Keeping a Nature Journal: Understanding your environment through observation, writing and drawing.

Submitted by Donna Bollenbach. Journal Drawings by Marjorie Shropshire

There is no better way to connect with nature than by keeping a nature journal: a collection of observations, interpretations and feelings that describe or illustrate your personal view of the natural world. Nature journals are most commonly in the form of writing, drawing or photographs, or a combination of these.  Nature Journaling is rewarding for both children and adults. It is a great a learning tool, as well as a way to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of nature by recording and sharing memories.

What is a Nature Journal? 

Marjorie Shropshire, 2012
A Nature Journal is a personal record, but it is not a diary. A diary is generally about you and your relationships to other people, while a Nature Journal is about your relationship to the natural world-animals, plants, seasons and climates.

While you may not want anyone to read your diary, many people enjoy sharing their nature journals with others. Most group members find it fun and educational to read each other’s interpretations of what they saw, especially when studying the same subject. It is amazing to see the different perspectives people have on a single flower, insect or bird!

The tools to keep a Nature Journal are as simple as paper and pencil. While most journals include both writing and drawings, some people prefer to do more of one than the other. If drawing is to be a large part of your recordings, you will want to use unlined paper, such as a sketchbook, and drawing pencils. If you will be writing more than drawing, than a comfortable pen and a lined composition book or loose-leaf binder may be all you need.  Whichever you chose it should be compact enough to carry easily and have a sturdy, weather resistant cover. Children could be allowed to make their own journal books with a handful of paper bound between two pieces of white cardboard that they decorate themselves.

Organizing Your Journal

from the journals of Marjorie Shropshire
While the content of your journal is a personal choice, it is helpful to state a purpose for your journal, and to keep your entries organized by date. The purpose of your journal may be as broad as “recording my observations of nature while kayaking in the swamp,” or as focused as “observing native plants that grow in my yard,” but each journal entry should start with a quick note of the following:  

  1. time of day
  2. date
  3. temperature (cold/hot/warm)
  4. weather (windy/calm/rainy).

You will find those details very useful when interpreting your observations later.

Starting Your Journal

“But I can’t draw…or write.”  These are the most common obstacles to overcome when starting a nature journal. If you draw a line and a circle, you have the ability to do simple sketches of plants and animals. By making written notations next to your drawings, you will develop a complete picture of what you observed. With practice, both your drawing and writing will improve. Here is a suggestion to get you started:

Learning to observe…the purpose of this lesson is to learn to focus on details while not losing sight of the whole and its relationship to its surroundings. 

Visit the edge of a river, stream or pond. Find an interesting plant or flower, and a dry, comfortable spot to sit while you study it. Begin by making a simple sketch of one of its leaves. Is the leaf is long and skinny? Heart-shaped? Or mostly round or oval? Are the edges smooth or toothed?  Sketch the basic shape and make written notes next to the drawing. After focusing on the leaf for a while, turn your focus to the whole plant. Note how the leaves are arranged on the stem. If it has a flower, focus on it with all your senses: What color is it? Describe its shape. How does it make you feel? Does it have a scent that reminds you of something else? Record your observations and feelings freely. Draw the flower if you wish. Next, move your focus out even further to the surrounding vegetation. Are there more of the same plants, or is it a loner? Does it seem to have a relationship with its surroundings? Is it taller or shorter? Ask yourself “why?” Write down your thoughts. Don’t worry about being right or wrong. These are your observations, so there is no right or wrong. Your observations may change, and they most certainly will evolve as you spend more time in the field writing and drawing in your journal.

from the journals of Marjorie Shropshire

Sharing Your Observations

While the act of journaling is a very personal one, sharing nature journals is very enlightening. Perhaps on your next chapter field trip you can provide a pencil and paper to each participant, and when you find something particularly interesting stop and let everyone “journal” about it for 15 -30 minutes. After the field trip you can share your observations. You will be astonished to see how different each observation is, and how much you can learn from each other.


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