Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

The Deer in the Desert January 7, 2011

“I love being a part of the hot, blowing, scurrying, madness of the desert. I feel the way the earth does when it rains–dark spots appearing in the dust, heavy with meaning and nourishment. Welcomed. What am I saying? Things full of arrogance and personification, for sure, but true things too. The main problem is that I don’t know how to explain it. I feel like the red rocks.”

So go many of the entries in the field journal I used during my time as an SCA park guide at Arches National Park in Utah. It was a time when my backyard literally was the park and I was full of wonder at the great expanses before me. There are entries detailing how ridiculous it seemed to hang my clothes out to dry in front of towering cliff faces, or drive my “commute” to work through the unbelievable goblin landscape.


The best parts of keeping a field journal are having a place to record and sort these feelings, and then being able to look back on them later and relive the experience. Many of the things I wrote about I wouldn’t remember now otherwise, but when I read about them I can picture the exact moment and place I was writing. I remember the young Say’s Phoebe practicing his landings, “dusty yellow belly and gray everything else.” I remember huddling after a hike to write “in a small curve in a red lump of rock, the sun inching its way toward my shoes.”

One of my favorite experiences from my time in the park is the one written below.  I copied it here just as it is in my journal, incomplete sentences, thousand commas, and all.


“…As I started my hike through I walked down the hill, into the wash, and came around a corner. When I say came around a corner I mean clumsily, bumbling, heavy, with my head mostly down. Suddenly, there was a deer. Across from me, perhaps 10 feet away. It looked at me, considering, and then went back to eating the scrubby Shinnery Oak. I could hear it crunching and chewing on the little acorns and leaves. It sounded so delicious, the way food always does when animals are eating it. I watched it for a long time. Her, I guess.

Finally I started to walk but stopped again closer to her, and she looked up and straight at me. She walked closer to me and we stared at each other for a long time. Minutes. Her eyes were shiny black obsidian orbs that I couldn’t see into or get a grasp on. Her ears were large and soft, expressive. I wanted to curl my fingers in her hair and bury my face into her neck, breathing it all in. I realized I don’t know what deer smell like.

She had dark lines on her side, I guess from where she had been scratched before. I could hear her breathing and smelling the air.

There is no better lesson in grace than a deer. Nothing to make you feel more like a clumsy, heavy, beast. I felt out of place with my overstuffed backpack, watch, bright clothes. My sunscreen and water bottles and shoes. I wanted to shed these things and follow her over the sandy hill, my feet leaving little prints in the sand.

Finally, she walked by me, slowly, crossed the wash and climbed up the bank. I held my hand out in a childish anthropocentric wave as she looked back once before passing out of sight.

I wonder what she was thinking of when she watched me. She wasn’t afraid, or wary, or judging. It was more expectation than anything–waiting to see what I would do. I should have eaten some oak leaves, but instead I did nothing, trying to prove that I could be silent too. I could also wait and watch and be gentle. I should have nuzzled the ground with my mouth, too. I should have smelled the air, and shaken the gnats off my large soft ears.

Next time.”


There are times when I look back through my old notebooks, cringe at my awkwardness or naivety, and wish there wasn’t such an extensive written record of such things. Most of the time, though, I look back with a lot of love and compassion for the person who wrote those thoughts. Wide eyed, in love with the earth and the sky, struggling to find words for her experiences in the world. I wonder what I will think in 5 years about the notes I am writing now? The bird drawings and the descriptions of the moon. Will it seem childish or arrogant? Will it still strike a chord within me, help me see that I feel just as excited about life now as I did when I was 12, 15, 19, 24?

I think most of all it will show me that there have always been amazing things to see wherever I have gone, whether it is in the woods behind my childhood home, the red rocks of the fiery desert, or the rolling green expanses around my current neighborhood.

There is always a bird learning how to fly. There is always a place in shadow turning to sunlight. There is always a deer in a wash waiting to meet its glassy black eyes with yours. The only question is will you be there to see them?


Notes from the Field November 14, 2010

“Just begin. Any day, any moment. There need be no occasion, no noteworthy event. Think of your beginning as the point where a tossed pebble hits the surface of a pond. Changes and discoveries will widen out endlessly from just such a small point. Take your life as it is, and go from there.”

-Hannah Hinchman, A Life in Hand: Creating the Illuminated Journal.


I have written a few times about nature journals (here and here), and it is something I just can’t recommend enough for people of all ages. It can be difficult to keep up with a journal of any kind, though, and you have to take inspiration where you find it. To help keep myself inspired, I recently ordered Hannah Hinchman’s A Life in Hand, now her second book about journaling that I own–the other one, A Trail through Leaves, is even more wonderful! Her drawings and words of wisdom help me remember to keep noticing, keep being curious, and keep drawing.

Thanks to the simple act of keeping a journal, today a dead brown marmorated stink bug (yes, those prehistoric looking things swarming your screens and windows) was not just a piece of refuse but something extraordinary to behold. Journaling, and especially drawing, slows you down and forces you to look at the details of things, like the tiny ridges on the insect’s abdomen, the way the wings are carefully tucked along its back, and the way the antennae bend like the crook of an elbow. It also encouraged me to look up the word marmorated–it means “veined or streaked like marble,” and is a beautiful word!



As Hannah says, just begin! Find an empty page and start to look at what is around you. What do you notice? What are you feeling?  Start with the present and go from there–you never know where it will take you!


Into the Forest August 25, 2010

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In honor of “Wordless Wednesday” I will make this short!

Trying out a new set of “blend-able” markers I bought on sale yesterday. They seem promising! I’ll have to add them to my field journal “tool kit.”  Is there anything you just need to have with you when it comes to pencils, books, pens, and other writing/art supplies?


Exploring Nature through Field Journals June 16, 2010


Back in March, I wrote a post about the wonderful benefits of keeping a field journal. I really can’t recommend them enough as a way to bring yourself closer to nature, and help you experience it in a different way. I haven’t been writing in mine as much lately, and am currently trying to get back to it again. Just to give you some more examples beyond what was in the last post, here is a drawing from my last field journal/nature journal entry.



I was sitting outside a coffee shop in a major east coast city, and I noticed some sparrows flitting about, searching the ground for crumbs and singing out from the edge of old brick window sills. I made a quick drawing of it, trying to especially capture the way the dark markings on the sparrow looked depending on the angle it was facing.

The benefit of this type of exercise, and of the field journal in general, is to stop a moment to look closer. Drawing something–no matter your skill level–forces you to look a little differently, and notice colors and patterns you didn’t see before.

Another exercise I have always liked is the idea of a “day map.” This is something I learned from this book, although it may be discussed elsewhere as well. Basically, you create a map of interesting things you saw through out your day. The idea isn’t to be able to find them again, necessarily, like you would in an actual map, but to record what you notice as you see it. For example, if I made a map of yesterday I would include seeing the holes the groundhogs have dug in the sides of the retention pond by my house, a large brown rabbit hiding in the grass near an office building, and the heavy, soaking rains and overcast skies later in the day. On the map, a dotted line might show my traveling through time and space between these points.

In addition to being a great way to connect to nature, field journals can also be a great resource to go back to later. For example, I often write questions down that I go back and try to answer once I have access to books or a computer. I also can look back on past journals and compare them to what I see now. Is that big twisted tree that fell over but was still growing still there? Am I seeing as many spotted turtles now as I did when I was a kid? What was the name of that funny looking plant again?

I will keep writing in my field journals and will continue to occasionally take pictures to show you some examples of what you can do. If you already have a nature journal/field journal and feel comfortable taking pictures or scanning some pages to send to me at, I would love to share them!

Don’t force yourself to be perfect or keep track of everything–just record whatever catches your eye or inspires you!  Field journals can be a wonderful lens to view the natural world through, and I recommend them for all ages. If you have very small children, encourage them to draw pictures of what they see while you record dictated sentences. If you are old enough to write yourself, consider keeping a small book in your backpack or back pocket. If smooth, creamy pages inspire you more, as they do for me, find a blank book you like and use it to record thoughts and sketches of what you see. The most exciting thing about keeping a book like this is finding what works for you!

So let’s all give it a try! I will try to get back to writing in my field journal more often, and if you have never kept one before consider making this week, this month, this summer the time you start!


Student Inspiration May 28, 2010

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In my office mail today I received a delightful little package–a set of thank you notes from a 5th grade class, wrapped in a ribbon!  It was so nice of the teacher to think of it and have them write to me about a day I took them to a wetland.  One of the best parts, however, was just for me to see what things had really stood out to them about our day!

I try to be really careful not to post any pictures of kids or names of kids on the internet, which is why you never see pictures of the actual groups of kids doing an activity.

I wanted to share a bit of the joy I got from their cards, however, so here are two of the pictures they drew:



Inside this last card it says: “…I never knew that you could find cadis flies around here! I mean really! I never would have guessed that!  Hope to see you around…”

A lot of the kids seem to remember the caddisfly larva we talked about and searched for under rocks near the edge of a creek. Another one said, “When you said we could go in the stream I was very excited. I thought it was interesting learning about macro invertebrates and how one of them glues rocks together.” Another wrote, ” I learned that cadis flys glue rock together and carry them like a shell.”

Here is a picture one of the kids drew of a hole that was in their wader and made their sock get all wet:


Here is a great picture another kid drew of himself wielding a fish and shouting “on guard!” I am not sure exactly which activity inspired this drawing…



One of the best things is one student wrote that she liked learning how to “check our creeks,” and that she actually checked a different creek by her house when she got home!  How great is that?

I love getting a chance to look at kids writing or drawings to see what stands out to them about a day spent outside. Hopefully they wouldn’t mind me sharing them anonymously a bit here!

In the spirit of thanks, I want to make a minute to thank YOU readers, and anyone who has ever sent me pictures, commented, or subscribed to the blog. I love sharing these pictures and stories with you and I hope you keep coming back to read more!

Have a great evening every one–stay tuned for some exciting animal pictures of creatures the kids found in the woods today!


Field Journals March 30, 2010

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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!