While lumbering herds of elephants and stalking Bengal tigers capture the imagination of most animal lovers, we often neglect the nature closest to us. Sometimes we need a reminder that we are part of a habitat, and that the miracle of life exists under our very noses.
Educator and naturalist Carolyn Duckworth has said, “If you want to understand and become connected to your environment, keeping a field journal is one of the fastest ways to accomplish this goal.”
Studies have found that children today consider nature to be somewhere else—on TV, videos, in the National Geographic only. But in reality, a genuine connection to wildlife around the globe is only an extension of a connection to the earth right where you stand.
Good naturalists don’t gain their knowledge from formal schooling, they get it in the field, by direct observation. And this observation can start right in your backyard or at the park down the street.
This article will offer pointers for keeping a nature journal. It draws heavily on the program laid out in the book Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth.
The tools needed to start nature journaling are simple and inexpensive. One needs a notebook and something to write with. Experimentation will reveal your personal preferences for lined or clear paper, binding type, size, and lead or ink. As you gain experience you may add a small set of watercolor paints or colored pencils.
If you use pencils you may need a sharpener, or you can use mechanical pencils, which yield more technical-looking drawings. You may also use a collecting bag for objects that you want to draw and study indoors. (Although you should collect only fallen objects, where permission is given).
There are no hard and fast rules for nature journaling, although entering observations using a heading is good practice. For your heading you may include your name, the date and time (it doesn’t have to be an accurate clock time), the place, weather conditions, your first impressions, wind direction (use a compass for this), and cloud patterns and cloud cover.
To get started you may find this sequence of observations helpful, as it gets you in the habit of observing all around you:
- Start by looking at the ground. Get a close up view of individual objects. Try to draw one or more in your journal, labeling each item. Take no more than five minutes per object, and give size measurements (you don’t need a ruler, just estimate.) For further learning, try writing at least one question about each object.
- Now stand up and draw what comes into view at eye level. Label the object and describe what it’s doing, or what it is part of.
- Look up from where you are standing. Record what you see above, and how it makes you feel.
Nature journals are not just for artists. Don’t worry if your renderings look like scribbles. The point is that you are connecting to your environment.
Some questions you may use to direct your journaling, and deepen your connection to the life around you are:
- What are the trees in my neighborhood? When do they bloom? What do their fruits and seeds look like? What insects use the trees? When do they shed their leaves? How do their seeds get to new sites to grow?
- What birds live in my neighborhood? What is their activity at various times of the day? How do different species of birds interact with each other?
- What kinds of insects gather around the light at my doorway each night throughout the year?
- When and where do mushroom species appear in my neighborhood?
Using questions like these you may find yourself discovering both the landscape you live on, and the landscape that lives in you. Those who keep a journal know that journaling is a form of journeying, and a well-kept journal can become a treasured record of where we have been, what we have seen, and what we have felt as we’ve interacted with the world.
You don’t have to visit the glaciers of Alaska, or India’s jungles, or the savannahs in Africa to connect to Mother Earth, although who of us wouldn’t jump at the chance? Start by putting roots down right where you stand.
“It seems only natural that we should value most what we are in contact with everyday…yet the reverse is often true. We appear to place a higher value on rare animals and plants and spectacular views and far-flung places.
Of course both are important because they fulfill different needs. But the every day places desperately need our attention—partly because they are changing so fast, and not always for the better, and also because tremendous benefit is to be gained from a personal involvement with your own locality.”
~The Parish Maps Project, London, England, 1987