Nature Journaling -- the Art of Seeing Nature

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Published on: Jul. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 27, 2010

Family summer vacations were things of magic in my childhood. The excitement before the actual trip - the planning and waiting - almost overshadowed the adventure itself. After the long-awaited vacation was over, the only thing we felt we had to look forward to was getting the snapshots and 8mm movie film developed so we could relive the memory.

With great anticipation, we pored over the pictures and listened to the commentary provided by my parents. "Here we are heading into the Gunnison National Forest," my father would say. "Bob," my mother would interject, "we're not even in Colorado in this picture." And so it would continue. The only time we relived the memory accurately was when we were photographed standing in front of a state's welcome sign.

A journal would have helped.

A simple nature journal, complete with field sketches and notes about thoughts, feelings and location, is perhaps the best tool to trigger a memory accurately and vividly.

Journals also serve as historical documents, allowing us to relive someone else's past. Early explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft trekked across the Ozarks in 1818 and later published a detailed account of his journey. His journals depict a different landscape from what we see today. He vividly described the lush expanses of prairies and his encounters with herds of elk and bison.

While few of us will ever venture into uncharted territory, and many may never even explore neighboring states, adventures of the natural kind are available within our own backyards. And, while your discovery of a dragonfly struggling to free its wet, delicate wings from its nymphal skin may not be a new scientific discovery, it may well be a new and personal revelation to you and worthy of recording.

A nature journal is a place to record your encounters with the natural world - from the everyday to the sublime. Field sketches, regardless of the degree of artistic talent with which they are rendered, force us to look closely and observe nature as it really is. Nature is complex and in our limited capability as humans to understand it, we are often quick to simply categorize nature and feel like we know it.

For many people, trees come in two categories, those with evergreen looking leaves and those without. While this is an accurate way to divide all trees into the categories of either evergreen or deciduous, it doesn't allow for the tremendous diversity of trees in either category. Any tree with needlelike leaves is simply categorized as a "pine tree" and we fail to notice whether it is a native short-leaf pine, or an eastern red cedar, or maybe a cultivated spruce or fir.

In our haste to categorize it, we miss out on really knowing it, not only by its given species name but as an individual tree with unique qualities that are revealed only by careful observation. While the ability to accurately name objects in nature is a wonderful gift, it can interfere with our ability to learn about them.

Many of us only observe nature in a scientific mode. Often we know an animal by its scientific name, can relate its life history and know where it's normally found. All too often, that is enough to satisfy our curiosity. Nature journaling, particularly sketching an object in nature, exposes us to artistic expression and an alternative way of appreciating and enjoying nature. Drawing an object forces us to slow down in order to observe it carefully and to see it as it really is.

Unfortunately, the word "drawing" conjures up expectations in people, forcing them to categorize themselves as either artists or not. All too often, we see ourselves in the latter category. Drawing is a curious process that is so closely related to seeing that the two can hardly be separated. After all, anyone can draw. Drawing is simply making marks on paper and all of us are capable of that. It's "the seeing" that is really difficult.

Again, it is our powerful urge to categorize nature that hinders our ability to see it. However, with effort and practice, we can tune into our creative side. Seeing nature clearly frees us from categorizing it, and drawing forces us to make accurate observations that better enable us to identify things in nature.

Every outdoor enthusiast, whether professional or amateur, strives to learn more about the natural world. Many of us keep lists of birds spotted and the various wildflowers and trees we can identify. All of us, however, are occasionally stumped by something we can't identify.

Unless you are blessed with a photographic memory, relying on memory alone to later identify this newly encountered object can be extremely frustrating. If it's a wildflower, recording your written observations about the site on which it was found - habitat type, topography of the land, direction of the slope - combined with the date you discovered it and notes about the size, color and shape will all aid in later identification. These kinds of detailed notes, combined with a field sketch of the flower, will help you identify it accurately and then add it to your list.

The nature journaling process works well here in two ways. First, the discovery is a personal journey, one that will be remembered better than if someone simply "labels" it for you. Second, you are left with more than just a name. You now "know" the object and you have a written record that will serve not only to refresh your memory of that particular wildflower, but of an entire springtime walk in the forest.

On occasion, I go through my journals and "rediscover" my first encounters with new objects. As a bonus, a single page of the journal often evokes memories of hikes that occurred over ten years ago. Suddenly, the newly encountered wildflower is remembered along with the companions of my hike, the scents we encountered, what we ate for lunch and even some of the stories we told.

In our busy lives it's difficult to carve out enough spare time to get to know something. Often our observations can only be made while we are sitting quietly in a crouched position or lying stretched out on our stomachs for a better view of something small. Nature journaling gives us permission to slow down and provides us with quiet time to enjoy nature.

On occasion, field sketches need to be rendered hurriedly to catch the essence of something like a warbler quickly flitting in and out of our view. For this, nature journalists use a drawing technique known as gesture drawing. By simply holding the pencil half-way up and by looking directly at the object being drawn rather than the paper, the successful journalist quickly captures the movement of the bird on paper. These quick "gesture" drawings later serve as a reminder of the creature's essence and vitality and can be used by artists to create more accurate and detailed drawings at a later date.

Another reward of nature journaling is its ability to heighten our awareness of the natural world. Successfully identifying one wildflower, mushroom or tree opens up a whole new world of natural objects to explore and to get to know. After discovering one object, we are often amazed at how many times we encounter it and realize that we must have walked by it many times before, completely oblivious to its existence.

Whether you enjoy hunting and fishing, canoeing Ozark streams, finding morel mushrooms or adding to your life list of birds, a nature journal is the perfect companion to enable you to enjoy your outdoor experiences more fully. You don't need to worry about expensive cameras and tripods. You can be well-equipped with nothing more than a pad of paper or spiral notebook, several pencils and a pencil sharpener.

Place these items in a plastic bag to keep them dry and you have your own personal nature journaling kit. While your journal may never be published as a historical document, it will serve as a personal record of your outdoor experiences, allowing you to accurately relive your memories each time you open its cover.

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