When I was 12 or 13 years old, the way I interacted with nature changed forever. On a family vacation to Yellowstone National Park I purchased two important things: a blank journal with an embossed wolf on the front and creamy white paper, and Hannah Hinchman’s A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place.
The book showed how to keep a field journal, and included examples of Hannah’s beautifully rendered landscapes and studies of plants and animals she found on her travels. At the time my journals did not look like hers did, but I desperately wanted them to and her book completely changed the way I record the events of my life. Her book was the first time I had ever seen writing and drawing together, each doing a part in telling a complete story. At the time it was a completely novel idea to me that you could intersperse writing with illustrations, that you didn’t need to use separate pages for each one, and that they could all be a part of a compelling (and aesthetic) whole.
Ever since that day I have been keeping some kind of field journal. There are many of them, although I did not always finish an entire book before moving on to another one.
This is just a sampling of books I’ve used from the last 5 years or so. As you can see, for a time I favored the orange Elan field notebook–the bright color makes it easy to see if you put it down somewhere, and the hard cover is ideal if you treat things roughly like I do. I have used a wide variety of notebooks, though, and currently prefer the plain Moleskine soft cover books. The next time I visit my childhood home I will have to take some pictures of the massive quantities of notebooks there, which span from the ages of about 12 to 18.
Field notebooks can be used in many different ways. The idea is not to be strict about what does or doesn’t get in them, but to record whatever comes to mind when you are out in some natural setting. In this way a field notebook will range from sometimes being more like a diary, to sometimes being more like scientific record. Notebooks used in schools should be more focused than a personal diary would be, but students should feel welcome to record thoughts, poems, and drawings in addition to their other observations.
Here is an example of a field journal page that combines many of these things at once:
This page was written a few years ago while I was helping a graduate student search the desert of Wyoming for fossil leaves. It includes some of the scientific background I was learning, a picture of one of the types of leaves we found, and a question about a type of black wasp I kept seeing carrying caterpillars around. (In case you are interested, it turned out that the wasps were paralyzing the caterpillars and then burying them in a hole with their eggs. When the eggs hatched, the wasp larva would eat the caterpillar for food).
I often try to intersperse drawings with blocks of text. It is important to record what is going on around you with words, but nothing will help put you back in that place in time quite like a drawing. Here is a page from that same trip mentioned above.
The drawing in the middle of the page is what the landscape we were working in looked like, and my field journal from that time is full of many different versions of this.
Drawings are a very important part of field journals. They can be used to tell a story in ways that words cannot. Here is a page from a recent journal. You’ll have to forgive my poor art skills, but the drawings describe an encounter I had on the way to work when I stumbled upon some crows trying to kill and eat a baby bird. Without thinking I had run forward to scare the crows away, but when I came close to the bird it got upset and crawled under a bush. Eventually I had to leave, and as I turned to go the crows flew back from wherever they had been hiding and landed on the bush, watching and waiting for their chance. Pictures can sometimes convey a story in a more dynamic way, and it is a great exercise for kids to have to think of which parts of a story are most important, and how to convey something in only a few images. This is also a good example of not needing some remote outdoor location in order to have nature-based experiences! This happened just off the sidewalk only a block from a major downtown area.
Finally (for the moment–I love this topic and I’m sure I will visit it again later), journals are ideal for collecting! Feathers and flowers fall out of all of my journals if you turn the pages to roughly. While looking through just my most recent journals I found these two examples:
This is a feather I found on the ground during a search and rescue class I took where we were learning about using a GPS
This is a flower I found somewhere–usually I record where and when on the page, but this one was all alone.
It is important to teach kids to respect nature and not just pull up plants with no regard to what affect it might have, so not everyone will appreciate the fact that I have flowers and leaves in my books. I personally feel there is a time and a place for things like this: if kids are in a field of flowers, for example, picking a few to press and keep will not do too much damage, and can help give kids a deeper connection to the environment. If the kids are only looking at a few rare flowers, I don’t think the benefits outweigh the risks of losing those precious few. I would certainly most encourage kids to use things that have already fallen to the ground, like leaves.
Field journals can be a wonderful doorway into nature. When you start writing down observations and drawing what you see, you are forced to look more closely. What was “just a bird” becomes the shape of a beak, the color of the feathers around the eyes, a silhouette in flight. A tree becomes a friend with its own unique characteristics. A landscape is divided into its parts and then but put back together with new clarity. Field journals also leave behind a record of what we have seen, experienced, and how we have grown. I would recommend them to any nature enthusiast, and also to anyone who wants to combine art and writing with environmental activities. I would love to see all students make a field journal at the beginning of September and write in it throughout the year as they experience new things.
Please let me know if any of you keep field journals yourselves! What made you start one? What kind of things do you record? Do you feel they enhance your outdoor experiences? What kind of supplies do you use–pens, pencils, watercolors, charcoal, etc.? Leave your thoughts in the comments–I would love to hear them!