In times of climate crisis, why nature-journalling can be a simple, yet potent tool to build intimacy with nature
The practice of nature-journalling has been variously adapted by enthusiasts to forms that personally suit them, with the split between scientific observation, writing and illustration varying wildly from person to person. This private note-keeping is the simplest, most accessible form of nature writing available to a wide spectrum of people, especially at a time when the world is threatened by rising fascism, climate crisis and infectious diseases, as there seems to be an urgent need for practices that will anchor us and deepen our ties to our one world.
In this fortnightly column, Pages From The Wild, Urvashi Bahuguna looks at accessible, engaging books from around the world, on the environment and ecology.
For a year, between 1906 and 1907, the British illustrator and educator Edith Holden kept a notebook, where she wrote about seasonal changes in Solihull, documented and sketched sightings of birds and insects, illustrated plants in bloom, and copied lines of poetry by writers such as William Shakespeare and ST Coleridge that were pertinent to her observations. In 1977, the notebook was reproduced and published as The Country Diary of An Edwardian Lady, and went on to become a bestseller.
Holden was believed to have partly maintained the notebook as a model for the students she taught art to. The blend of science, writing and art that characterises her work is remarkably replicable in essence. A contemporary practitioner and teacher of the form, Clare Walker Leslie, wrote in Keeping A Nature Journal (1999), that such a journal “primarily records your responses to and reflections about the world of nature around you.” The neighbourhood tree visible through one’s window or the tree one crosses on one’s commute is as good a place as any to begin paying closer attention to nature in the way that Holden did – perhaps by describing or sketching granular details about one specimen. Kelly Thomsen has a series of simple questions that help first-time or rusty observers comprehensively experience a place.
The practice of nature-journalling has been variously adapted by enthusiasts to forms that personally suit them, with the split between scientific observation, writing and illustration varying wildly from person to person. Walker Leslie’s own journalling includes watercolour illustrations accompanied by short behavioural observations, or her own thoughts on the act of observing and sketching. Whereas John Muir Laws, who also leads workshops on nature-journalling, frequently jots down questions provoked by what he sees: “Are the brown spots on the leaves also related to the fungus?” As I trawl through nature journals of people around the world, I come across anecdotes of their earliest memories of a particular plant, the name of the person who introduced a species to them, the personal scales people use to describe what they see (“it came up to my shoulder…”), the way the weather on a particular day clouded or lifted their mood, vellum envelopes taped to the page that hold specimens, and more. John Muir (unrelated to John Muir Laws), an influential naturalist in the 19th century, who filled several volumes of nature journals, paid particular attention to the weather, such as in this instance on 20 December, 1872: “The valley is calm & sunful & winter delayeth his coming. The sky is cloudless bonnie tender blue & rosy light comes lovingly to all the valley world. … We receive no storms of snow or pine bending winds.”
This private note-keeping to me is the simplest, most accessible form of nature writing available to a wide spectrum of people. As someone who is not a visual artist, my own nature journal skews heavily towards text. Besides the species I recognise and the date, time and location, I write down details that draw my attention – a pack of babblers chasing a cat away, a kite drinking from rain puddles, the signs of spring and early summer showcased within a single plant, the tree that wasn’t in bloom the last time I came this way, the incongruous acoustic pairing of a coppersmith barbet and a carpenter hammering away in a nearby development. When I spot a flower on the ground, I take it home to sketch or preserve between the pages of the journal. Aware that this iteration of the world is disappearing. I want to experience it before the end, and hold on to a record of it.
I turned to this form of writing and record-keeping a couple of years ago, and in that time I have seen what Rachel Carson called my “taste for destruction” abate. It isn’t merely that the world I am observing and learning to love in a muscular way sustains us, but that it provides a refuge for the mind. Sitting on a quiet park bench and writing about what I see, hear, and feel brings external considerations to a temporary, restful halt. The language itself of the natural world – bracken, bush-clad, rough-barked, fly-catching – seems to offer us a shift away from the human-centric systems of thinking. There is a loneliness to life that can’t be stamped out by other people.
At a time when the world is threatened by rising fascism, climate crisis and infectious diseases, there seems an urgent need for practices that will anchor us and deepen our ties to our one world. As Mary Oliver wrote, “[t]he world offers itself” in every surviving tract of forest, every species that has outlived the destruction of its original habitat, and every story of weather, landscapes and lifeforms that no longer exists. The task of persuading parents, stakeholders, and busy individuals from various walks of life to see the natural world as irreplaceable feels like a daunting and impossible one, but as naturalist Karen Matsumoto wrote, “It is unrealistic to expect our children to care about their neighbourhoods, much less the earth, if we haven't taught them to see it and to feel what it means to them. Recording observations and feelings in a field journal can be [one] powerful way.” In The Sense of Wonder (1956), Rachel Carson suggested that one way to open our eyes to naturally occurring beauty that we do not currently notice or value is to ask ourselves, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”
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