Becoming God’s Naturalist – Make a Nature Specimen Library

by Jill Novak

Spring, summer and fall are the time of year to stock up on plant and insect specimens for your home nature library. Nothing is more useful to an artist than a reference library full of specimens. Whether you preserve your specimens from life or use digital photography stored on the computer, stock your library now!

When I attended commercial art school we were taught to keep an artist’s reference file for anything we might want to draw in the future. Those files were filled with pictures of animals, people, and plant life taken mostly from the pages of National Geographic magazines. On one hand the files were invaluable if you needed an example of something for an illustration that you were currently working on such as a monarch butterfly on milkweed; on the other hand they were limited to the photographer’s style or the angle of his shot.

Other than figure drawing class and an occasional still-life, I don’t remember being encouraged to draw from real specimens. I found still-life drawings extremely uninspiring. And still-life is just what the name implies – still! I have found that drawing from life is much more captivating because you can observe a specimen in greater detail and draw it from any angle you choose.

How can you make your own specimen library? Well, it’s not hard at all. Let’s start with insects. Buy your children some butterfly nets and let them go exploring. It won’t be long before you have a fine bug collection. They don’t have to worry about pinning and labeling their insects unless they want to. Their drawings can be labeled and stored in notebooks. Pinning and labeling can limit your children’s ability to draw their specimens from different angles. Instead, get a large tackle box and store your bugs in it loosely. They can draw from their collection anytime they are inclined – even in the dead of winter. Preserve specimens in a jar with a cotton ball saturated in nail polish remover. When the bug has expired, place it in a slot and store it for later reference.

What about animals? Do you have a cat that loves leaving you “presents” on the doorstep? Some of most treasured bird specimens have been the result of a “cat-n-mouse” game. What about preserving dead animals that you find on the side of the road? Sound kind of crazy? Taxidermists have been doing it for years!

I love the story of children’s book illustrator Tasha Tudor thawing out specimens so she could pose them in different positions, and refreezing them to use again later. The collection in our garage freezer includes mice, moles, different kinds of birds, a baby weasel and many other interesting animals.

Keep a medium-sized aquarium on hand for drawing any live specimens you find. Release them after you’re done. In the last two weeks, we’ve used an aquarium to study six baby barn swallows, a large painted turtle, and a flying squirrel just to name a few. You never know what the Lord is going to provide for your nature study so be prepared!

Some plant matter can be preserved by air drying. I have several ball jars that line the top of an old library card catalog in my hallway. They contain samples from last year’s nature walks; thistles, bird’s nests, goldenrod, and milkweed pods are just a few of our “priceless” drawing treasures. Old printer’s trays can be filled with pine cones, maple tree seeds, insects, etc. Give your tray a prominent spot in your house and tell the kids to fill it up with specimens. Children are inspired to draw more spontaneously when specimens are readily available.

And of course, let your young naturalists loose in the backyard with a digital camera. Nothing can compare with the quality and instant reward of a child who takes his own pictures for reference. I regularly let Elizabeth, age 10, and Anna, age 6, take pictures of whatever they find of interest outside. Besides getting instant results, children can enlarge their photos and draw from them as they sit in front of the computer. If they can’t see a particular detail, they can click on the picture and enlarge it. Digital cameras are simply invaluable when it comes to catching a specimen for your collection!

Order The Nature Journaling and Gift of Family Writing Bundle here:



  1. I came to this website intending to subscribe. I saw this “Becoming God’s Naturalist” article, and being an amateur naturalist myself, was drawn to read it. After years of stray animal rescue and and keeping most of the rescued cats myself, I emphatically disagree with the notion of owning a cat for the purpose of “presents” it will leave on the doorstep. This just flabbergasts me.

    First of all, if we are teaching our children to respect God’s creation, they won’t be so cavalier when they see a bluebird, phoebe, chipmunk or baby weasel, dead. My daughter is very sensitive to this and I cannot believe that other well raised children would not be also.

    Some of our native animals and many of our birds are suffering serious declines in number. Others have been brought bank from endangerment or near extinction by diligent, conservation minded people. Birds have so many predators, people should not be getting cats just so they can have a specimen library.

    Cats should be kept indoors if possible. If it is not, people should be working to figure out ways to lessen domestic cats impact on nature, not the opposite.

    I will just assume that the author meant that the barn swallows had been left homeless somehow(perhaps the cat), and were being dutifully cared for throughout the days that they were in the aquarium. Bird nests should not be taken until sometime in the fall.

    Picture taking is great advice. Too bad this article couldn’t have centered on this idea and and conserving what God created. Perhaps a future magazine will contain such an article.

    Read the article here:

  2. I wanted to leave two comments.
    1. Our two cats love being outside, and are avid hunters. They’re in at night and most of the winter is spent stretched out by the wood stove, dreaming. Over the years they have caught hundreds of mice and chipmunks, but only two birds, and one snake. I appreciate their abilities keeping the rodent population down! Be sure to have your kitties neutered or spayed if you don’t want kittens (which can be a joy!) and keep up on raabies shots, especially if they’re hunters.

    2. Our children (now teens) are nature lovers. They have caught, studied, and enjoyed many animals. Our general rules is that an animal must be released by the third day. I recommend the book “Pets In a Jar” for caring for little creatures like salamanders and frogs. We also have had many large and small aquariums to house animals…fantastic observation tool and can often be found at second hand stores like Salvation Army or Goodwill.

    Carlotte Mason methods include nature observation and journalling. Some of her thoughts and practical books can be found following links on http://www.amblesideonline.com (a comprehensive Charlotte Mason site).

    Kristen in NH

  3. I took many science/biology/natural resource classes in college and one of the things that we did for zoology class was collect specimens of mammals that had “passed on”. What a great way to learn about God’s world! The chain of life dictates that things have to die in order for others to live. That is the way it works and God intended for it to happen that way. God is in control of all creation even the endangered species. He has a plan we just may not understand it!
    I don’t think my kids respect God’s creation any less just because a cat killed an animal. True, you need to be responsible and have your cat fixed so as not to over populate but I had a cat like that once that brought me presents and flung them against our door to make sure I came out to see them and I wish I had another one like her! Especially now that my kids are getting older and can begin to study things like this.

  4. Dear Anita,
    I have been so thankful for the birds that my cats have brought to me over the years because we have been able to study and draw them from life instead of just looking at them in someone photographs. Birds are harder to observe firsthand because they are able to fly away (usually high above our heads). None of the birds my cats have killed have been on the endangered species list, but have been common every day birds my children and I have been able to study in depth because they were deposited by our proud felines right outside our door.

    Farm cats are rarely kept indoors and serve great purpose in controlling the rodent population. They instinctively attempt to catch birds, but for the most part are highly unsuccessful. I have been overjoyed anytime they bring me a bird they haven’t mauled too much, viewing it as a divine appointment with one of God’s most precious creations. When we teach our children to intentionally observe and journal their observations, they learn to not take God’s teachable moments for granted.

    We live in an age when people are afraid to get too involved with nature for fear of somehow hurting the animal population to the point of extinction. Naturalists from centuries past would be “appalled” by this mindset, knowing it was their job to investigate, record, and report their findings to their fellow man for the purpose of educating them to the Creator’s grand design.

    Some children are sensitive to anything being killed. I have a daughter like that, but I also have a daughter who loves to preserve all kinds of insects, including butterflies and moths. This child is an entomologist at heart. She is highly visual and observant, whereas, the child who wants to let everything go is auditory and not as interested in taking the time to really observe. She also tends to attach human emotions (anthropomorphism) to most animals and insects (except spiders and mosquitoes). Living on a farm, however, she understands the reality of life and death when it comes to the animal world.

    The six barn swallows fell from a nest in our silo one morning and I just happened upon them when I went up to the hill to photograph the wildflowers there. We brought them inside and drew them and let them go when they were ready to fly. We also protected them form out five farm cats. You can read the article below. I have made a drawing DVD for children from that encounter with nature and once again am thrilled anytime I get to hold a bird in my hand to study and observe it. Would I rather that it have escaped such a cruel fate? Yes, of course, but I am not going to waste the opportunity to turn my encounter with them into a teachable moment.

    The Sketch Baby Barn Swallows DVD and CD set is a precious resource for teaching children how to sketch. It is included in The Nature Journaling Bundle here:

    Read the baby Barn Swallow article here:http://remembrancepress.com/?p=1140

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