Bringing Nature In
These reflections on bringing touches of nature indoors all started with a hornet’s nest. While on daily bird-watching walks around our property over the summer, Jeff noticed a huge hornet nest hanging from a branch about 10’ high in a maple tree along our driveway.
A nest of Bald-faced Hornets (which are actually a species of yellowjacket wasps rather than true hornets) can be an unnerving presence over the summer, depending on its proximity to your house, garden, or relaxation and play spaces. But if the nest is far enough away to prevent unwanted encounters with its inhabitants, it can be safely ignored to allow the wasps to go about their business of enhancing their home, raising their young, eating other insects and pollinating wildflowers.
Then in late fall, after a few hard frosts kill the workers of the colony and spur the fertilized queen to decamp to a protected nook to overwinter, the beautiful product of the insects’ summer labors is easier to appreciate. Once the leaves fell from our maple tree (and after we had read up to make sure the nest wasn’t inhabited by hibernating insects, or that it would be reused the following year), we collected the nest and hung it temporarily in our garden shed.
The strong yet amazingly light ovoid nest is made of layer upon layer of gorgeous marbleized sheaves that the wasps produce from chewed wood fiber.
This object is compelling because of its simple beauty, but it holds an allure beyond its pleasing shape, color and texture. There is something about physical objects that are direct products of nature rather than representations of it (in the form of paintings, sculpture and the like) which is fundamentally soul satisfying. Anyone attracted to the rustic aesthetic is likely to understand this.
As the hornet nest, now appreciated as an unintentional gift of nature, rested in our garden shed, I began thinking about whether and where to place it in our home. As often happens when a non-pressing thought lingers in the background of more immediate preoccupations, my mind was primed for inspiration. So when I came across a new book presenting images of nature in home décor, I took more notice than I normally might have. The book provides design inspiration that is quite different from, yet complementary to, the Adirondack/rustic aesthetic. Its pages provide a satisfying excursion through beautiful images and thought-provoking text, so it is worth sharing a brief overview.
The Natural Eclectic: A Design Aesthetic Inspired by Nature
This book is a surprisingly refreshing entry into the pantheon of coffee-table books on home styling. The author, Heather Ross, is an artist, photographer, stylist and shop owner (in Vancouver, BC). She is not an interior designer, so does not claim to have a flexible repertoire for creating diverse looks that express various clients’ tastes. Rather, the book presents her personal aesthetic, which will resonate with anyone who appreciates having tangible reminders of their connection to the natural world within their home environs.
Nine chapters present Ross’s lifestyle and design philosophy (1 “Beauty, Elegance and Eclecticism”); how she draws inspiration from air, fire, earth, water and metals (2 “Elemental Living”); the recurring color palette that she has drawn from nature (3 Evocative Color); her approach to making small assemblages of objects (4 Vignettes and the Art of Placing); how to stage objects for photography and retail spaces (5 Create, Capture and Captivate); images of inspiring places she’s stayed or visited (6 A Sense of Place); making a home welcoming for entertaining family and friends (7 Comfort, Connection and Celebration); the art of acquiring objects from vintage and antiques markets (8 The Serendipitous Collector); and the art of gathering things from nature (9 The Natural Forager).
As a self-employed artist, Ross emphasizes that she lives in a modest apartment, not a country estate, so there are no whole-room photos of luxurious interiors. Instead the book artfully captures small visual moments – an antler placed aside clay pots on a worn pine table, a flaking silvered mirror over a birch-white enamel stove topped with a silver kettle, a glass bottle encrusted with barnacles, and stones on a windowsill. These scenes feel tranquil and uncontrived, as though they could be in and around our own everyday living spaces, not staged for a show house.
In a beautifully phrased Foreword, the interior designer Suzanne Dimma says that Ross “can take a collection of ephemera and create a compelling vignette that speaks to us on a soulful level. In essence, she brings a human quality to the found object.” Ross created the book to enable others to do the same. She shares insights into her process through an evocative rather than prescriptive approach, so readers come away not with a formulaic style to copy, but with encouragement to find their own inspirations in nature and then express them at home.
Because inserting the professional photographs from Ross’s book would infringe on copyrights, I’ve settled for sharing a few (unprofessional) photos (taken as quick snapshots with an ipad) that contain the types of raw ingredients Ross works with as a “natural eclectic” – house plants, dried plants, stones, shells, antlers, glass, metal and the like.
Wisely, Ross encourages restraint in collecting natural objects. There are the obvious caveats against collecting anything organic while it is still alive, including moss, lichen, starfish and other sea creatures. But all organic materials eventually return nutrients to the earth, and much that is no longer alive becomes shelter or is useful in other ways to living things. So we must be mindful of our impact and be committed to ethical, sensible collecting, perhaps even to someday returning unaltered natural objects to the outdoors from whence they were borrowed.
The same standards of integrity apply to purchasing natural objects, perhaps even more so since those are potentially collected on a massively harmful scale. Coral is of particular concern, both the nugget forms sold for tablescapes and the fan forms sold for framing. Ross uses corals sparingly and makes sure they are sourced from antique or vintage collections. But just as we’ve learned with ivory, it can be hard for nonspecialists to determine age and sources, so it is best to avoid purchasing any artifacts of vulnerable species altogether. Although it seems counter to a natural aesthetic, it is for instance better to buy a realistic resin replica of the currently trendy Giant Clam’s shell, than to promote the removal of the real thing from its role within fragile ecosystems.
Additionally, there are laws against possessing certain natural objects, particularly the feathers, nests and eggs of migratory wild birds. The hugely important U.S. Migratory Bird Act Treaty was enacted in 1918 in response to the wanton commercial trade in birds and feathers. As a result, we can now only legally possess feathers from non-migratory game birds such as grouse and turkeys,
display decorative eggs from farm-raised chickens or quail,
and create our own nest-like containers from round receptacles or dried grasses.
There is also satisfaction in observing nature’s own vignettes, such as this scene we found inside our Tree Swallow nest box in late autumn, long after the birds had headed south.
The nest was testimony to a peculiar trait of Tree Swallows – they choose only white feathers to line their abodes. We had watched them in early summer repeatedly swooping into the box carrying white fluff that had been shed by other birds and which, amazingly, the Tree Swallows had found and gathered.
Several fledglings had emerged from the nest box in mid-summer, but we discovered that one pearl-like egg had never hatched. We gently placed all of this in a field of grass to prepare the nest box for next year’s inhabitants.
Nature is its own infallible decorator, so it is good to remember that the best inspiration is ever present to absorb through a window, or better yet, on an excursion into the out-of-doors.
A few words from a publication outside the realm of decorating seem appropriate as a coda to thoughts on the role of nature in our lives at home. They were written by Krista Tippett in her book Becoming Wise:
“The mystery and art of living…are as close as beginning, quietly, to mine whatever grace and beauty, whatever healing and attentiveness, are possible in this moment and the next and the next one after that.”
Bringing touches of nature indoors, whether impressionistically through something as subtle as color schemes or more tangibly with natural artifacts, is one small way to mine for serenity, moment by moment, in the settings we create to surround us.