A naturalist is first and foremost an observer. A huge joy of observing wild things is in encountering the unexpected. I may go wandering in the desert looking at strange sandstone formations and cactus only to discover a seasonal pond filled with frog eggs or come across a subtle panel of rock art. When Rachael and I rolled into Providence, Rhode Island to visit our friends Kevin and Melita I was expecting a bit of urban time. I didn’t expect to stumble upon an amateur naturalist’s dream room. Melita works at the Rhode Island School of Design Nature Lab and when we showed up there with Kevin to meet her I was blown away. Established in 1937 by RISD faculty member Edna Lawrence, the Nature lab is a collection of amazing natural specimens displayed in classic curio cabinet format. Except here artists, students and visitors are encouraged to open the cabinets and take things out, get a closer look, rearrange things if you think it looks better. It’s as if Charles Darwin or John Muir invited you into their study and left you free to peruse and examine as you saw fit. It’s even better because the collection has more things than any one person could hope to find in their wanderings. There are cabinets filled with seeds and pods, shelves of pressed flowers and plants and leaves, cases filled with skulls and other bones, spiders, beetles and butterflies individually mounted, all surrounded by taxidermy of any sort furred and finned, with prints and artwork filling in the walls. The free form curating leaves an enthusiastic general naturalist dizzied at where to start and what to pick up first.
Inspiration is the point of it all. To quote from the RISD website: “The Edna Lawrence Nature Lab opens students’ eyes to the limitless visual patterns, structures, and processes in the natural world. By supporting hands-on creative investigation and research into the relationships inherent in the dynamic living world, the Nature Lab aims to inspire students to engage with our biological realm. The Nature Lab provides a forum, sustained by resources and guidance, for the exploration of connections among art, design, and nature.” Now we need to figure out how to fit our own Nature Lab inside Lil’ Squatch.