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Review: The Girl Who Drew Butterflies by Joyce Sidman

In 17th century Europe, young Maria Merian was fascinated by butterflies. ‘Summer birds’, they were called, and no one really knew where they came from.

Raised first in an engraver’s house and then an illustrator’s, Maria learned both the technical details of her craft and how to observe nature. She combined the two to become a well-known naturalist and artist, fascinating Europe by her observations of the butterflies and caterpillars of northern Europe as well as those of Suriname. In her paintings she portrayed the life cycles of butterflies along with the plants that they depended on, showing connections among life forms rather than merely categorizing them individually.

Lavishly illustrated with Maria’s own artwork, other historical artwork and maps, and photographs, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science tells Maria’s story in the context of her culture and time. Thus, besides being incredibly beautiful, the book also gives a detailed look into many aspects of 17th century life, art, and science. The focus, however, is always on Maria, her childhood, artistic training, fascination with butterflies, marriage, motherhood, life in Amsterdam, travels, and influence.

Since so little is known with certainty, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies contains modern speculations and musings on Maria’s life, situation, religion, and marriage. Although this is inevitable and the author is careful to point out that they are speculations, this does detract from the book somewhat.

Quotations from Maria’s writings are given throughout the book. Most of them are about the animals she was observing, but some give a clear picture of the woman and her society.

Since witch hunting was common, it was slightly risky to be a woman interested in caterpillars and other ‘vermin’, but Maria wisely began her study with silkworms.  She pointed out,

Because almost everyone is acquainted with the silkworm, and because it is the most useful and noblest of all worms and caterpillars, I have here recorded its transformation.

At one point, she wrote, “Because the modern world is very picky and the scholars have different opinions, I simply stayed with my own observations.” These ‘observations’ included both her illustrations and her careful notes.

Like her contemporary, Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek, Maria gave glory to God,

One is full of praise at God’s mysterious power and the wonderful attention he pays to such insignificant little creatures….Thus do not seek to praise or honor me for this work, but rather God, glorifying him as the creator of even the smallest and humbles of these worms…

Maria Merian’s studies of butterflies, molting caterpillars, and plants, both in Europe and the New World, changed how Europeans saw this aspect of nature. Through her meticulous observations and her artistic skill, she greatly influenced later scientists such as Carl Linnaeus, but she also offended those who disapproved of amateur scientists, women scientists, and an ecological rather than reductionist view of nature.

This gorgeous book is suitable for homeschooled students from middle school on and will contribute to the study of biology, art, and history. It will also fascinate teens and adults interested in butterflies, the history of science, or the contributions of women to science.

We recently visited a butterfly exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.  If you are local, I highly recommend that exhibition, especially in combination with this book.

Note:  This is the kind of book that we use for the science and math reading component of our high school, although unfortunately my girls were not interested in this specific one.  You can see reviews of a few examples of such science and math books here.


If you enjoyed this review, you might want to friend me on Facebook where I occasionally show up, or connect with me on GoodReads where I eventually share what I read. 

Disclosure: We borrowed this book from the library and are not compensated for our opinions.

This may be linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook  as well as to Inspire Me Monday, Christian Homemaking, Friendship Friday, Make My Saturday Sweet.

Great Backyard Bird Count, Feb 15-18, 2019

* Blue jay, Mark J. Eden

God cares for the birds.

Jesus said, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6:26, while teaching about not worrying)

He also said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31, while encouraging the disciples not to fear during persecution)

Thus when we see how God cares for these beautiful little creatures, we learn more about his care for us. For example, it is amazing that birds can survive in our cold winters. While people bundle up to avoid frostbite and hypothermia, wild birds hop about on the snow in their bare feet with nothing to wear but a thin layer of feathers! This is astonishing, another testimony to the Creator’s surprising inventiveness as he engineered all sorts of cold-resistant capabilities into birds.

As is often the case, people can be one of the ways God cares for his world—full bird feeders provide food when everything else is covered by snow or encased in ice. If you are able to put up a birdfeeder in the cold winter months, you will be caring for God’s creation while enjoying it. Furthermore, increasing our knowledge of birds helps us understand them and care for them in better ways.

* Cardinal, Michele Black

In our society, there are many ways to learn more about birds, and a unique one happens this weekend, February 15-18. The Great Backyard Bird Count is an excellent way to intentionally focus on birds, observing them, identifying them, and learning more about them while contributing to a worldwide, multi-year citizen science project. During the 2018 Great Backyard Bird Count, 180,728 people across the globe counted almost 29 million birds representing 6456 species! Joining the many thousands of birdwatchers throughout the world this weekend is an ideal homeschool project—educational, meaningful, and time-limited, with opportunities to continue something similar year round.

It is easy to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count.

  1. Sign up for free.
  2. Access a list of common birds in your area by entering your postal code. Many of the birds on the list will have links to photos and descriptions so you can be sure that you are identifying the right bird. Bird identification apps are also available on the website.
  3. Read the thorough instructions, but don’t let your kids be overwhelmed by them; the website explains the basics quite simply when you go to submit your count.
  4. Download a printable form to help you keep track of important details while you are watching the birds.
  5. Finally, submit your bird lists. You may enter your observations from as little as one 15-minute session or as many long sessions as you want. Data from all over the world will be gathered to provide a snapshot of where birds were this weekend.

According to a news release, birders in Canada and the US may see some extra varieties this year due to variations in seed, cone, and berry production.

* Downy Woodpecker, Charlie Prince

If this birdwatching project appeals to your family, you can continue it year round, watching birds, keeping track of what you saw, and contributing your results to a scientific data base called eBird. This project, which is related to the Great Backyard Bird Count, is the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project. On a personal note, it helps you keep track of the birds you see anywhere and anytime and comes with a free 3 hour course on how to find more birds and record your sightings. At the same time, it gathers bird data from around the globe for scientists.

I hope you will be able to join the Great Backyard Bird Count with your family this weekend, learning to see and give thanks for the beauty of birds, and remembering that God cares for you even more than he cares for these amazing little creatures. I’d love to hear about your bird adventures this weekend.

*Because I am woefully unsuccessful at photographing birds with my phone, I used these media images from the Great Backyard Bird Count website. These are birds we see regularly in our front yard. 


If you enjoyed this article, you might want read more of my nature study posts and devotionals, to friend me on Facebook where I occasionally show up, or connect with me on GoodReads where I eventually share what I read. 

This may be linked to Inspire Me Monday, Christian Homemaking, Friendship Friday, Make My Saturday Sweet.

Review: Once We Were Strangers by Shawn Smucker

Shawn Smucker, a middle-aged father of six who drove for Uber and Lyft when writing was slow, wanted to help the Syrian refugees. Writing a book about their situation was a way he was uniquely equipped to help them, so Lancaster’s Church World Service arranged for him to meet a Syrian refugee named Mohammed.

When Shawn, through a translator, discussed his book idea with Mohammed, stressing that book writing and publishing are no sure thing and that nothing might come of this attempt to help, Mohammed’s reply shook Shawn’s life.

As the translator told Shawn, “Mohammed says it is impossible for nothing to come of this. He is glad you are willing to hear his story, and no matter what happens, you are friends now. That is all that matters.” (p38)

Shawn wondered, “Do I have it in me? Not only to be a good friend, but to allow Mohammad to be a friend to me? What would my life look like if I made friendship a priority?

So he forged on, helping Mohammed, his wife, and their four sons and, unexpectedly, receiving more than he gave. He learned about friendship, about just sitting peacefully together, about caring for each other, and about deliberately intertwining busy lives. He realized that we have almost no time for the people in our communities who need a place to sit and talk. And he put his finger on a basic problem of North American society.

“In America,” Shawn wrote, “we’ve valued independence for so long that we haven’t recognized the gradual slipping into loneliness. Now we fend for ourselves, depending on no one, asking nothing, and, because of that receiving so little.” Or, in Mohammed’s words, “No one knows their neighbors. No one has coffee.”

When Mohammed told his wife, “I will start having coffee with people.   Soon everyone will come to my house and we will all know each other and talk together,” she pointed out that Americans do not want this, and she may be right.

However, Mohammed continued to dream of the day that Shawn’s family and his family could live closer together. “We will live beside each other, and we will drink coffee together. We can invite all the neighbors!”

In a society where many are too busy for friendship and people constantly move further apart, we need more of the culturally foreign idea that friendship—just hanging out and having coffee, simply dropping by to see each other—is so valuable that it should be prioritized.

Meeting the kind and optimistic Mohammed was life changing for Shawn who wrote, “My deep-seated, hidden concern that every Muslim person might be inherently violent or dedicated to the destruction of the West was exposed and found to be false.”   Of course it was false; no large group of any people have ideas so homogeneous, especially not if they have families. And, as often happens after an epiphany, Shawn jumped from one extreme to its opposite, now suggesting that maybe, possibly, there could perhaps be one bad apple in the 60,000 refugees entering the United States. However, all other matters aside, there are many more than just one bad apple in any large group of people—just visit any community of that size and ask the local police.

So, in a sense, Once We Were Strangers is Shawn’s personal journey past his own prejudice and, compelling as it may be, this means that it does have some elements of a strawman argument. In another sense, it is a valuable book on friendship and learning to accept and appreciate others. In yet another sense, it shows how we North American Christians, as individuals and churches, fail others terribly. These few things struck me:

First of all, I found it incredibly sad that a Christian, one whose life is to be characterized by love to God and others, needed to learn about friendship from a non-Christian. This is so ironic! There is something wrong with our North American society, our busyness, our independence, our self-sufficiency, and our inability to overcome personal anxiety to reach out to others. Other cultures—Middle Eastern and, in my personal experience, also Asian and South American—seem to understand friendship in ways we do not. We have much to learn from them, and this story of Shawn and Mohammed shows that clearly.

Furthermore, this lack of experience with friendship and community hugely affects our ability to tell people about the Lord Jesus and what he has done for us. I am very sad for Mohammed and other Muslims whose Christian friends do not tell them about Jesus. Yes, believe me, that can be a complicated process, but it is possible and should at least be attempted, not avoided as hopeless. After all, with God all things are possible.

Finally, there is something wrong with the way we live our faith if we gratefully learn about human interaction from others but do not tell them about Jesus. Is it that we do not care enough about them to be concerned about their eternal welfare?   Or that we do not know enough to be able to do so in an helpful way? Or is it that we really do not consider the gospel important enough to share?   These are all things we need to consider, as individuals and as churches.

Shawn subtitled his book, What Friendship with a Syrian Refugee Taught Me about Loving My Neighbor. Yes, he learned a lot, and I am grateful for the way his book reminded me to prioritize friendship. But I hope that he, and we all, will also learn in a deeper way that really loving our neighbors also involves letting them know the incredibly good news about Jesus. Because that, after all, is more important than anything else. Isn’t it?

Some of My Related Reviews:

Shawn came up against the busyness of life over and over again. The following books address this problem in two differing ways, as outlined in my reviews (links are to my reviews):

In Off the Clock, Laura Vanderkam shows us how to find space for relationships in our busy lives and also demonstrates that doing so will actually make us feel as though we have more time.

In Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey discusses the relationship and balance between evangelism and fulfilling our original, before-the-fall, purpose. This is something we need to consider when we are prioritizing our time use. As I wrote in my review,

I suppose the whole premise of Total Truth is summed up in this thought:  “Redemption is not just about being saved from sin, it is also about being saved to something—to resume the task for which we were originally created.”  And what was this task?  According to Genesis 1:28 our purpose is very simply  “to create cultures, build civilizations—nothing less,”  in other words, to develop all aspects of families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws, agriculture, engineering, science, arts, and more. 


If you enjoyed this review, you might want to friend me on Facebook where I occasionally show up, or connect with me on GoodReads where I eventually share what I read. 

Disclosure: This book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. and is available at your favorite bookseller from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

This may be linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook  as well as to Inspire Me Monday, Christian Homemaking, Friendship Friday, Make My Saturday Sweet.

Sunlight Slanting on Snow

When the afternoon sun glows golden and light slants through trees and windows, I am filled with joy. It is my favorite kind of light. In the winter, it spills warm and yellow onto the snow and the long shadows become blue and purple.

Jesus said he is the light of the world. (John 8:12, John 9:5) What does that mean? We, unlike the people he was speaking to, do not have an intimate relation with natural light. To gain deeper insight into his words, we occasionally need to deliberately watch the sunlight he was comparing himself to.

Trees can block the sun itself, but they cannot hide its light. And when they do block the sun, their trunks stand out starkly against the light. This butternut tree’s trunks are almost like people, interacting.

Jesus also said,

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. (John 3:19-21)

Similarly, although winter fields usually look white and empty, the late afternoon sun reveals their endless, subtle wind carvings.

Dear reader, I encourage you and me to notice the light all around us, to thank God for this beautiful creation, and to ponder these Bible texts. May God bless us all, forgive our sins, and help us to ‘carry out’ our works in God, reflecting his light.

What have you been noticing about the little section of creation God has placed you in?

This article may be linked to Inspire Me Monday, Christian Homemaking, Friendship Friday, Make My Saturday Sweet.

Cooperative Board Games

Competition is important, but so is cooperation. From many points of view, in fact, cooperation is by far the more valuable but it is not an easy thing to teach in our very competitive world. What’s more, nothing spoils a family game faster than siblings bickering about losing or winning.

For these reasons, I was very excited the first time I saw a cooperative game and I bought it despite our limited budget. That was years ago and Harvest Time filled many of our hours with pleasant play. In this game, one plants a garden and then harvests it before the frost comes. As a family of gardeners, this was very realistic to us.

We also got Walk in the Woods and we vividly recall avoiding imaginary bugs, poison ivy and the hot sun as we spent time in the game’s imaginary woods when we could not be out in our real woods.

A few years later we got Granny’s House, about getting to Grandma’s despite various obstacles.

When we found used games, Deep Sea Diver, Mountaineering, and Explorers, all from the same company, we snapped them up. These educational cooperative games take up much more time than those for younger children and, because we bought three at a time, we did not fall in love with them as we did with the other games. Also at this stage of our lives schoolwork and jobs became more important and we played fewer games in general. Even so, these are interesting games and well worth the time.

Of course we also play traditional competitive games but, perhaps because of our extensive experience with cooperative games, our family’s best game time is usually about spending time together in a relaxed way, not about winning or losing although that is definitely part of it. With some games, like Quirkle, we do not even keep score, although that’s partly because the scoring is complex.

This approach to playing games can be frustrating for some. In fact, when she learned the rules of Harvest Time, one relative told the kids, “Let’s figure out a way to make it possible for people to win.” On the other hand, this approach is a great way to avoid the tears and tantrums that come when little ones lose games. Changing the competitive board game mindset brings a new appreciation for cooperation and allows some simple, low-stakes practice in this difficult skill.

Do note that all games can be tweaked to make them less combative. For example, for years we had a rule that young children were allowed to redo their moves in traditional board and card games, but after about age 7 they had to accept consequences of their decisions, just like ‘big people’. Another more recent example: because my hands are often clumsy and slow, I was given permission to use both of them during Dutch Blitz while everyone else is restricted to using just one. Or when we play Settlers of Catan, the robber is sometimes placed where it bothers the fewest people, not where it does the greatest damage. (There is even an official ‘friendly robber’ variant of the game recommended for families with children.)

Intense, serious competition definitely has its place both in life and in games, but perhaps not as much of a place as our society assumes. As Christians we do not avoid competition; in fact, the Bible points out that it can help people excel. But we also want to foster love and cooperation, even in competition, for we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. Cooperative games help us work with that idea and learn to understand it in a practical, countercultural way.

Harvest Time, Walk in the Woods, Granny’s House, Deep Sea Diver, Mountaineering, and Explorers are developed by and available from Family Pastimes which also sells many other cooperative games for all ages.

If you enjoyed this, you might want to follow me on Google+, where I often mention helpful or interesting ideas, friend me on Facebook where I show up once in a while and am still a newbie, or connect with me on GoodReads where I share what I read. 

Disclosure: We are not compensated for discussing these games or mentioning Family Pastimes.

This article may be linked to Inspire Me Monday, Raising Homemakers, Friendship Friday, Make My Saturday Sweet.

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