I am kneeling on the forest floor, my nose six inches above a blossoming red trillium. I am trying to get the color of this plant right, and have been mixing watercolor greens and browns and blues for the past five minutes.
It is not a lovely day. A cold gray sky above me threatens rain and the temperature is chilly. Yet the forest floor is beautiful, carpeted with hundreds of red trilliums — the dark red, three-petaled flowers that genteel souls refer to as “Wake Robin” and Vermont school children call “Stinking Benjamin.”
I eventually complete a small watercolor. But amazingly, it has taken me the better part of four hours to sketch and paint it. In the meantime, my teacher for the day, Nona Estrin of East Montpelier, has done several studies and one complete painting of a red trillium that is as fresh on the page as the flower itself on the forest floor. In addition to her skills as a watercolorist, Estrin is an expert naturalist. And she is a buoyant, unfailingly encouraging teacher.
Both her skill and her delightful enthusiasm are expressed in the new book Nona Estrin and her husband, Charles Johnson, have just written and illustrated. Entitled "In Season: A Natural History of the New England Year", it contains a complete year’s worth of Estrin’s nature journal entries and evocative watercolors, plus several longer essays on the natural cycle of the year by Johnson, a former Vermont state naturalist.
There are entries and paintings in this book from around most of New England, but the book has a Vermont viewpoint and most of the journal entries are from the lakes, woods and fields of central Vermont. It celebrates the wonders of nature that are commonplace only because we accept them as such – from the fireflies and tadpoles of high summer, to a gang of crows, busily gleaning a December cornfield and waiting for the first snowstorm.
If “In Season” has a hidden message, it’s that wild nature is not only wondrous, but instructive, and open to us at any time of year. There are more than four seasons, it suggests – there may actually be dozens of seasons, overlapping, influencing each other as they vary and change from year to year.
“We will never be able to say, really, why a flower is beautiful to us, or a bird miraculous, or why we pick up a rock and bring it home,” Johnson writes in one of the essays in the book. “We do these things not for any material reward. We do them because it’s in our nature." The eloquence of his words is matched by the beauty of Estrin’s paintings. Their book celebrates the best of natural Vermont.
Now, with Vermont changing (as it has always changed) Estrin and Johnson give us not only a good reason, but excellent tools to look more closely at the world around us. Their book, “In Season,” makes clear that by recording and celebrating the world outside our door, we can not only savor that world’s beauty, but nurture and protect it as well.
Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.