Field Notes and Nature Journaling

Darwin sketched those Galápagos finches that illuminated the complexity of evolution. John Muir included detailed illustrations in the journal of his 1000-mile trek to the Gulf: a saw palmetto curves gracefully across one page, while a cabbage palmetto towers on another.  The naturalist Olaus Murie created elegant paintings of the animals and plants he encountered in his studies, noting that words alone could not capture what he wanted to record. In the 1990s, Hannah Hinchman and others brought Nature Journaling to the public through glorious books such as A Trail Through Leaves.

Recording the natural world through sketches and drawings is an ancient tradition, one that has continued forward to this day – it is not a lost art by any means, although perhaps not as prevalent in the scientific world now as it once was. In the past few weeks, I’ve returned to my own practice of field sketching, and am remembering the delight and understanding it brings.

My return to the field sketch came about when the Montana State Parks AmeriCorps program asked me to lead a workshop on Nature Journaling as an interpretive skill. Years ago I held a nature journaling program almost weekly while working as a IMG_2577naturalist at a local guest ranch. I’ve done the occasional course since then, but not enough to feel comfortable picking up a pen and facing that blank page. And now I am leading a workshop… so back to the practice. A few days ago, I held up a dandelion and thought, “I have no idea how to draw this!” Then I preceded to make a half-decent sketch of the complex flower. I am slowly regaining the skill of field sketching.

Nature journaling is not just drawing: it is a wonderful synthesis of words and sketches that captures the essence of an object, from a pine cone to an entire mountain. Anyone interested in the world around them will find that nature journaling leads to discovery, revealing new details even in things that seem ultimately familiar. “I can’t draw” is not an excuse. I always include my own sketches in my workshop handouts, some of which are admittedly poor drawings – but they captured something: a detail, a memory. Field sketching and nature journaling are not about being an artist. They are about waking up to the world around you.

Leading a nature journaling workshop is challenging, not unlike “teaching” any art where there is no right or wrong. But there are four elements common to all field notebooks, field sketches, and nature journals that provide at least a structure and guidance to anyone new to the practice: observation, recollection, connection, and learning. Drawing requires observation. What goes down on the page provides a memory. The process creates a connection with the surrounds. Put those together and there is learning – a greater understanding of the vibrant world around us.

Finally, creating a nature journal is a moment to slow down. I suspect Darwin wasn’t seeking a bit of peaceful meditation when he sketched his finches, but it is a benefit of keeping a field notebook that anyone will appreciate. The tempo of the day changes after taking the time to draw a dandelion and consider the miraculous beauty of a flower so abundant it is easy to take for granted – until you pick up a pen and start to sketch.

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