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Taking Note: Nature Journaling 101

You don't need a biology degree to become one with nature

All Animals magazine, November/December 2012

  • Jen Cork/The HSUS

by Ruthanne Johnson

CASING THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Even in the city, nature journaling opportunities abound. Nature artist Clare Walker Leslie remembers leading a workshop at an inner-city school in Boston where one fourth-grade teacher doubted they could find anything to journal about. “We hadn’t been out there for five minutes when not one but two red-tailed hawks flew right over his head,” she says with a laugh.

Some nature journalists focus on their own yards, using wildlife-friendly landscaping to attract subjects. Others like to find a nearby natural area to record seasonal changes and yearly patterns. For Leslie, that place is Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and Watertown, Mass.—a 175-acre arboretum just minutes from her home. For nature journalist Kristin Meuser, it’s a wetland with a 2-mile walking path near her Petaluma, Calif., home. “The more I journal there, the more I am starting to see some patterns emerge,” she says, “like certain times when there are hundreds and hundreds of coots.”

FINDING THE TIME:  Mornings and evenings are typically best for wildlife viewing, and all seasons are ripe with opportunities. In the winter’s quiet, listen for animal sounds and look for tracks in the snow. If you spot an animal, sketch the imprint when she’s left, making note of track measurements, the distance between them, and details about the animal. If you see a bird taking off from snow, look for wing imprints she may have left behind.

Journaling doesn’t require a huge time commitment. With a busy schedule, Leslie journals whenever she can. “Sometimes it’s only for 10 minutes,” she says. She’ll often see things for later entry in her journal.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE: “Pencil and paper. That’s it,” Leslie says. “The other stuff eventually comes along the way. But first it’s getting outside and just writing stuff down.” Beyond these basics, wildlife biologist John Muir Laws recommends a backpack filled with a journal, mechanical and colored pencils, field guides, binoculars, and perhaps a small watercolor set. When sketching, he uses a non-photo blue pencil to lay down basic shapes before filling them in with darker lines. Meuser suggests a bound journal rather than spiral to avoid the smudging that can occur from movement between pages.

FILLING THE PAGE:  Each entry should start with the date, location, weather, and season. You can also note sunrise and sunset times, the moon’s phase, and tide times. Then broaden the entry by asking questions. Which animals live in the place? Where do they live? Laws writes questions and then jots down observations of what’s happening around him. Sometimes, the list takes on a poetic quality. “That’s a good place to insert … how the place makes you feel, what kind of mood it brings forth.”

Sketching can lead to a more intimate knowledge of your subject, “but so much of this is not about making pretty pictures,” says Laws. “It’s about being present and recording what you see and getting to know what you are looking at.”

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