Eight students from the UVM Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources attended the Northern Woodlands Writers’ Conference at the Hulbert Outdoor Center on Lake Morey in east central Vermont on October 21, 2017. Instructor Walter Poleman, who teaches the first-year Natural History and Field Ecology course, and Elise Tillinghast, executive director and publisher of Northern Woodlands magazine, organized this opportunity for students to hone their natural history writing skills by engaging with regional nature writers and artists. Rubenstein School Dean Nancy Mathews has enthusiastically supported this student opportunity for the past two years.

First-year students Mariah Rivera and Janelle Housman, who attended the conference this year, share their take-home lessons.


In Her Words: Mariah Rivera

“I’m not an artist,” are some of the first words Nona Estrin said to me as I stepped into the cold barn where my morning workshop was to be held. “I just use art as a form to illustrate my observations in the field. First and for most, I am a scientist.” As I flipped through Nona’s brightly colored field journals, filled with intriguing watercolor paintings and sketches, I couldn’t help but disagree.

It was my first time attending the Northern Woodlands Conference in Fairlee, Vermont when I stood in that cold barn early Saturday morning. It is a conference that brings together educators, students, wildlife enthusiasts, natural history writers, and everyone in between all under one roof. The day is divided between guest speakers and individual workshops, and I had chosen to spend my morning workshop session with Nona in “Nature Illustration and Journaling.” That is where I learned the art of science.       

When you think about science you typically think about the figures, the facts, and following the experimental process to a “t.” One doesn’t think about the personal aspect of science, connecting with your subject and bringing your creativity into your experiments. What I was able to learn in that workshop on that cold Saturday morning in October with Nona as my instructor was how to connect my scientific side with my creative, artistic side.          

During the workshop all of us participants; young, old, teachers, students, nature artists, and people who have never held a pencil before to draw, all grouped together to sketch the natural aspects of Vermont around us. I picked up a collection of maple and oak leaves and began to sketch them, taking notice of the midrib and connecting every single vein. When I was happy with my 2D depiction of the leaves I added bursts of color with my watercolors.

The time flew by. At the end of the workshop we all lined our artwork side by side, silently admiring everyone’s work. Everyone’s sketches were different because everyone perceives the world differently. “Everyone’s drawings have a story to tell,” Nona told me later on. “That is why sketching your observations is so important in science. You may notice something that the other scientist does not.”


In Her Words: Janelle Housman

As an environmental science major, I have no idea what I see myself doing in the future. All I know is that I want to protect nature and show others why I want to protect it. I imagine doing so through writing, art, and photography, but I have no idea how to go about integrating these things with an environmental science degree. Going to the Northern Woodlands Conference allowed me to explore exactly that. I want to find some crazy, awesome way to integrate the things I love just like the people who spoke at the conference have done and continue to do. Going to this conference provided me with an amazing experience of being surrounded by knowledgeable people who have years of experience in integrating writing, art, and photography with nature. Hearing from these people and learning how they went about integrating the things they love helped me see the many possibilities I now feel encouraged to chase. 

Here are the key things I learned from Northern Woodlands Conference:

1-David Hascles taught me the importance of listening to trees.

2-Nona Estrin taught me how to journal with watercolor.

3-Julie Zickefoose taught me about birds and the importance of writing what you know. 

4-Virginia Barlow and Dave Mance taught me about the soothing effects of a walk in the woods.

5-Dede Cummings taught me about nature poetry and its power. 

1-Trees are the central component of natural networks. David Hascles spends his time traveling the world to sit under specific trees. He visits the same trees multiple times over many years to listen to them. Sounds a bit crazy, right? I thought so too at first. But, you see, trees hold so much life whether alive or dead. Our money system is dependent on trees, we listen to music created by instruments created from trees, many of us live and/or work in trees, and some of us may find ourselves gathered around a crackling campfire of burning tree. Whether alive or dead, a network of life surrounds a tree. Being able to sit under a tree and shut up allows us to understand and notice the network. 

2-Journaling is different for every person who participates. Same goes for every artist. Nona Estrin taught me that journaling natural observations and using watercolor to display observations will look different for everyone. It allows for discovery of detail. Drawing or painting what you see helps you connect to it in a way that is so different than just snapping a photograph or describing it in words. By doing all three you can really explore how each can represent a different visual to the nature you are depicting. 

3-Julie Zickefroose studied birds in her bird boxes in her backyard for many, many years and continues to do so. She writes and paints the growth of different species of baby birds. She has raised several birds in her home after they were abandoned by their parents and through this was able to observe behaviors of many different species. She has turned her real-life observation into many books beloved by bird enthusiasts. She stressed that if you want to write, write what you know and the rest will fall into place. By writing what you know you open your mind to questions about things that you find you don’t know. 

4-Taking a woods walk is a great way to de-stress and focus on the small curiosities that hide in the woods. Virginia and Dave focused on the importance of observation and patterns. Tracking animals, finding feathers, learning about how salamanders are territorial, and finding insect egg sacks made of leaves—it’s the tiny and usually unnoticed things that make you go “huh.”

5-Poetry really helps open the door to another person’s perspective. Hearing Dede Cummings read hers and others’ poetry demonstrated the different types of perspective people have towards nature. I feel that nature poetry is a great way to discover what nature means to you personally, as well. Sitting down and just writing deep thoughts centralized around the natural world helps explore what things in nature represent in your life. 



Rubenstein School