Keeping a nature journal

By Elizabeth Farnsworth Gazette Contributing Writer

I’m not quite sure when the word “journal” became an optional verb, but my spell- checker accepts the term “journaling” without a hiccup. So, the activity must be acceptable, dare I say mainstream, even if too few of us—as adults, anyway— permit ourselves the time to do it.

Why is journaling worthwhile, even fun? As a scientist, I keep a journal (more specifically, a nature journal) as a matter of course. It’s my repository for data, for corner-of-my-eye observations, notes, sketches and memories. I like to think of it as part of my job description, rather than a frivolous or self-indulgent hobby.

While traveling to somewhere new, I jot down notes and sketches in a pocket- sized notebook, which gives me plenty of fodder for labeling photographs when I come home. As my memory becomes increasingly sieve-like with age, a compact journal holds valuable information on the details of my trip.

Incidental notes I take—on snowfalls during the winter, for example—allow me to track year-to-year trends. (Unfortunately, having the data means I usually can’t complain that “this year” has been exceptionally snowy, as most are around average). It’s during stormy days, in fact, that I recall that journaling is a year- round indoor or outdoor activity that isn’t limited by seasons or bad weather.

Perhaps our greatest literary nature-journalers were the noble world-travelers who always had new and interesting things to write about—Charles Darwin (Voyage of the Beagle), Alfred Russell Wallace (The Malay Archipelago) and, more recently, John Steinbeck (Log from the Sea of Cortez), to name a few. Other notable journal-keepers worked closer to home: Henry David Thoreau (Walden), Henry Beston (The Outermost House) and William Beebe (The Log of the Sun). Of course, others like Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Gift from the Sea) and May Sarton (Journal of a Solitude) use simple observations of nature—whether counting blades of grass or documenting the earliest warbler in spring—as springboards to greater insight.

But we don’t have to compete with these masters of the journal form. A nature journal is a uniquely personal, unrehearsed exploration of the world around us. The most important rule for me is to stay limber—in writing, in drawing, in thoughts. Rendering a moment on a page is a creative exercise, and it doesn’t matter that I’m never producing “great literature.” I write for myself primarily, and only share a page or two when a particular purply prose passage or small sketch of mine helps spur memory, caption an old photograph or provide a laugh. Occasionally I look back on old journal entries as a way to chart my own changes—what I chirped about ad nauseam two decades ago is merely amusing now. My contemporary entries, though, might bore a 20-year-old.

What goes into a nature journal? Each of us will notice different things and use different media to catalogue our thoughts and communicate our insights. Sometimes combining a drawing with my verbal impressions is the best way for me to capture a moment. The sketch shown here from one of my journals has the  following written observations:

Low tide at Barred makes many islands into one. Twice a day, the shallow connections between the “chain links” emerge from the receding water. Today the fog has cleared and I can see to the outermost island. Each pebbly beach is rimmed with seaweed and barnacle-encrusted boulders.

It’s magical here.

Choose a sturdy but portable book that can hold clippings, photos, crayon—whatever mental and physical souvenirs want to be stored there. A simple bound tablet holds my scribbles and scratch-outs, and I don’t feel intimidated by fancy paper. Don’t feel obligated to write daily—just notice when something stirs your attention and jot it down. Observing and becoming more actively aware of our world is the point—and pleasure—of journaling.

Elizabeth Farnsworth is Senior Research Ecologist at the New England Wild Flower Society and co-author of the Peterson Field Guide to the Ferns.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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