13.8 Billion Years and Counting:
Exploring The Naturalist's Notebook
May 17, 2021
“A glimpse not of timelessness but timefulness – an acute consciousness of how the world is made by – indeed, made of – time.”
– Marcia Bjonerud, from Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World
Entering the Naturalist’s Notebook in Seal Harbor is like crossing the threshold into another world ––only the world is this world, and the story it tells is the oldest story in existence. Inside the Seal Harbor storefront, 13.8 billion years of natural history take place between the building’s attic and its basement, charting a path from the Big Bang to the evolution of life on Earth.
Climbing a rainbow stairwell, visitors can play an iridescent keyboard to learn about the electromagnetic spectrum or ponder the inner workings of the brain from a squishy pink beanbag. Patterned fabrics and murals make each room its own immersive environment. It’s easy to fall into a reverie of timefulness – a sense of wonder at the expansive universe, brought closer to our fingertips.
After a two-year hiatus, the Naturalist’s Notebook is reopening under new ownership. Restauranteur Michael Boland has worked with his partners and artist Jordan Chalfant to bring the shop back to life, restoring its original exhibits and developing new programs for the summer. Both College of the Atlantic alumni, Michael and Jordan are passionate about natural history and eager to help others find new ways to connect to the natural world.
“Being outside in the woods and rivers and sea is great for kids, but there is also our intellectual “bookish” side that the Notebook really feeds in a different way,” shares Michael. “Certainly, we hope to give children and adults alike that additional way to connect to our natural world, whether that be engaging in an art workshop, identification of different plants or animals, or attending a talk about the night sky and learning how best to spot constellations and meteors.”
Games, books, and toys help to teach visitors about the natural world.
The Notebook’s founders, Craig and Pamelia Markwood Neff, also shared a passion for the natural world and crafting stories for all ages. “Pammie was so good at simplifying messy scientific concepts without sacrificing their integrity,” says Jordan, who worked at the shop for three summers while studying at College of the Atlantic. “She wanted the story to be both fathomable and accessible.”
As a student, says Jordan, she was encouraged to explore her interests by putting them in practice. “Every idea was welcome,” she says. “You want to design an exhibit about bird-friendly coffee? Go for it.” A talented naturalist and artist, Jordan devised an exhibit on the Maine coast based on her seabird research experience. Her painting of Petit Manan Island opens onto the Ocean Room, where another mural by Robin Owings faces the shop’s outdoor deck.
Clockwise from left: Visitors can explore our solar system in the second-floor Moon and Sun Rooms. The Brain Room tells the story of “the greatest gadget we have.” A four-foot slice of time encapsulates the age of dinosaurs.
While the Notebook’s success has attracted a sizable following, the Seal Harbor exploratorium has been closed for the last two years. In 2018, Pammie’s unexpected passing rocked the shop’s foundation. A year later, pandemic restrictions rendered the shop’s tight spaces and ‘touch-and-try’ nature untenable, and its doors remained shut through 2020. Without Pammie by his side, Craig made the difficult decision to sell the shop –– hoping, he told the Mount Desert Islander, to find someone to continue the Notebook as a nature-science enterprise.
That’s when Jordan reached out to Michael Boland to ask if he knew anyone who might be interested in reactivating the Notebook. “It’s my favorite shop in the world,” she recalls him saying. It wasn’t long before Michael and Craig announced the shop’s ownership would change hands, with Jordan at the helm as the new manager. Along with restoring the shop’s exhibits, they are eager to host new programs and keep Notebook open in the winter to benefit the local community.
Aside from a few short rests, the Naturalist’s Notebook will stay open throughout the year, a needed boost to Seal Harbor’s year-round activity. “The Naturalist’s Notebook could have become a weekly rental,” says Jordan. “But Michael – a seasoned entrepreneur and knowledgable naturalist – is leaping into murky waters to preserve the Notebook as a resource for islanders as well as visitors.” Michael is equally complimentary of Jordan, adding that without her involvement, he and his partners would not have undertaken the project.
From sea otters to snowy owls, there’s much to discover on Mount Desert Island throughout the year. Programs offered at the Notebook this summer will include painting, field sketching, exploring the intertidal zone, identifying and pressing seaweeds and flowers, identifying edible mushrooms, and tracking wildlife. There will be a scholarship for local children to participate, free of charge.
With Michael and Jordan taking over the brick-and-mortar establishment, Craig will retain rights to the Naturalist’s Notebook brand, including a Facebook page with nearly 300,000 fans – an impressive following for a shop in tiny Seal Harbor. (A new Facebook page has been created for the shop in Seal Harbor.) The page’s popularity is a testament to the founders’ belief in the necessity of beauty and wonder – and a reminder that our planet is a shared one. “The more information we can put into people’s hands on different ways to experience, enjoy, catalogue, process, forage, and plant,” says Michael, “the better for the whole Island, and indeed wherever they’re going back to if they’re visitors.”
Being a naturalist in the 21st century means, among its many joys, the grief of knowing what we love may be destroyed within our lifetimes. “Both Craig and Pammie understood this paradox acutely,” shares Jordan. “Pammie, especially, felt both a deep joy and devastation.” Part of the Notebook’s success is how it equips visitors to grapple with this challenge through creative expression, education, and connection. “If it’s all doom and gloom, people won’t engage,” Jordan adds. She says that Notebook’s mission is to respect and improve conditions for all living things – a mission that is grounded, above all, in love for the natural world.
Much has changed on Mount Desert Island since the Notebook was founded, and the Notebook is adapting its offerings to meet interest. Thanks to entities such as A Climate To Thrive and student-led initiatives for climate action, our Island has begun to prioritize sustainability and energy independence, and Jordan is eager to develop the Notebook’s resources on environmental activism. In the coming months, she also hopes to collaborate with the school district to provide students and teachers with new ways to learn about natural history. To learn more about their programs this summer, you can follow their new Facebook page for events with local naturalists (Rich MacDonald, Matt Haviland, and Willow Cullen Torrey) and conceptual photographer Jennifer Steen Booher.
Under new leadership, the Notebook will continue to evolve, just like the universe it celebrates. After a 13.8 billion-year journey, its future is looking bright.