True Nature:
An Illustrated Journal of Four Seasons in Solitude

by Barbara Bash

KTD Publications, 2012. ISBN 978-1-934-60831-9.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 02/01/2013

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

This is the story of four solitary retreats spent in a cabin in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. During these times I practiced sitting meditation and nature journaling. Both activities are contemplative, developing awareness and attentiveness to the world. I wanted to see how they might weave together when mixed with the simplicity and starkness of solitude.

True Nature is so much more than a simple journal of Bash's solitary retreats, one for each season. The book itself is beautiful, written entirely by hand in Bash's fluid calligraphy and illustrated with sketches and watercolors from her field journals. Sometimes the words become BIG, sometimes they dance around on the page, sometimes they stand out in bright colors; always they are as lively as the world Bash observes within and without. Her calligraphy and illustrations give the book a vivid and personal feel, like a hand-written letter from a friend.

It helps that is Bash is a keen and heart-open observer:

"In the midst of my sketching, a young woodchuck suddenly jumps up on the rock ledge a few feet in front of me. We are both shocked, wide-eyed, still. Then, slowly, I begin to draw him, my pencil shaking on the page. These are the moments—hands trembling, heart pounding, pencil following the wild forms. I glance down at the page for a second, and when I look up, he's gone."

Bash is candid about how hard it is to leave her young son and husband, the fears that rush in uninvited in her solitary time. Her only previous retreat experience years before haunts her:

"The loneliness that confronted me on that retreat was a shock. All my demons of doubt and fear raced in to attack. Every day the setting sun and approaching darkness filled me with panic. ... I was apart from the tribe and unable to see what lurked in the shadows."

Yet over the retreats chronicled in True Nature, Bash is compelled to test her fears of the dark. Each time she withdraws to the safety of the cabin. Finally, on her last retreat, she realizes, "the way to get into the woods at night is to enter at twilight and let the darkness gather around me." So at dusk, she walks through the trees, climbs onto a flat rock and waits, "my heart ... beating fast, my breath high in my chest. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of what I can't see. ... Relax the brow. Relax the mind. Sitting, watching, listening."

As Bash writes, the pages of the book trace the gathering dusk, shifting from ivory with black writing to a purplish watercolor wash with gray tree trunks sketched in, barely visible, to deepest gray and then black with white writing. We feel the night come. Still, Bash manages to stay through her fears:

"It is pitch black when I finally get up. I feel my way off the rock to the ground and through the blackness... all my senses open. ... Just as I step out of the woods, a bat banks and turns right in front of my face; its soft wings beat the air against my cheek. It feels like a salute."

The book ends with a series of field sketching exercises that will make readers' hands itch for pencil and paper—even those who feel they can't draw. And these wise words: "Stepping into the unknown always takes fearlessness. What we find on the other side is our tender-hearted aliveness. What else is worth doing in the end?"

Read an excerpt from this book.

Barbara Bash has written a number of prizewinning books on wildlife and natural history, including Desert Giant: The World of the Saguaro Cactus and Shadows of Night: The Hidden World of the Little Brown Bat. Her books have been featured on "Reading Rainbow" and listed on the John Burroughs List of Nature Books for Young Readers, the Texas Bluebonnet Master List, and Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children. She teaches brush calligraphy and field sketching workshops in the U.S. and Europe. She lives in New York's Hudson River Valley with her husband, Steve Gorn, and son, Wiley. Visit her website.

(See another review of this book, here)

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