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A Look at Science Through Annie Dillard's Eyes



“I have often noticed that these things, which obsess me, neither bother nor impress other people even slightly. I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering, and like the ancient mariner, fix him with a wild, glitt’ring eye and say, “Do you know that in the head of the caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are two hundred twenty-eight separate muscles?” The poor wretch flees. I am not making chatter; I mean to change his life.” It was Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that made me realize that I wasn’t observing nature but rather just barely seeing it. Her words did not make me flee. I was truly fascinated by knowing that the goat moth does indeed have 280 muscles and she did end up changing my life. She helped me understand that there is a difference between seeing something in nature and truly observing it. In science class, I love to share my passion. I can get excited about how cool a word like “proboscis” sounds, or how the images of diatoms are far more spectacular than many works of art in a gallery, or how some plants can shoot their seeds faster than a bullet. My hope is that science will also change my students’ lives; that they will also come to the place where their minds will be blown away by the awesomeness of God’s creation. How can a Classical school help them begin this journey of observing so that they don’t grow up (like me) and learn that they have missed it? Practicing Careful Observation

It begins by going outside…. “The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” Merely seeing nature really only captures the visual sense. It is usually quick, grasping only a snapshot. One may not be able to recount the vivid details. Observing is learning to be still for a length of time and capturing nature with all your senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch). It involves very little movement but total concentration. You have to hear the leaves rustling in the wind, the birds singing in the trees, the scent of flowers drifting in the air, the ridged texture of a discovered fossil, the taste of salt on the lips when swimming in the ocean. It is a learned skill. It begins with nature walks and remembering to stop often. Then it progresses to nature journaling and capturing the details on paper. So often students think that they have to draw well, but I don’t think that is the point of nature journaling. In order to nature journal, you have stop and learn to sit still for a while. It is learning to absorb all the details and then transfer those details onto the paper. The very act of doing this causes the student to observe details they would have otherwise overlooked. For example, when you sit in a tree long enough (and yes, even adults should sit in trees now and then) and start to observe you will start to see how the ridges in the bark follow a pattern, the different colours present amongst the lichen, the numerous species of insects crawling up and down the trunk, how the bark and leaves feel when in your hands. How you can now hear the faint chirping of the baby birds in their nests. It is an aesthetic smorgasbord. Learning the Facts But the journey cannot stop here - you do need to learn the scientific facts and just as importantly the history of science. This involves the cracking open of textbooks, reading and memorizing; learning to use identification and classification systems and start questioning the things around us like the scientists did before us. This will help us to understand what we are observing. This starts with such things as being able to recognize a bird song and the species of bird that is producing it; identifying a fossil and where it might have lived based on a study of its features; or recognizing the salt taste is due to the presence of sodium chloride molecules that consist of one sodium atom joined together to a chloride atom. Or else learning that when a human body runs, you can piece together the bones and muscles that are working together to make it happen. I like to think that you can start to add depth to things, almost like you are using an invisible microscope as you look at things with newfound understanding. True knowledge ought to increase our wonder rather than diminish it. Making Connections Once you have begun to understand what you are observing then you can start to add connections - begin to work through the why of it; begin to understand nature and its created order and then start to fit together all of its pieces. Not so that we might control it or diminish its mystery but rather that we might better understand how deep the mystery and what fun to be a part of it! Annie Dillard loves to observe nature and be part of that mystery. Her book is a type of nature journal that captures her observations by the use of words instead of drawings. “And under the cicadas, deeper down than the longest taproot, between and beneath the rounded black rocks and slanting slabs of sandstone in the earth, ground water is creeping. Ground water seeps and slides, across and down, across and down, leaking from here to there, minutely at a rate of a mile a year. What a tug of water goes on! There are flings and pulls in every direction at every moment. The world is a wild wrestle under the grass; earth shall be moved. What else is going on right this minute while ground water creeps under my feet? The galaxy is careening in a slow, muffled widening. If a million solar systems are born every hour, then surely hundreds burst into being as I shift my weight to the other elbow. The sun’s surface is now exploding; other stars implode and vanish, heavy and black, out of sight. Meteorites are arcing to earth invisibly all day long… And where are you now!” Learn to be still, open up all your senses then start to add the facts and look again. Always strive to continue putting it together. If you don’t know something, go find the answer. It will only enhance the next moment. Dillard captured this moment in the previous quote. This is when you will be transformed from your spot sitting in the tree to dancing within the invisible gravitational pulls of the planets in other galaxies. This is where I want all the students at St. Timothy’s to end up, but it must begin with focusing on the question, “And where you are now!”

Dr. Jen Patrick has her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine. She is a parent at St. Timothy's and currently teaches grade 5/6 science and grades 5-8 art.


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"Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy — meditate on these things."

Philippians 4:8