Cloud formations and sunsets get our attention, as do volcanoes — the showy, dramatic phenomena of our planet. In “Nature Anatomy: The Curious Parts and Pieces of the Natural World,” published at the end of January, Julia Rothman also pays attention to the ecosystem of a rotting log, or the vast lattice of white threads, known as mycellium, that branch out from mushrooms underground, rendered in delicate, hand-drawn illustration.
Although the book includes several illustrations of bird beaks, feathers and eggs, Rothman says it’s not supposed to be like an Audubon field guide, which are known for their scientific accuracy. It’s not a “nature book,” Rothman said, since it was impossible to include everything. Instead, it offered Rothman, a city dweller, a chance to better appreciate the container garden or small park nearby.
“You can have a giant forest in your backyard that’s gorgeous and moss-covered or you can have a fire escape that has a flower box on it, and they equally should be appreciated,” Rothman said.
“Nature Anatomy” is her second book. In 2001, Rothman published “Farm Anatomy: The Curious Parts and Pieces of Country Life,” which similarly captured scenes from the rural countryside.
Rothman said the idea for the new book came about one day when she was running at Prospect Park, just outside her Brooklyn apartment.
“I would just look around at the trees and the leaves and down on the ground, notice an unusual flower or seed pod and realize I didn’t know anything about any of them,” she said. “It just felt silly that they were right there and I never took the time to learn about them.”
With the help of her friend John, Rothman got acquainted with the flora and fauna living amid all the concrete and human life in New York. On a walk in Prospect Park one afternoon, John picked plants, such as dandelion leaves, for her to taste. Rothman was hesitant.
“I was like, ‘Oh no, a dog peed on that,’ or ‘somebody sat on it or walked on it, and I’m not gonna put that in my mouth,’” she said.
After some convincing from her friend, Rothman sampled the variety of vegetation in the park, discovering it offered different textures and bitterness and sweetness, like the ingredients of a salad mix found in a fancy grocery store.
“You just don’t think it’s the same thing,” she said. “You don’t think it’s all these things you could collect from your park.”
Rothman wanted to infuse her book with that same sense of discovery, interspersing painstakingly painted illustrations of bats, beavers, seashells and flowers with trivia tidbits.
As a child, Rothman would draw from the pictures in science textbooks, such as looking at an illustration of an ant to make her own copy. Now, her books are inspiring other young artists.
“It’s so amazing because I did this ‘Farm Anatomy’ book and now people are putting pictures of their kids drawing things out of my book,” Rothman said. “I was just so happy that some little kid is doing what I used to do.”