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The Nature Journal

Above Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, journaling

Although I’ve kept a written journal for many years, after I moved to Santa Fe, a friend introduced me to what is usually called nature journaling. A nature journal is a kind of sketchbook and written journal. It’s a place for you to record observations made during your outings, or your travels, with drawings and sketches, and hand-written notes. Generally the drawings dominate; some people love hasty sketches made spontaneously in the field, in a cheap notebook, while others make lavish, multi-media illustrations that run over the pages of their hand-bound books, and make the entire journal a work of art. No two nature journals are, or ever will be, the same. If you begin to keep one, you will be creating something utterly and uniquely yours.

I have to say this has been one of the most enriching and rewarding activities I’ve ever undertaken. And I admit I was resistant at first, for the same reason you’re probably feeling right now: I didn’t like the way I drew. Quite a few early attempts were discarded, journal and all, in a childish dissatisfaction. I even tried adding drawings to my written journal, where they lost themselves in the verbiage. But as it says in “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain“, if you can sign your name, you can draw. It’s true. You have to learn to draw what you see and not what you think you see. You have to learn what to exclude, as well. With just a little perseverance you’ll be on your way.

The materials you’ll need are few and inexpensive, and easily tucked into a day pack: a plain bound notebook, a pen with ink that doesn’t smear, and a tin of 12 colored pencils and a sharpener are all I ever carry.

All you need

My journal is a blend of nature observations, travel notes, sketches, including hand-drawn maps, and some feeble attempts at “artful” page compositions, geared to my trips and outings. My friend’s journal includes these elements, but with a seasonal continuity and a strong sense of composition. It’s all good.

The opening pages of "Summer" in Scott J's journal

Many of Scott’s pages are devoted to “traditional” nature journal subjects, ranging from things seen on nearby hikes to the changes occurring right outside the window:

Even a bird’s nest, tossed into the driveway by the wind, can become a work of art:

A vacation becomes an excuse for pages of drawings:

We both love to draw what are often called “event maps”. These annotated, hand-drawn maps are an attractive way to telescope a day’s activities and observation all in one multidimensional place. It’s interesting to notice how one’s observations overlap – or don’t –  with another’s. Following are two event maps of the same area, made during the same visit, at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico:

Scott J's Chaco event map

Scott R's Chaco event map

Many of my recent event maps have taken on a look like this:

A day's hike to Puerto Nambe, all captured on a page

The need to figure out just what that attractive flower or odd lizard is named, which means poring through guidebooks later, has led to a vast improvement in my knowledge of local natural history. (This need has also filled shelves with natural history guides) I’ve about worn out Robert Ivey’s comprehensive “Flowering Plants of New Mexico”. My rock identification skills, submerged under years of corporate uselessness, have resurfaced as well. I love to include cross-sections of the local geology, drawn from various sources; these help me put the regional natural history in context:

Everyone has their own particular interests, of course. But no matter what catches your eyes, you’ll discover that you are starting to see in a different way than you did before. You will start seeing like an artist. And you’ll be creating a record of your life’s experiences that is much more satisfying than a simple photo album or written journal, as important as those things can be. I have a stack of written journals 4 feet high that I never open  – they might as well be sediment accumulating on a dark sea floor. There are no guideposts in that mass of scrawls. But I look through my nature journals with pleasure all the time. They quickly answer every question like “when did we go there?” or “when did the peaches ripen?” with visual cues to guide you.  And as the years go by, these colorful records will be there to remind you of all the wonderful things you really have been doing in your life.

Scott J. sketching on Raven's Ridge, far above Santa Fe

There are many websites devoted to nature journaling. Here are a few to get you on your way:

http://www.cathyjohnson.info/natural.html

http://ireneehret.com/nature_journals.php

http://margaretherrick.com/

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