The Journal Writer: Example Steps for Keeping  a Nature Journal

Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair

Kahlil Gibran
White birch tree in mixed cedar hemlock forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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.”

Sketches from “The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling” by John Muir Laws

Here are the steps for keeping a nature journal:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
White birch tree, showing lenticels, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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.

Journal page (image by stowelandtrust.org)

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)
White birch tree with polypore fungus, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Lynda Richardson at Virginia Wildlife talks about keeping a nature journal, which includes plein air painting and what goes into a field kit.

Page from Lynda Richardson’s nature journal (image by L. Richardson)

Sixteen year old Fiona Gillogly tells the wonderful story of how she started journaling in the “The joy of curiosity in my nature journal.”

Page of Fiona Gillogly’s nature journal (image by F. Gillogly)

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.

Nature Journal page by Lara Call Gastinger
Nature Journal page by Lara Gall Gastinger
Nature Journal page by Lara Call Gastinger
Nature Journal page by Lara Call Gastinger

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

.

References:

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.

On Writing: The Gestalt Nature of Passion & Success

Marsh and swamp forest in a blushing sunset, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

What is to give light must endure burning —Victor Frankl

Says Keyes: “Any writing lays the writer open to judgment about the quality of his work and thought,” writes Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write. “The closer [the writer] gets to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts—not just about what he might reveal, but about what he might discover should he venture too deeply inside. But to write well, that’s exactly where we must venture.”

So, why do it, then? Why bother? Is it worth it to make yourself totally vulnerable to the possible censure and ridicule of your peers, friends, and relatives? To serve up your heart on a platter to just have them drag it around as Stevie Nicks would say?…

Welcome to the threshold of your career as a writer. This is where many aspiring writers stop: in abject fear, not just of failure but of success. The only difference between those that don’t and those that do, is that the former come to terms with their fears, in fact learn to use them as a barometer to what is important.

“Everyone is afraid to write,” says Keyes. “They should be. Writing is dangerous…To love writing, fear writing and pray for the courage to write is no contradiction. It’s the essence of what we do.”

Marsh in the Kawarthas, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Unravelling the Secret…

How do you get past the fear of being exposed, past the anticipated disappointment of peers, past the terror of success?

The answer is passion. If you are writing about something you are passionate about, you will find the courage to see it through. “The more I read, and write,” says Keyes:

The more convinced I am that the best writing flows less from acquired skill than conviction expressed with courage. By this I don’t mean moral convictions, but the sense that what one has to say is something others need to know.

This is ultimately what drives a writer to not just write but to publish: the need to share one’s story, over and over again. To prevail, persist, and ultimately succeed, a writer must have conviction and believe in his or her writing. You must believe that you have something to say that others want to read. Ask yourself why you are a writer. Your answer might surprise you.

Every writer is an artist. And every artist is a cultural reporter. One who sometimes holds the world accountable. “Real art,” says Susan Sontag, “makes us nervous.”

The first step, then, is to acknowledge your passion and own it. Flaunt it, even. Find your conviction, define what matters and explore it to the fullest. You will find that such an acknowledgement will give you the strength and fortitude to persist and persevere, particularly in the face of those fears. Use the fears to guide you into that journey of personal truths. Frederick Busch described it this way: “You go to dark places so that you can get there, steal the trophy and get out.”

John Steinbeck, author of Grapes of Wrath, said:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader.  

Marsh of cattails, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Finding Success Through Meaning

Victor Frankl survived Auschwitz to become an important neurologist and psychiatrist of our time and to write Man’s Search for Meaning.

Blogger Gavin Ortlund wrote: “What gripped me most about [Frankl’s] book, and has stayed with me to this day, is not the horror and barbarity of his experiences in concentration camps—when you pick up a book about the holocaust, you expect that. What really struck me was Frankl’s repeated insistence that even there, in the most inhumane and horrific conditions imaginable, the greatest struggle is not mere survival. The greatest struggle is finding meaning. As I was reading, I was struck with this thought: going to a concentration camp is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. The worst that can happen to a person is not having a transcendent reason to live. Life is about more than finding comfort and avoiding suffering: it’s about finding what is ultimate, whatever the cost.”

Victor Frankl wisely said:

The more you aim at success and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.

Frankl is talking about passion. “If you long to excel as a writer,” says Margot Finke, author of How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer, “treasure the passion that is unique within yourself. Take the irreplaceable elements of your life and craft them into your own personal contribution to the world.” It’s what has you up to 2 am, pounding the keys. It follows you down the street and to work with thoughts of another world. It puts a notebook and pen in your hand as you drive to the store, ready to record thoughts about a character, scene or place. “For the passionate, writing is not a choice; it’s a force that cannot be denied.”

Finke says it astutely: You need to be passionate about everything to do with your book—the writing and rewriting, your critique group, your research, your search for the best agent/editor, plus your query letter. Not to mention the passion that goes into promoting your book. Nothing less will assure your survival—and success—as a writer.

“Follow your inner moonlight, don’t hide the madness”

Allen Ginsberg

This article is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! by Nina Munteanu

References:

Finke, Margot. 2008. “How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer.” In: The Purple Crayonhttp://www.underdown.org/mf_ writing_passion

Frankl, Victor. (1946) 1997. Man’s Search for Meaning. Pocket Books. 224 pp.

Keyes, Ralph. 1999. The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. Writer’s Digest, 1999.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now. Starfire World Syndicate. 294pp

Ortlund, Gavin. 2008. “Frankl, the holocaust and meaning.” In: Let Us Hold Fast. http://gro1983.blogspot.com/2008/02/frankl-holocaust-and-meaning.html

Slonim Aronie, Nancy. 1998. Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice. Hyperion. 256pp.

Marsh near Millbrook, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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.