According to naturalist John Muir Laws, “Keeping a journal of your observations, questions, and reflections will enrich your experiences and develop gratitude, reference, and the skills of a naturalist. The goal of nature journaling is not create a portfolio of pretty pictures but to develop a tool to help you see, wonder, and remember your experiences.”
Here are the steps for keeping a nature journal:
- Decide on the kind of nature journal you want to make: your decision should take into account whether you wish to include samples, pictures or only text. If you’re using a notebook (not a computer) size is important. Keep it large enough to include what you need but small enough to be portable. You may wish to create a journal only for a specific place, topic, issue or trip (e.g., the river behind your place; local birds; recycling in your community; your trip to Tanzania or the local zoo). There are different kinds of journal styles for different uses. For instance, Grinnell journals are field journals used by scientists and phenology journals are specific to making field observations. If you are really serious about journaling in nature — rain or shine— you can get one with waterproof paper, like Rite in the Rain, or DeckExpert. Butler Survey Supplies also makes waterproof loose leaf paper.
- Make or buy a suitable journal: most nature journals are compiled from notebooks or notepads of plain white paper. You can get some that have one side lined for writing and the opposite side unlined for drawing, sketches and pasting in pictures or samples. Make sure your journal is sturdy and protected against the elements. Some covers are waterproof. Otherwise, it might be a good idea to carry a plastic bag with you.
- Get the other equipment you need: if you plan to make sketches or paint with watercolor or collect specimens, ensure that you have the equipment: pencils, pencil crayons, paint kit, adhesive tape, camera, other collection material. A backpack would be useful to put your journal and materials into.
- Dedicate time and place to journaling: nature journals, like most themed journals, do not need to be kept daily or on a routine. Journal entries will depend on the specific topic or area you have chosen to follow. Keep your journal handy to your journal topic. You may wish to keep it and associated materials in a dedicated backpack, handy to grab when you go on your outings. If you keep lists of things to bring on various trips or outings, include the journal.
- Observe the world around you: nature journaling relies mostly on observing and reflecting. Cultivate your observational skills by learning to quiet your mind from distractions and focusing on the subject matter. Sketching and taking pictures can help provide the focus you need as well as giving you something to put into your journal. Slow down. Stop and watch and listen. Get close. Don’t be afraid to crouch and move in close. The wonders of nature are often right in front of your nose, just waiting for a new way to be seen.
- Write on location: your nature journal will be most valuable if you use it in the field to record what you see as you see it. If you rely on your memory to write in your journal later, it will be less accurate (though it might be more poetic). You are more likely to make an entry if you bring your journal with you; if you leave your journal at home and wait until later, you may not get to it and the magic of the moment may be lost. Once you get home and revisit your entry, you can confirm and elaborate on your observations in the field.
- Begin each entry with location, date, time: “where” and “when” are important pieces of information to include in any journal entry. They are particularly important in a nature journal. Time and place relate to important natural cycles like season and diurnal cycle. If your nature journal is more scientific, you may wish to include other important descriptors like weather, temperature, wind, precipitation, etc. You may wish to leave the odd page blank as space to paste in additional information from later research related to your entry.
- Record observations in several ways: regardless of whether you consider yourself a good artist or not, sketches and drawings can provide a wealth of information (that you may not have thought to add in your writing) and add an element of interest to a journal entry. Pictures are a great tool for adding accurate details to an observation. Don’t be afraid to get close. All too often we take a picture, thinking the camera sees what we see (and interpret) and when we look at the photo the object of your attention is too far away or surrounded by so much “noise” it’s hard to distinguish.
- Learn more about what you saw: it’s a good idea to confirm and elaborate your observations with research. When you go to the library or read online about what you saw, you will likely generate even more interest. This is where sketches or images or samples come in handy, particularly if you want to identify something you’ve seen.
- Revisit your past entries: you may wish to consult a previous entry to compare with something you’ve just observed or use it in an experiment you’re conducting. Either way, reading your nature journal can be a great learning experience and a lot of fun.
The American Museum of Natural History describes a field journal as being unique to the journalist. “There is no one way to keep a field journal,” they say. “Some scientists will sketch simple pencil drawings, and others will paint colorful, detailed images. You can use whatever tools work best for you. Try working with pens, pencils or watercolors to capture an image, whether it is a view of the Moon, the veins of a leaf, or the legs of a beetle.” You can record your observations with charts, list and labels, sketches, samples and photos. You can also write long, detailed descriptions.
Some questions they come up with to help prompt you include:
- “What do I see?” Some things to include are: size, shape and color, what it is doing, how it relates to other things, why it is so interesting to you.
- “Do I see anything that surprises me?”
- “How have I traveled to this spot?” This is good information for possible later visits, especially if you wish to do a series of related observations.
- “What tools do I have?” This is good to remember for later visits and to assess the appropriateness of the observation. In most scientific observations, the methods and techniques used are critical to the validity of the observation.
- “Who is with me on this expedition?” Researchers always include who was there. This helps for later consultation.
- “What time of day is it?” In the natural sciences time of day is critical because so much in nature is diurnal (e.g., responds and changes as the day changes)
Lynda Richardson at Virginia Wildlife talks about keeping a nature journal, which includes plein air painting and what goes into a field kit.
Sixteen year old Fiona Gillogly tells the wonderful story of how she started journaling in the “The joy of curiosity in my nature journal.”
While recently browsing on the Internet, I ran across a very attractive yet simple nature blog. What made Judy Butler’s “Naturalist Journal: Down the Nature Trail” so appealing was her mixed use of regular text augmented with scanned handwritten pages containing color-pencil drawings and flower pressings. This charming “homespun” expression resembled a real three-dimensional journal.
Botanical artist and illustrator Lara Call Gastinger teaches how to maintain a perpetual journal.
This article is an excerpt from The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice (Pixl Press, 2013) by Nina Munteanu.
The Journal Writer is the second writing guide in the Alien Guidebook Series. This comprehensive guidebook will help you choose the best medium, style and platform for your expressive writing. The guide provides instruction on issues of safety, using the computer and electronic devices, social media and the internet.
“Engaging, accessible, and easily applicable…Brava, Nina, brava.”—David Merchant, Instructor, Louisianna Tech University
“Straight up, fact-filled, enriching, joyful and thorough…Nina is honest, she is human and she wants you to succeed.”—Cathi Urbonas, Halifax writer
Munteanu, Nina. 2013. “The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 170pp.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.