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Taking Note: Nature Journaling Opens Windows to the Sublime

Inner-city high-rise or suburban oasis, every habitat has its wonders

All Animals magazine, November/December 2012

  • Shaina Lieberman/The HSUS

by Ruthanne Johnson

It was the height of summer 2012, a cool, partly cloudy morning in Northern California’s Sierra Valley. There to teach a field sketching workshop, John Muir Laws carried in his shoulder bag the tools of a seasoned naturalist: sketchbook, mechanical pencils, kneaded eraser, binoculars, and field guide.

On daily hikes, Laws and his students would stop often to write and sketch observations in their journals. Once everyone was settled and quietly observing, wildlife invariably made an appearance and the group’s pencils would fly. Sometimes, they would draw an unusual wildflower. Other times, they would scribble notes of a birdsong or describe a sun-dappled moment.

On this day, passing over a creek, the class spotted several birds darting back and forth through reeds along the water’s edge. Busy hunting for insects, the Virginia and sora rails and their young seemed oblivious to their audience. “All the field guides say they are so secretive, yet these birds were just so accommodating,” says Laws, who filled his journal with quick-posture sketches and beak details for comparison between the species. “It was amazing to observe their behavior … dancing around just yards away.”

While the average person may have walked unknowingly past the scene, Laws—whose first and middle names reflect his parents’ respect for the famed naturalist—knew the moment was special. Years of nature journaling nearly every day have sharpened his knowledge of the natural world and its inhabitants. “I don’t know of any activity that makes me more in tune with that,” he says.

For Laws and other nature lovers, moments of quiet observation provide a window to nature’s mysteries and the drama of seemingly commonplace events. Writing and sketching about the outdoors also helps them slow down and focus on a bird’s coloring, a caterpillar’s structure, or a leaf ’s edge. “The process of keeping a nature journal will make you notice details you would not have otherwise seen,” says Laws, “and it’s going to help you remember those details later on.”

Take a crash course in nature journaling »

Nature journaling has long played a critical role in developing natural histories, says nature artist and writer Clare Walker Leslie. “Lewis and Clark, Thoreau, and John James Audubon made unforgettable observations and reproductions of nature in the New World.” These days, the naturalist’s contributions are no less important, she says.

When Leslie began journaling in 1978, she didn’t know the difference between a robin and a blue jay. Today, she’s completed 46 journals and written 11 books on the topic, including the award-winning Keeping a Nature Journal. She revisits her old journals often to study yearly patterns and seasonal changes and to trace the impacts of climate change on her region—an effort she hopes will be useful to future scientists.

Apart from its practical applications, natural journaling affects people on a deeper level, says Leslie, who travels the country teaching the craft. “What all people discover when they are outside is a washover of calm, curiosity, and connection that are just not the same as when you go to a sports game or the theater. It’s the comfort of things wild.”

Journaling helped Leslie cope with the grief of her mother’s illness and death. “I would find one image every day from nature to carry me through the day, whether it was drops of rain on a rose, a robin flying through the green, or a monarch butterfly across the street. … It became like a prayer. It was finding the moon.”

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