Nature Journaling at Sheri Capehart Nature Preserve

Today, Jessica Smith and I had the privilege of talking with twelve people who came to the nature journaling workshop. Jessica and I shared what we knew and participants asked great questions and then headed out to see what they could draw or write about.

It was a perfect day to work on nature journaling – some midday sun and warm temperatures

We talked about the connection between nature journaling and mindfulness. I think we all agreed that it helps to be unhurried and pay attention so that the experience can really be absorbed. Our experiences in nature are complex and they involve all the senses, and if we don’t give ourselves time to become aware of all of it, we’ll probably miss a lot.

Another topic was how our experience can be encoded into memory when we really pay attention, think about it, interact with it, or draw and write about it. Otherwise our time in nature may be remembered vaguely, if at all.

The meetings and discussion happened at the fishing pond, where a belted kingfisher had just visited and turtles basked

I recalled how I was taught to record biological field notes years ago. When some noteworthy specimen was found, what was the date, time, county and local landmarks? The identity of the specimen, size and gender would be recorded. There was no place for what it reminded me of or what emotions the experience might spark. Such field notes, or our entries in iNaturalist, are very valuable. But a nature journal is a personal record, and subjective impressions are welcome. Your nature journal tells the story of your time in a particular place. It need not be a series of disembodied facts, as if pretending that you were not even present. It’s your story, and you have a place in it.

Jessica talked about the art you can include in a nature journal, how it emphasizes what you are drawn to and how the time you spend drawing pulls you into your subject and connects you more strongly with it. She also commented and answered questions about practical matters. For her, much of what you do in the field can be done with a pencil. Take materials that are practical to use, or else you may not get them out and use them. She talked about a strip of cloth with individual places for pens and colored pencils that can be rolled up when not in use.

Jessica and I both emphasized that journaling should be a flexible thing, and each person’s way of responding to their experience and recording it in a journal is meaningful, regardless of how it is done.

Jessica Smith

After some time to walk and sit, write and draw, people came back with lots of wonderful results. One person said he typically walks without stopping, and so this time he sat and drew the dried stems, leaves, and flower heads of a plant in front of him, becoming absorbed in details and enjoying things he ordinarily would never have experienced. Another person said she approached today’s journaling in a poetic way, and read a beautiful entry about a sort of conversation with nature about the coming renewal of life in spring.

We were so happy to hear these things, and grateful for everyone’s time and attention. When we asked, it seemed that the group would like to do this again, so watch for another session on nature journaling at the preserve. Newcomers will be as welcome as the returning participants will be.

(See Jessica’s artwork on Facebook at Good Earth Art.)

A Winter Afternoon in Gray and Stillness

In the grasslands today, there was the stillness of a year that has ended and has not yet drawn the first breath of a new year. If the winter solstice ended nature’s year, then we are about a week into what will become a new year. But today was still, as if there was no forward movement of time.

The sky was uniformly gray, muting the warm browns and straw colors of grasses and leaves. I sat on a camp chair on a trail in unit 29, in northern Wise County. At the height of the chair, I looked through the thin stalks of little bluestem, needles stuck in the mounds of thin, curled leaves like small fountains of grass pouring from the ground. Beyond the little bluestem were blackjack and post oak, either bare branches or still holding some dry, brown leaves.

I walked past a blackjack oak that held onto some leaves. A small breeze made them flutter and they produced a dry rattle – like a wind chime made of stiff leaves that could not ring but only make a thin clattering. And the sound was very low, one of those sensations that highlighted the overall quiet of the place. And that is one of my favorite experiences, out in nature with nothing to mask and overwhelm the natural sounds such as these leaves were making.

The occasional crow called out, and then for a while there seemed to be no sound. But after a while, a group of blue jays began calling back and forth, perhaps taunting or daring or otherwise saying something in no uncertain terms. And then the quiet returned.

The day seemed to be saying, “Pause and rest. Let stillness and quiet, the distant conversations of birds, and the occasional rustle of leaves – let those replenish you.”

In nearby unit 28, I stopped in a woodland opening amid lots of chickadee calls. One flew to an oak sapling about 20 feet in front of me. I love seeing and hearing chickadees. Today their little community was very fussy.

I sat for a while, but I was torn between wanting to explore (this being my first time in this unit) and wanting to soak up more stillness. Exploring won; there is a strong tug to see what’s around the next corner or over the next rise. Then I could settle in, sit and be still.

The air had hung in there at 66 degrees for some time, but as I thought about how different this day felt from those sunny winter days I’ve experienced, the temperature began to drop. It was not just the gray clouds making this day feel damp and wintery (even if not cold). I glanced down to see the thermometer showing 63 degrees, and a few fine raindrops fell on me.

A few more words and I was done. “Against the winter-gray sky, the bare oak limbs are stark. Even a little grim. The temperature falls and the rain begins.”

The Curmudgeon Returns

The story of this day has a connection to the story of climate change and the pandemics of Covid 19 and of violence. This was an afternoon of sanctuary that felt like freedom, and it was a paradoxical gift from our out-of-whack climate.

Yesterday’s high temperature for the Dallas-Fort Worth area, according to the National Weather Service, was 81F. With the usual caveat that it is hard to know if an individual weather event was caused by climate change, we all know (or should know) that our fossil fuels are harming the climate and bringing crazy weather. Occasionally that crazy weather is absolutely delightful for us humans, like the warm sunny day yesterday, December 5th.

At around 4:00pm I was back at the LBJ National Grasslands in Unit 76 (near Alvord, TX). Under a sprawling mesquite tree, it was 79F under a sunny blue sky. A nearly full moon was rising above a line of oak trees in soft colors of caramel, orange, and yellow-green. I sat in my t-shirt, listening for crows to exchange greetings and thinking how fortunate I was to be there.

Weird to love weather that is a consequence of something monstrous. Warm, sunny weather in late autumn and in winter is among my favorite things. The light is beautiful and in the woods and prairies the range of colors is subtle, lovely and inviting. The smell of leaves returning to soil is like the fermenting of nature’s wine, recycling the year that is ending and preparing for new life. There can be an emotional tone of quiet reflection with a little nostalgia in the peaceful woods. For me, a bright sun and warmth brings all of this out even more strongly. Even a day that is an aberration, with temperatures outside what is normal, can feel this way.

Where is my guilt for loving a gift from climate change? Nowhere. I would gladly give up very warm winter days in return for a climate more like the one I grew up with, if I had that control. I do what I can for a healthy climate and then I enjoy beautiful days, even the weird ones.

The best way to experience a day like this is away from the mechanical grinding and whining from leaf blowers, air conditioners, highways, the constant soundtrack of the world we have built. It becomes a background noise that we pay little attention to and may forget about, but our auditory nerves and our brains are in constant reverberation with it. Go to some place where you are free of it, where it is quiet and the sounds that emerge are birds, water, and breeze, and see if the world doesn’t seem less chaotic and more sensible.

I stood just inside a woodland of oaks and junipers, watching a few stray leaves fall. A wave of breeze whispered and the trees replied “shhh,” while more leaves floated down like snow.

The LBJ National Grasslands can also be a place for solitude. On this day, a group of three people on horseback passed me on the trail, but these were the only people I saw in nearly four hours. Perhaps it’s not that I’m a grumpy old man, a would-be hermit. I’ve shared walks out there with people who have a similar style of walking slowly, noticing things, being attentive to the nature around us, and those are great walks. But there is also great value in just being by yourself.

It’s hard not to see that people are growing more out-of-whack just like the climate, with increasing extremes that do a great deal of harm. I don’t think the pandemic caused it, but it certainly gave a considerable boost to the troubles that are all around us. News reports say that children are in a mental health crisis. The news also tells of a pandemic of violence toward women. Anyone who is a little different (people of color, gay, immigrant, Jewish) is at greater risk. Whatever was going on before, the pandemic pushed us into greater isolation, more job loss, fears of getting sick and dying, and lots of toxic thinking about what and who was causing all this pain.

In the midst of all this, an afternoon in the company of crows and cricket frogs, blackjack oaks and bluestem grasses is an ideal sanctuary. I like it that the origin of that word refers to a holy or sacred and protected space. I remain engaged in the world of people, but for a time I rest in a place that feels like a refuge.

One of the small ponds feels very sheltered, and as you climb down through some erosion there is a gently sloping, sandy bank. I stayed at that pond for a while, sitting and then lying on this bank with my attention captured by little things. A tiny bee mimic fly landed inches from my face where I could see its thin yellow and black banded abdomen. A honeybee buzzed around as if looking for something inches above the sand and finally flew off. A few feet away, a cricket frog took a small hop but was in no hurry. A small snout butterfly swept in, landing on the sand. Intermittently it shifted position until it had turned itself around 360 degrees, and then it flew away. I was happy with these small and interesting companions.

Late in the day, I walked in Unit 76 where there are big open areas of grassland and a few more mesquite trees in higher, well-drained places. The sun was getting lower and the shadows longer. I sat under a mesquite looking across a patch of prairie at a line of oak trees lit by the setting sun. The rest of the landscape was darkening, and the world was still. A nearly full moon was rising in the east, and I watched it climb in the sky framed by mesquite leaves.

A Curmudgeon’s Day in the Grasslands

On November 29th the LBJ National Grasslands had such a fine day that I spent four or five hours there and could have stayed longer. I came away filled with sensory impressions and not a lot of observations of animals (there were some butterflies, a dragonfly, a few vultures, and humans – one with a dog and a gun). It was a mostly quiet day, filled with sunlight, color, the feel of damp sandy soil, and periods of solitude.

I got to the gate at unit 75 (above Cottonwood Lake) about 11:15am, and started down the trail to the northeast. It was sunny and bright, with temperatures already in the 70s. I was passed by a couple, he on his bicycle and she on her horse, who I would see multiple times. They said “hello” with cheerful smiles, and should have taken nothing away from my walk. And yet, solitude is what I was after, so I looked for spots a little off the trail.

A track took me away from the trail and through an ungated and unmarked opening in a fence and out into a long meadow. This seemed to be the separation from society that I was looking for, until the couple crossed in front of me down a small trail. Their momentary presence was no problem, and I got back to sitting and taking some notes. It was 75 degrees and 49% relative humidity in the shade, and it would warm a few more degrees as the day progressed.

I kept following the trail, now headed east through oaks and past small ponds with a few cottonwoods. Scattered yellow cottonwood leaves made a beautiful pathway flecked with gold. When the land rose into a big open prairie, I sought out an old bois d’arc tree and underneath I found clumps of old rose bushes and some green grass like that which might have grown in someone’s yard long ago. Although I didn’t see the remains of any structures, I expect this was once a homestead. Perhaps those rose bushes were planted in a spirit of optimism that did not survive the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.

And then, the couple on the bicycle and horse rode by. Now, every place I went there was an anticipation of their coming and going. I began to feel truly like a curmudgeon. They had as much right to be there as I did, and they were doing nothing to disturb my day. Except for that anticipation that now sat alongside my sense of stillness and openness.

The quiet sound of breeze in the tree tops was joined by a constant mechanical drone. On my way in, I had passed someone mowing the road right of way with a heavy blade on an arm mounted to a tractor. He had now resumed, sounding like heavy road construction going on just over the rise. I walked out of unit 75 and headed north.

Up in unit 15 the “orange” trail snakes along near one of the camping areas and through several other units east of Alvord. I joined the trail at a spot beside Forest Service road 908 and walked westward through woods and little pocket prairies. Here, at 2:00pm, was all the quiet and solitude I could wish for (making allowances for the occasional airplane going to or from DFW). I stretched out on the cool, sandy ground, shaded the sun with my hat and just listened to the sounds of leaves and breeze.

Like most introverts, I have relationships with some people I could not do without, and casual friendships that are important to me. But social gatherings are not a natural habitat for me, and frequently I need to retreat somewhere in nature and spend quiet time. This warm autumn day was so needed, and now the curmudgeon’s heart beats with a little more peace and well-being.

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.

Giving Thanks for Nature Kids

“Nature kids” are those children and young people who appreciate nature and understand its magic. I enjoy writing “Letters to Nature Kids” and offering them to nature kids and their families, and to some adults who may enjoy them as well. This month I wanted to write about gratitude (it will soon be Thanksgiving, and it ought to be Thanksgiving every month). I hope you will download this free issue and share it with anyone who might want to read the letter and see some photos from the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge.

A Cold Walk for the Grasslands Project

On 11/11/22, four of us met at 9:00am in “Unit 30” of the LBJ National Grasslands. It was, ironically, a walk that had been rescheduled from November 4th because of bad weather. The past few days had been unseasonably warm and then, in the hours prior to the walk, the temperature crashed and it rained. I drove up from the metroplex through a light rain and cold wind, wondering if anyone would show up.

At LBJ National Grasslands

However, by the time I got through Decatur, the rain had ended and the clouds were thinner. Driving further north, I pulled off County Road 2560 and hung my thermometer from a nearby little plum tree, noting that the wind felt very cold. After a few minutes the temperature registered as 49 degrees, which is not exactly arctic. The relative humidity was 59% as a result of the morning’s rain.

The Facebook members of the LBJ Grasslands Project include people who are undaunted by an autumn cold front, and soon Debbie pulled in, followed by Sandy and Gary. Soon we were walking through the grasses and talking about little bluestem, Indiangrass, and how fire enables the prairie to survive.

It’s a fairly short walk down to the woodland with its oaks and junipers. We stopped just inside the trees and I recalled another quiet November day when I was here with Meghan, listening as waves of breeze moved through the woods. The movement dislodged a few leaves and we could hear them impact the branches, so deep was the quiet.

Some oak leaves were changing color, and it seems that along this trail it is smaller oaks, seedlings and saplings, that are most likely to turn. We followed the trail through yellow grasses, deep green junipers, and a few oaks with splashes of color.

A young blackjack oak with a lipstick smear of red

Further along, through the reddish sand and mud of the trail, we reached a spot where a short detour from the trail brought us to a little pond. Like the earlier place on the trail, this was a spot with memories attached to it. A couple of years ago I watched the late afternoon sun reflected off ripples in the pond, creating ribbons of light on the opposite bank in the dark shade of junipers and other trees. I wrote about those few minutes of small-scale wonder in the book on mindfulness in Texas nature that is now in the publication process.

The little pond, even smaller now due to the ongoing drought

Mindfulness is one of the things we touch on in walks for the LBJ Grasslands Project. People can visit the grasslands in a lot of ways including mindful attention and also a science-based intellectual analysis. My earliest visits were focused on finding and observing reptiles and amphibians, with thoughts and discussion with companions about where they might be, how species interact with each other, looking for characteristics that allow us to identify species and subspecies, and judgments about whether we were successful in the field. Birders, botanists, and other specialists can be caught up in much the same kinds of intellectual activities. A lot of good can come from such observing and questioning.

However, I found that it was important for me to set aside time to experience the grasslands directly, without filtering it through the lens of intellectual understanding or the success of my searching. I spent more time practicing mindfulness – being more quiet inside and out, not letting thoughts snag me away from what was happening right here and right now. Maintaining my attention on sights, sounds, and even smells and touch would make a walk more vivid and detailed.

In LBJ Grasslands Project walks, we make time for several ways to experience the prairies and woods, including some discussion and nature interpretation, and some time for mindfulness (especially when participants say they would like to spend some time on mindfulness practice). And we encourage participants to express themselves about what they have experienced. Nature journaling is an opportunity to reflect on our time in nature, often making that time more meaningful and consolidating memories. Sometimes people write a letter to the grasslands, and that often brings out expressions of gratitude and a sense of relationship to the place.

Junipers surrounding a little oak

Today’s walk was cold, yes, but also beautiful. When the grasses and trees are wet from rain or fog, their colors are often deepened. It was quiet and we seemed to have the place to ourselves (not that it is ever crowded), bundled up and delighted with the world around us.

Fort Worth Nature Center, October 30

It was a sunny mild autumn day and impossible to stay inside, and so I climbed up to the ridge at the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge to visit Lone Point Shelter. The narrow path hugs the ridge, and on the last part you climb a series of stone steps.

Lone Point, when built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935, offered a wooden roof as shelter, but now all that remains is the rock framework. Still you can sit on the inside rock ledges like benches, perfect for having a snack or writing in a nature journal.

Historic photo, from a sign at FW Nature Center & Refuge

I sat on the rock bench at 2:22pm, and it was sunny with scattered puffy clouds and a slight cool breeze. It was 74 degrees (and 46% relative humidity, according to the thermometer/hygrometer that I carry with me). Back to the northwest and away from Lake Worth, the trail circles a beautiful savannah with live oak, cedar elm, and open areas with grasses, prickly pear cactus, and Arkansas yucca.

Butterflies were everywhere – small yellow ones flying along the ground, bigger ones with pale yellow or brilliant yellow-orange bouncing among the yucca and cacti, American snouts, a red admiral, a hackberry emperor, and a big swallowtail (probably a tiger swallowtail from my glimpse of the yellow and black pattern before it disappeared around a possumhaw bush.

An American snout (lower center), camouflaged among the fallen brown leaves
A clouded yellow butterfly caught in flight

I chewed a few juniper berries, which I think were not fully ripe but they did have a little of that wonderful aromatic taste. It was warm (79 degrees) but still very comfortable, and the sky was a clear and fairly deep blue. I walked back to the Lone Point structure thinking that today was really remarkable and feeling very grateful.

Here the savannah slopes down toward woodland
A common buckeye

I would gladly have stayed, watched the shadows lengthen and seen the sunset, but the refuge was going to close. I looked around and this beautiful place a little more, got a glimpse of Lake Worth below the ridge, and headed back down toward home.

Words and Experience

On my back fence a vine grows, with fairly large heart-shaped leaves, light green in the sunlight and a deeper shade in the shadows. The leaves are spaced alternately along the stems, and each one has a serrated edge or margin. A central vein grows to the tip of the leaf and smaller veins branch off and extend to the margins. The veins make a delicately embossed pattern on the plain green leaf. 

At least for today, I don’t care what the vine is called or to what category of plants it belongs. It is enough to see the green of the leaves and see the vein-embossed, saw-toothed little hearts that they make. If I knew the name, would I have walked over to look closely at the details? Maybe. But I might have thought, “Oh, that’s what it is,” and my curiosity could have ended with the name. I could have remembered that the leaves are alternate and have serrated edges and bypassed a few moments of beauty and symmetry.

After a lifetime of nature study, I’m not likely to swear off an interest in the names and classification of species. I’m just trying to guard against a preoccupation with names and concepts that can pull me away from directly experiencing the living thing itself. I’m trying to remember that the words are no substitute for seeing form and color, feeling texture and thickness, and smelling the sweet, musky, or other aromas of nature. The words and the experience are two different things, each of them valuable, and neither one a substitute for the other. 

I’m not one of those who dismiss “book-learning” in favor of real-world experience. I really value the verbal concepts we use to understand the world and I love books (and have even written a few). When it comes to the natural world, the people I know whose intellectual understanding is the most thorough are also people who have spent countless hours immersed in nature. They embody the idea that both intellect and experience are of great value.

What I really mean is that we should be able to fully experience nature, opening ourselves directly to it in its raw form before chopping it into fragments that fit within conceptual boxes and covering it with a verbal interface so that we can only contact it through concepts like “turtles of the family Emydidae” or “saprophyte.” In my own wandering outside, I don’t want trees, butterflies, wetlands and sunsets to be less vivid because they are filtered through my intellectual understanding of them.