The natural world is filled with seasons and cycles that provide predictability to life. Plants and animals depend on it. However, sometimes humans forget we are a part of nature too. We believe that the law of the land doesn’t apply to us. That somehow we can outsmart Mother Nature, creating a man-made place apart from the natural world rather than a part of it … Cutting down trees and clearing fields to make way for houses and businesses with little to no regard for how it affects other species. Damming rivers and using more than our share of fresh water. Creating products that take hundreds of years to biodegrade, if they do at all … while we dump the same products in to landfills and buy more … products that are produced in factories that pollute the air, the water and the land in a different kind of cycle…a man-made cycle of destruction. All the while we have become more and more disconnected from nature at a time when we need it the most.
We make excuses for why we don’t take time for nature study. Our family schedule is too busy. It’s too dirty or too dangerous. Studying nature isn’t going to get our children into the right schools or on to the best teams and takes valuable time away from homework and practice. However, taking time to get outside and experience the lessons that nature teaches, doesn’t need to take the place of these other activities and it may even enhance them. Connecting with nature allows us to connect with ourselves – to access the quiet place within us that gives us wisdom and strength – and keeps us happy, healthy and feeling secure … all important aspects of a balanced life.
What is a Nature Journal?
Keeping a nature journal helps us to translate what we experience in nature into how it makes us feel, resulting in a deeper and more sensitive awareness of the world around us … which can help us in so many different ways. Writing or drawing in a nature journal is much like keeping a diary, only where a diary or records your feelings about yourself and others, a nature journal primarily records your responses to and reflections about the world of nature. But actually, it can be whatever you want it to be and serves a wide variety of purposes. With a subject as vast as all of nature, the sky is the limit!
Here are a few examples of different types of nature journals to get you started:
Simple (Personal) Record: A personal journal is a general account of sensory experiences in nature. This type of journal helps the observer to learn about the natural world while also discovering important elements of their own nature. Keeping a personal nature journal can be a story, a poem or an observational record … or a combination of all of the above. One of the most notable journalists in this genre was Henry David Thoreau who wrote about his experiences in in the natural world starting on October 22, 1837, just a few days after his graduation from Harvard. He wrote in it nearly everyday until November 3, 1861, seven months before his death on May 6, 1862. His journaling progressed and evolved until it became the main focus of his life. He grew into an expert naturalist and learned to live well on the land. He used his journal to record his observations of the life cycle of plants, the sequence of plant growth, animal behavior, the weather and more. He made very simple sketches and maps to illustrate an observation or an event. Thoreau’s journals are filled with simple nature essays, character sketches, news events, stories, quotations and snatches of conversations along with his social commentary on human society. Thoreau’s journals are still used as inspiration for nature journal keepers worldwide.
A Travel Journal: Travel journals are used to chronicle a trip. This is a great way to capture your feelings and impressions of a place. Such first hand accounts are fun to share with others upon your return and also can be used for inspiration for future creative projects. Many notable artists and writers have used their experiences in a particular place as the focus or topic of great works. John Muir is well known for his travel journals written between 1867 and 1913. They include his thousand mile walk through Yosemite in 1867-68, his travels to Alaska, and his voyage to South America and Africa in 1911-1912 . The journals offer his personal perspective on a wide variety of topics including native populations of people, their culture and their relationship to their surroundings in his own words and drawings.
A Phenology Journal: Phenology is a segment of ecology focusing on the study of plant and animal life-cycle events that are influenced by climate and seasonal change in the environment. A phenology journal keeps a regular account of daily changes to a particular place. Observations of the timing of seasonal life events in plants and animals has been utilized by farmers, gardeners, scientists, and people who care for nature for centuries. An excellent example of a phenology journal is A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. The Aldo Leopold Foundation is an excellent resource for keeping a nature journal: http://www.aldoleopold.org/Programs/phenology.shtml
A Grinnell Journal: The Grinnell method of nature journaling is designed to aid scientific investigation. It is the method most often used by professional biologists and field naturalists and was developed by Joseph Grinnell (1877-1939), a field naturalist, teacher and the first director of the University of California’s Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. His method included detailed observations on specific species, species counts and keeping a record of where and when specimens were collected.
Materials Needed for Keeping a Nature Journal
Materials you may want to bring along on your next nature hike:
- A Sketch Book: The perfect size is 5 x 7 with 50-90 lb paper so it will hold up to watercolors, but any notebook will work just fine.
- Pencils (of varying hardness and color), a sharpener and white eraser
- Watercolors and paint brush
- Bottle of water
- Paper towels
- Ziploc bags for collecting treasures such as pine cones, leaves, shells or seeds to keep or sketch later
- Field bag or backpack to hold supplies
- Measuring tape
- Field guides
So once you’re packed up and ready to go, just get outside and enjoy. You don’t have to be an artist or a writer. You don’t have to be a scientist. And you don’t have to have all the items on the list. Nature journaling is more about capturing what you see and how you feel rather than what you create. Feelings are an important part part of learning … not just about nature, but learning about ourselves as well. Plus, you’ll have a keepsake to treasure for years to come.
Interest in nature helps us to understand it and also teaches us to appreciate it. Not just kids, but adults too. Once people are outdoors and engaged, they are more likely to develop a feeling of connection to the plants, animals and natural spaces surrounding them. Maybe it starts with experiences in backyards or community parks. Or maybe it’s a vacation to the beach or the mountains. Whatever the case may be, once positive associations are attached to a particular place, you’ll be more likely to care about it and preserve it for future generations to experience and enjoy.
Thanks for reading and happy journaling!
“The forcible writer stands bodily behind his words with his experience. He does not make books out of books, but be has been there in person”
- Henry David Thoreau (Journal, vol.3, February 3, 1852)