In a 19th-century shingled building, removed from the bustle of Bar Harbor, Pamelia Markwood opens the front door and welcomes visitors into The Naturalist’s Notebook.
“You’ve just entered the stages of our universe,” says the artist who co-owns The Naturalist’s Notebook, peering into the unfinished room with narrow eyes. She clutches a roll of blue duct tape amid cardboard boxes and stacks of natural history books. Scrolls of maps line the walls.
Several years ago, Markwood and her husband, Craig Neff, created the nature, art and science-themed shop-exploratorium in the Mount Desert village of Seal Harbor. Opening June 24 for the season, The Naturalist’s Notebook was named a Best of New England destination last month by Yankee Magazine.
“We are both very kid-like,” says Neff, who has worked as a reporter and editor for Sports Illustrated for 34 years. The 55-year-old journalist has covered the Olympic Games since 1979. He spent five years writing for SI For Kids, working with inner city schools to motivate children to read by using sports as an instrument.
Markwood, an artist and photographer, spent her summers as a child in a cottage overlooking Union River Bay in Trenton.
The 52-year-old artist and photographer surveys the room cluttered with stuffed animals and wooden brainteaser puzzles, as well as a microscope, a bonobo skeleton and a plate of human eyeball marbles.
“It’s a total self-portrait of what we love,” she adds.
Markwood flips through sketches of this season’s theme — an interactive 13.8-billion-year environment — that will absorb all three floors of their building and remain the focus for the next three years.
“This will be a tent,” Markwood says with a distant gaze. She strokes the air like her plansare tangible, gesturing toward imaginary netting and crates. “And we’ll have openings with vignettes out to Africa.”
She weaves through the clutter into the next room, extending her arms to part invisible tent flaps. Brown cutouts of branches stretch across the walls.
“Then, you step into the real environment,” she says, raising her eyebrows and grinning, “the forest.”
Neff has faith in his wife’s concept.
“Pamelia has this ability to envision something for what it can be,” Neff says. “Then, also make it happen.”
Markwood snatches a photo from a table glazed in assorted seashells. The shot captures the dark sky mixed with swirling pinks and purples and speckled in stars.
“This will be on the ceiling,” she says, “and we will fill in the stars accurately so people can learn to identify them.”
The summer of 1992, the two met when Neff hired Markwood for a SI For Kids feature called Paint Your Stuff. She showed kids how to decorate plain white shirts, caps and helmets with their own team colors and logos.
Two years later, they were married in front of the Union Bay cottage where Markwood grew up. The ceremony took place about 6 feet from the shore at a baseball home plate. One dog, two loons, and 13 people attended.
The couple live year-round in Trenton. They continue to travel the world together. He writes and she shoots pictures.
“You only exist once and for very briefly,” Markwood says. “Why not try to understand the world around you?”
The Naturalist’s Notebook collaborates with more than three dozen top scientists, naturalists and artists from fields ranging from physics to entomology to dance. During the winter, Neff and Markwood confer with astrophysicists, biologists, oceanographers, museum preparators and other experts at places such as Cal Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, MIT, the University of California at San Diego and Pixar.
“Some of them will visit us at The Naturalist’s Notebook this summer,” Neff says.
Children contribute, too. A warm glow emanates from a room coated in yellow with walls splashed in shades of red and orange, where young visitors have painted the sun.
“We have a 4-year-old who — and we’re not joking — is a serious scientist,” Markwood says. “She wanted to know if the sun was a perfect sphere or not.”
Neff says his SI colleagues would chuckle at the image of him calling toy manufacturers to order giant stuffed microbes, levitating globes and outer-space sunglasses.
“We’re always coming up with ideas,” Markwood tosses up an index finger at Neff. “He carries notebooks with him everywhere.”
He plucks torn-up scraps scribbled in ink from the front pocket of his plaid shirt.
“Sometimes paper is easier to carry,” Neff says. His eyes rise to meet Markwood’s. “You’ve got to communicate and know what you want out of life.”
And they do.
The Exploratorium/shop is located at 16 Main St. in Seal Harbor on Mount Desert Island. The season runs from June 24 through mid-October. Hours are: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. Most of the activities are free except the art workshops. For information, call 801-2777 and visit www.naturalistsnote.wordpress.com.