Transcending Observation: A Conversation with Art & Nature

Transcending Observation: A Conversation with Art & Nature

By Andrea Caluori-Rivera
MassLIFT AmeriCorps Member at Hilltown Land Trust & Kestrel Land Trust

The humanities offer a unique perspective on the natural world, providing a way to define the ineffable experiences we have outdoors.

Often when I tell folks I grew up in The Bronx, it’s assumed my access to the outdoors was very limited.  There weren’t any mountains to climb, impressive summit views or sweeping landscapes to behold, but access to nature was there in different ways: the leaves on the parks’ trees, our neighbor’s tomato plant and along the banks of The Bronx River. During my 7th and 8th grade years in school, The New York Botanical Garden hosted an ecology group for inner city youth in my northwest neighborhood of The Bronx known as Norwood.  For a few years I participated in this group collecting specimens from The Bronx River, learning basic plant science and going for walks in NYBG’s forest.  As an artistically inclined kid, the science of nature was not what grabbed my attention initially.

Instead, I was more fascinated by the art of it: the patterns of bark on the trees, ripples in the water, the land’s aesthetic. The small details in nature captured my attention, precisely because they presented themselves as a sharp contrast to the concrete buildings and sprawling boulevards to which I was accustomed. I knew then, that I loved being outside and in nature because it was beautiful and spoke to me in a creative way.

The more I became interested in nature, the more I wondered about what The Bronx looked like many years ago. On a field trip led by a historian at The Bronx Historical Society, I was surprised when our guide said, “When I was a kid, this was all farmland.”  As he pointed towards the direction of my apartment building I couldn’t believe it – this place had an interesting story!

Years later, I ended up studying Art History as an undergraduate because I wanted to know more about the way landscapes change, their stories, and how others felt inspired by them. Drawn to the natural world I looked to my experience in the humanities as a lens from which to observe. Painting, drawing, storytelling and poetry became a gateway to understanding more about the land and our relationship with it.  The arts helped me transform my observations into a sense of place.  The more I painted, read, wrote and hiked, the more my experience transcended observation and turned into a conversation with landscape, home and the artists and writers of the past.

My first love is art.  As a child I loved to draw, paint and tell visual stories. The first time I saw a painting by Asher B. Durand, I was deeply inspired. His paintings brought together my profound love for the arts with my passion for nature and the outdoors. The painting was a woodlands scene, one of his studies. It was of nothing in particular, just this one moment along the trail, vivid colors of moss, trees and lush intricate details of plants and soil.  The image transported me to all of those moments before when I took a break while hiking, paused to look around, to take in the view. I could even almost smell the forest. Looking back, I realize how art can record those ineffable experiences outdoors, the unexplainable moments of peace, stillness and wonder.  Now having lived in New England for over a decade, I have had many experiences outside on the land working at educational farms, gardening, hiking mountains, and paddling rivers.  I have learned so much, both about the art and science of nature.  However, for me, it was the humanities, art literature and history specifically, that initiated my deep appreciation and commitment to the land and land conservation.

I believe that nature has the power to bring people of different perspectives together.  Folks from both the arts and sciences, urban and rural, can appreciate nature in different ways, but come together through a shared love of the land. As a MassLIFT AmeriCorps Community Engagement Coordinator at Hilltown Land Trust and Kestrel Land Trust, I often wonder how to make nature more accessible to a wider range of audiences. I think art has the ability to widen nature’s access and reach by tapping into those communities that may not be traditionally interested in the natural sciences but are curious about nature and inclined towards the humanities.  I believe the humanities can be used as a gateway to the importance of protecting land and saving the working landscapes that grow our food. I wonder, if nature is more accessible, what kind of sustainable impact would it have on the way we view ourselves within our local communities as active, engaged citizens?

I acknowledge that this is a big question and requires more time, thought, and the dedication of many people over the upcoming years to develop outreach programs and strategies.  But for now, perhaps there are a few ways to converse with nature through art’s door right here in our community and at home.  Here are a few projects and ideas that I have used to deepen my connection with nature through art, literature and history. I share them with the hope that they may spark inspiration and encourage new ways for others to appreciate the land or meet nature for the first time.

Art, History & Nature

The 5 College art museums have substantial collections of landscape paintings.  A visit to the Smith College Museum of Art, The Mead Art Museum or the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum can introduce you to some of the most well known artists in history.  One of my favorite groups of artists is the 19th century painters of the Hudson River School, particularly Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole.  Durand’s studies of woodland interiors are reminiscent of many trails that I have walked before.   When bringing kids to an art museum, think about incorporating visual thinking strategies into your viewing session.  Who do you see in the painting?  What are they doing?  What about the painting tells you this information about the characters and their actions?  What stands out to you?  Why?  These types of descriptive questions allow young viewers to critically think about an image and construct an analysis.  The next time you are on a hiking trail, draw comparisons between the paintings you viewed at the museums and the trail you are currently walking.  How has the landscape changed? What has stayed the same?  You can easily apply these visual thinking strategy questions to your walk outdoors.

Nature Close Up

On your next walk, use your camera, mobile device or plain old pencil and sketchbook to focus on the intricate details and patterns that you see in nature.  Perhaps you are captivated by the veins on a leaf, the color of the sky or the bark pattern on a tree. Art is everywhere! Using your medium of choice, record what you see. Extract the tiny details you see in nature and make them big.  Get lost in your wonder and exploration. Whenever I do a project like this, I often think of the artist Louise Bourgeois.  Many of her drawings possess a whimsical abstraction that showcases patterns and shapes as well as symbols. Take a look at her work here:

William Cullen Bryant Homestead

A property of The Trustees of Reservations, this Cummington property was once the home of 19th century poet William Cullen Bryant.  Writer, as well as friend of painter Thomas Cole (known around here for his painting of the Oxbow from Mt. Holyoke summit), Bryant’s homestead includes many trails to walk and explore.  While hiking at the property, take with you his poem The Rivulet.  Read it while walking the same path as Bryant once did. How does Bryant describe it?  What did he see that perhaps you see now?  What inspired him?  What inspires you?  Which verses of the poem capture some of that inspiration and convey a particular feeling of awe to the reader? Take a moment outside to write down a few descriptive sentences of your experience outdoors.

Nature & Friendship

Take a look at Asher B. Durand’s painting Kindred Spirits and read more about this artist and his work in this NYT article, “Communing With Nature on a Grand Scale.” In this painting, Durand depicts two friends, Thomas Cole (painter) and William Cullen Bryant (poet) outdoors in the Catskills mountains overlooking an impressive landscape.  Nature acts as the strong bond between these two friends.  In your journal, respond to the following writing prompt: How does nature connect us?  What aspects of the natural landscape help forge new friendships and strengthen community?

Also, reflect on your favorite space outdoors.  Why do you feel connected to it?  With whom would you like to share it?


Nature haiku is a great way to explore the outdoors in a culturally rich and creative way.  I encourage you to head over to your local library and check out some books on this Japanese short form of writing and the characteristics that define this writing style. Generally, one of haiku’s main attributes is its syllabic structure: 3 lines, the first and last lines are composed of 5 syllables each and the second line contains 7.  Throughout the four seasons, take some time to write a haiku that captures what each season means to you.

Check out this book at your local library: Haiku: Poetry Ancient & Modern, an anthology compiled by Jackie Hardy

Botanical Illustrations & Wildlife Sketching

Painting a favorite flower, plant, bird or animal is a great way to learn more about a species.  At home, you can draw or paint from a photograph! This is a great way to teach kids about different animals and plants. By using the observational skills needed to translate what you see to paper, you begin to learn more about the recognizable details of a species.  Consult plant and wildlife field guides to learn more facts about the critter or plant you chose.

Explore other posts that connect nature to the humanities, arts and local history:

[Photo credits: (c) Sienna Wildfield]


Andrea Caluori-Rivera

Andrea is currently a MassLIFT AmeriCorps member serving Hilltown Land Trust and Kestrel Land Trust as a Community Engagement Coordinator.  Last year she served as a RISE AmeriCorps member at Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School in Easthampton, MA.  A Bronx, NY native, Andrea moved to New England in 2003 where she completed her A.B. in Art History at Mt. Holyoke College followed by a M.A. degree in Italian Literary & Cultural Studies at UConn Storrs where she taught Italian language. She has interned at cultural institutions such as Old Sturbridge Village and the New-York Historical Society and has taught history, culture, and farm education for a variety of youth programs.  In her spare time, Andrea enjoys writing for different online publications and exploring New England’s towns, trails, art and food culture.

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