What Part Do We Play in a Nature Journal?

In a talk about ways of being in nature, someone asked me if writing in a nature journal might make the experience too much about him. I hadn’t considered that question before and struggled to answer. On one level, the answer was clear to me: No, what he writes about the time he spent in nature would not be self-centered. But his question deserves more thought, as it helps clarify what a nature journal is for. It might help us decide whether and how to keep a journal. 

I had mentioned that I started out keeping field notes as I had been taught by biologists. County and state, date and time, species, age class, sex – a very terse style of recording data that might accompany a specimen as it was catalogued into a scientific collection. We, the observers, had no place in those notes beyond the listing of our names. Years later, looking back at such notes might give information about where and under what conditions I found a particular kind of lizard, but it would convey little or nothing about what it was like for us to walk across a rocky ridge in a particular place in Texas.

Journaling, as most of us understand it, involves a more personal account of time spent in some place. There are more incidental and subjective details of how the sunshine felt, or the yipping and howling of coyotes as the last of a sunset faded to darkness. Subjective impressions are welcome, perhaps exploring a sense of solitude and what it means for us.

In the talk I had also emphasized that journaling makes it more likely that we will recall our day in nature in more detail. As we write (or draw), we think about and visualize again what we saw. It’s the same sort of thing we would do if we wanted to commit something to memory. Bringing sounds and sensations back to awareness, telling ourselves the story of what we have just experienced, weaves together a pattern of brain activity that can become part of our long-term memory. Even if we never looked at the page again, chances are we would remember the day with greater richness.

So with that in mind, maybe the journal is, in part, something we do for ourselves right then, while we are still in the woods or on some rocky bluff. It’s not a way to look back years from now, but a way to process the experience for ourselves while it is in front of us. By “process” it, I mean to reflect on it, sort out what happened, and sift through its meanings. Even a short walk may bring up meanings for us to consider. Walking through a small preserve, I was struck by how the delicate curling tendrils of a greenbrier reminded me of some elvish scripts in Tolkien’s work. Another time in the same place, I thought about my dissatisfaction with the nearby highway noise and how it contrasted with a mindful acceptance of my walk just as it was. Such issues may be small, but sometimes they add worthwhile perspectives to our understanding of the world and how we live in it.

I said that in one respect, writing in a journal is something we do for ourselves, so we return to the issue of whether it would make the experience “all about me.” Would it? I don’t think so, if that means a self-centered focus with no room in the story for anything but us. I think the question I was asked was really about the opposite: whether, in an account of trees, grasses, insects and clouds, there is room for us. Do we belong in the story of our walk in the woods? 

When we go for a walk in the woods, what is created is a relationship between ourselves, the trees, the ground beneath us, birds and butterflies around us, and the whole community of life in that place. We are, for a while anyway, a member of that community. We may have little physical impact, but we are not a disembodied presence there. We leave the imprint of our feet, perhaps eat a few berries, and send a few animals into hiding or draw them out in curiosity. We exchange with the plants the gasses we each need for respiration. We receive experiences of beauty and wonder, water in which to wade or swim, paths to explore and places to rest. And this is just part of a wider relationship in which the earth nurtures us and we take care of the earth (or not).

What I’m saying is that we do belong in the story of our walk or our backpacking trip. We are at least temporary members of that community. We might seem like alien gawkers, we who live in the “built” world and arrive clothed in the products of that world. The longer we are estranged from nature, the more it might seem like we are visiting a foreign world, but in some sense what we are doing is coming home. So why wouldn’t we have a part in the story of that reunion? 

If we’re fortunate enough to watch a heron stalking a fish or a coachwhip snake effortlessly climb a tree, we would be eager to write about it in our journal. Why not write about our own behavior as we explore or wait patiently for something to emerge? Why not put down an account of how we felt about something, or how it reminded us of some other thing? This might initially make us self-conscious because it isn’t a familiar way of taking notes in the field, and maybe it would seem too self-focused. I think that including ourselves gives helpful context to what we are writing about and helps us reflect on and sort out our experience in a more complete way. It’s a way of telling the whole narrative of our day.

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