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Charlie Brown’s Endocrine System?

I love how biology teacher Caryn Babaian suggested her students learn anatomy by sketching out Charlie Brown’s insides. Maybe if I’d had a teacher like Caryn, I wouldn’t have gone through school thinking biology was just about cutting up frogs and persecuting little mice.

The video interview with Caryn caused my mind to go off in all directions. Caryn’s fashion sense inspired me, too. (Take a good look at that great get-up she’s wearing in the video!) Listening to Caryn, I was suddenly interested in Leonardo’s Notebook, in cave drawings as an early means of illustrating biology, in artist teachers in history, and in the Bela Legosi film “The Devil Bat”!

Close observation of nature has its rewards

But most of all, I took to heart what Caryn said about the value of seeing by drawing, for example, a leaf. I remembered “Leaf by Niggle,” a short story by J.R.R. Tolkien. In that story, artist Niggle paints a tree, beginning with a careful rendering of a single leaf. We can interpret the story in many ways, but the more attention he pays to his leaf, the more he sees—within the leaf, around, and beyond it.

Observing closely what we observe in nature—and drawing or otherwise trying to recreate what we see is the best way to do that—we enter into it. By paying attention we do more than learn terms we can repeat on a test: We can use careful observation as a ritual. By focusing and seeing—really seeing—the architecture of an endocrine system, the anatomy of a leaf or the social habits of an ant, the pattern of conch shells, fractals, snowflakes, and cells, we can live in the moment and at the same time get reminded of what a tiny space we occupy in Deep Time. We can become more mindful and appreciative of what cell biologist Ursula Goodenough called the sacred depths of nature.

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Sherry Austin

    Sherry Austin was nine years old when she admitted, during a class discussion, that evolution was possible. After school a bunch of bullies arrived on bikes at her house to beat her up if she didn’t recant. She didn’t. Forty years later, she had published three books of fiction and was traveling regionally giving a talk for the North Carolina Humanities Council on literary nonfiction about science when a neurodegenerative illness put a stop to that. These days, along with (and sometimes in spite of!) her comic alter-ego Trixie Goforth, she works what’s left of her brain to share her wonder about the natural world revealed to us by science. She values the work of scientists more than she can say. And you can find out more about Sherry at her website.