I want to know.  In the past, I observed and collected, but haven’t always recorded.  I try to make recording part of my current practice, whether it’s a note in a journal or a useful hashtag along with my Instagram post.  When it comes to the Latin names, I know a few; the others I have to Google. I can now recognize many more bird and plant species than ever before and my current mantra is to move slowly, look closely, and listen carefully.                      

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For some images from the delightful catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, check out this blog post from our colleagues in the London office of Yale University Press.


Sarah Welcome is Senior Curatorial Assistant, Rare Books and Manuscripts, at the Yale Center for British Art and an avid amateur naturalist.

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