Almost since the beginning of man's time on Earth, people have been recording observations of nature. They drew on cave walls and painted stories on teepees and sheepskin.
And we are still doing it.
Drawing what you see in nature along with your perceptions and feelings about the world around you — it's called nature journaling — is one of the best ways to connect with the outdoors, said Matthew Herron, founder and education director of Coastal Plains Outdoor School.
By putting pen or pencil to paper, instead of using a camera or a phone, you can capture in drawings and words the textures and colors and make detailed observations.
Drawing and writing puts you in the moment, engaging most of your senses.
Herron said you don't have to be artistic to journal.
“You are making sketches, not drawings,” he said. “We discourage artists from adding too many frills and pretty things, or adding stuff that’s not there.
"You are not learning how to draw," he added. "You’re learning how to see."
Both youngsters and adults will enjoy recording their observations, and it's a great way to explore the outdoors together.
“The main thing is that you are writing things down, using descriptions,” Herron said.
Any notebook will work, as well as pencil or pen. Herron suggested adding colors, if you are so inclined, later, after field observations have been sketched.
“I would find a size and shape journal that is portable or would fit into a shirt or pants pocket or fanny pack that is comfortable," he said. "Some people swear by larger books, as it gives them freedom to fill the page.”
No matter what size journal you choose, Herron urged focusing on what you see and not worrying about perfecting your drawings.
“It should be just the opposite of being perfect,” he said.
A good way to practice journaling is to do drills, such as taking one minute to draw a particular bird. Being quick will make you focus on the key elements of the bird, not all the details.
“That’s good training for journaling,” he said.
Here's Herron’s suggestions for what you should write or draw in a journal while on a nature walk:
- Place: City, state, park — Include a description of the habitat, especially if it’s your first time there, such as whether it's a ridge or forest edge or interior.
- Weather: Temperature, wind direction, wind speed, humidity, barometric pressure; use cloud charts or the Beaufort scale.
- Phenology: What’s in bloom, what birds are singing/nesting.
- Make focused collections: Curate lists such as “The grasshoppers of Blackwater” or “Seeds at Frenchtown.”
- Customize maps: Use various scales to create maps with a purpose, such as “Big trees of Hilltop Arboretum” or Girard Park.
- Landscape profiles: Show changes in elevation, moisture gradient.
- Color palette: Use natural pigments, such as soil, flowers or berries, to color in your journal.
- Sounds: Note sounds of birds and insects.
Ultimately, Herron said, choose any natural phenomena that sparks your interest.
“Nature journals are great for yourself, and it’s even more fun to share with friends who want to do it with you,” Herron said.
- CNPS Nature Journaling Curriculum — Sign up to get free resources with exercises for all ages at cnps.org/education/students/parents-teachers/nature-journaling-curriculum-request
- Nature Journal Club group on Facebook — facebook.com/groups/naturejournalclub
- Coastal Plains Outdoor School — coastalplainsoutdoors.org
- "The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling" by John Muir Laws
- "Keeping a Nature Journal" by Claire Walker Leslie
- "Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature" by Jon Young
- "Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking" by Tom Brown Jr.
- "Reading the American Landscape" by May Theilgaard Watts
- "The Weather Book" by Eric Sloane
- "How to Teach Nature Journaling" by John Muir Laws and Emilie Lygren
For videos, check out John Muir Laws and David Allen Sibley on YouTube.