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.

“Letters to Nature Kids”

I’m adding something new: free, downloadable “Letters to Nature Kids” that I will write from time to time. As I noted on the page for this publication, we “don’t send letters so much any more, but a good letter can feel like part of a long-distance conversation, informal and personal.” The first issue is only a few pages of text and photos, that includes a little information about wasps, egrets, turtles, and trees, without getting in-depth. The idea is for the natural history facts to be incidental to the telling of a story about something (in this case, about a walk I took at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge).

We will see how future letters go; they probably will not all be about future walks I’ll take. They might be about a particular kind of animal or plant, or something about how people and nature are related. In each one my purpose will be to “send” a letter to anyone who enjoys nature and would like to share a little bit of it. Readers might be around ten or older – including adults who, like me, can be “nature kids” at any age.

I hope you or someone you know will enjoy it. And I hope you’ll let me know what works and doesn’t work, what topics would be good. Please – write back to me!

“What Makes It Strong?” – Teaching Kids About Nature

I’ve been busy lately writing and putting together a couple of free downloadable PDF publications, one of which was the June issue of “The Treefrog Times.” In that issue, I wanted to include a little fun exercise for kids to think about what strengthens wings to enable birds and insects to fly. I drew a feather with no central shaft and a dragonfly whose wings had no veins. I said that “you can’t fly with floppy wings” and asked kids to draw in what was needed. Today I challenged six-year-old Elijah (see “Passing the Creek Along to a New Generation“) to figure this one out. It was such fun!

After a quick glance at a photo of a feather, he drew in the shaft, and a look at a dragonfly photo helped him do the same for the dragonfly. Elijah then wanted to challenge me, and he started sketching things to see if I could draw in what would make it stronger. He sketched things like moth wings and a plant’s leaves, easily transferring these ideas about structural strength. Then he sketched a pig and asked me what made it stronger. Strong and not floppy? Well of course – bones! I sketched them in, and then it was my turn to challenge him. I sketched a bat so we could talk about the arms and “fingers” that support bat wings, and I also sketched a skeletal turtle (inspired by the pig) and asked what made the shell strong. He didn’t hesitate a second to draw a series of plates. He might have been thinking about the external scutes rather than underlying bony plates, but that was fine with me – plenty close enough for the six-year-old’s version of a herpetology lesson!

What a blast we had, and his understanding of the animals was strengthened in the process – wow, a bat’s wing is really kind of like a hand?! If you know someone that might have a blast with this, go to the Treefrog Times page at jsdragons.com and download the June issue (the one that starts with an article for folks who are a little older, about reptiles surviving summer’s heat). Have fun!

A Project for the Next Couple of Years

Great Egret (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Over the next couple of years I will be traveling once again to various places in Texas for a new writing project that will also include great photos from my friend Meghan Cassidy. I want to explore ways to connect with nature, what happens to us when that connection happens, and the range of beauty and diversity found in Texas nature.

Palo Duro Canyon (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

The importance of nature is a theme that caught hold of me early in life and I’m grateful that it will never let go. When I was in the 7th or 8th grade, I remember reading about a proposed dam that would have flooded portions of the Grand Canyon. I gave a class presentation about it, arguing that the Grand Canyon must be saved. I was a committed nature nerd, then and now.

Gray Treefrog (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Fast forward to the publication in 2018 of Clint King’s and my book, Herping Texas. Yes, we are both herp nerds with lots of stories of rattlesnakes, treefrogs and the like, but the message of the book is, “Look at the magnificent places that exist in Texas and the richness of plants and animals that can give so much pleasure if you get out there and walk among them.” Reptiles and amphibians are the sweet spot for us, but all if it is a breathtaking treasure, and more of it disappears every single day.

Bluestem and Blackjack Oak at Southwest Nature Preserve (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Now this year will see the publication of my book, The Wild Lives of Reptiles and Amphibians. As the title suggests, the point of the book is not that pet snakes are cool, but rather that wild populations of native herps are some of the most fascinating and beautiful things you can experience. And further, that the best way to experience them is where they live, in the wild. And not only that, the last chapter is a call for young people “to be a voice for the wild places in this country and the plants and animals that live in them.”

Rough Greensnake (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Ladybird Beetle (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

And now there is this new project in which I am teaming up with Meghan Cassidy, a photographer who can capture landscapes and wildlife in beautiful images. We will visit each of the state’s ecoregions, just as Clint and I did, but this time focusing on all kinds of plants and animals and how we can deepen our connection to those places. I will describe the use of mindfulness, nature journaling, and other ways to experience the prairies, deserts, mountains, woods and wetlands. We will include narratives and photos from each of the seasons – bare trees and golden prairies on sunny winter days, the return of spring with its flowers and frog calls, the hot desert summer and cool dark nights in the Big Bend, and the low-slanting sunlight and bright colors of autumn.

Prairie Dogs (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Meghan capturing a mushroom (photo by Michael Smith)

Time spent in nature is associated with a wide range of benefits to physical and mental health, and I will summarize some of the relevant research. I’ll talk to a few ecotherapists in Texas who are taking people into the wild and include some perspectives based on my own training and experience as a Psychological Associate. While there is no one way to spend time in nature, I will describe some ways that can increase a sense of connectedness and openness to the experience.

Spider – mother and child reunion (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
The ants’ challenge (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Meghan’s images will speak with their own language about the wonder and fascination to be found in nature. Whether bringing a bird up close with a telephoto lens, capturing a miniature world with macro photography, or laying out the details of a landscape, her photos beautifully illustrate what can be seen in the diverse ecoregions of Texas. Together, I think we will tell the story of Texas nature in a way that will stay in your imagination and, hopefully, inspire you to spend time in some beautiful place, quiet and fully present.

Smooth Softshell Turtle (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Osprey with lunch (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Sunset at LBJ National Grasslands (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Moonlight

Walking down a moonlit path in the forest, the trees on either side were dark sentinels, dimly seen but keenly felt. They held this place together with an underground network of roots, weaving the soil and rocks of the bottomland into one tapestry of living things. The last season’s leaves gave that fabric its pattern and colors, visible tonight only as shades of dark and light. On the path, in the moonlight, the leaves were edged in a faint silver-blue.

But above the trees, there was light. The moon looked on, her face a pale disc. In the surrounding blue-black sky, an uncounted field of stars shone in frozen pinpoints of light. At the edges of the sky, the trees reached up with bare branches, like river deltas dividing into ever-smaller paths, like the blood vessels of the earth reaching toward the stars.

That field of stars reminded me of a summer night in this very spot when fireflies blinked into existence in the dark forest, three and then twenty, and then more, swirling among the tree branches. It was as if the stars had come down from heaven to dance for a time here on earth, before returning to their cold stillness.

A low, hooting call brought me back to this night. Somewhere in the distance, a barred owl was signaling his presence. The deep quiet resumed for a time, but then, toward the river, there was a sound like the cracking of a big branch. Was it the weight of time, finally bringing part of a dead tree to the ground? A powerful animal, passing through a tangle of brittle branches? It stirred some unquiet thing within me.

Still, the luminous moon sailed in the sky. No sound disturbed her. No calamity could change her serene expression. Paradoxically, in her stillness it was as if she was speaking to me.

“Peace! Do not be troubled. Nothing happens here that is not part of life’s story. Tomorrow the forest will be here, strong and beautiful. Let your troubles go, and see the sunrise!”

Thankfulness on the Lost Mine Trail

A view from the Lost Mine Trail, in the Chisos Mountains

On June 19 of 2018, I hiked most of the way up the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains within Big Bend National Park, and lost myself for a while in the silence and beauty and peace of the place. I wrote the following:


In one of Beethoven’s final string quartets (Op. 132), he wrote a slow, hymn-like movement titled, “Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity,” expressing his gratitude as he recovered from a serious illness. (An absolutely mind-blowing deconstruction and analysis of what Beethoven does in this incredible movement can be seen and heard here.) It is a profound, beautiful hymn, not sweet or sentimental, but exactly as I imagine how his soul would express what it means to be alive, in the full realization of how easily life could be gone.

I am hearing the opening notes of that quartet movement now, sitting on a bench in the Chisos Mountains. I have not had a close brush with death such as Beethoven had, but I do have deep gratitude for experiences like today’s walk up the Lost Mine Trail. Here, there is a sense of connection and healing of things that are broken, in a sanctuary where troubles cannot reach. No gift could be more appreciated than this.

Within the mountain woodland

It is completely quiet except for occasional distant thunder, birdsong here and there, and the beginning sounds of insects here at the end of the day. I keep returning to this theme, how genuine quiet brings such tranquility. That is especially true here in the calm mountain woodland just before sunset. The hikers have gone. Even the knowledge that black bears live on these slopes does not cause concern, perhaps because it is one more indication of how raw and unspoiled this place is.

Here I am, after sixty-seven years still able to climb this trail – not that it is an especially difficult feat – and sit in the silence, watching the shadows lengthen and listening to the song of this earth, uninterrupted by noise. It is a rare privilege in a world that spins and spins, this opportunity to sit still.

Blue-green spikes of Havard agaves on the mountain slopes

A thunderhead builds, and I watch it expand and drift this way. The thunder is still distant, one of those sounds that can be so relaxing from afar. The long, slanting rays of the sun highlight the tops of piñon pine and Emory oak. A nearby solitary bird trills and occasionally chirps, as the clouds turn rose-colored and the last light glows on the mountaintops. Soon it will be dark, and I will have to go, but I will remember these moments of solitude in the Chisos Mountains.

Our Lives in Nature

Caddo National Grasslands

In late January of 2018 I visited Caddo National Grasslands for the first time. I walked through the quiet winter forest alone, enjoying the solitude but also wanting to see the open patches of grassland that I knew had to be there. I finally found it at the end of the day, and later I wrote about those moments:

“The sparrows might call with their high-pitched ‘stip,’ and dormant grasses might crunch as I walked, but such sounds did not have to compete with highway noise or other mechanized sounds. It was quiet, in a way that perfectly framed the occasional bird call. Here was a refuge, a sanctuary in that original sense of a sacred place. Like so many other natural places that have barely been touched by human activity, it was a place where the ‘noise’ of everyday life could be stripped away, down to the experience of the garden in which we originally lived. That garden feels like home, even if most of us would not know how to live there now. It can be a brutal world of predator and prey, unforgiving of accidents or sickness, but in our sprint through the modern world we might be forgiven if we romanticize that world just a little, and want to step away and stand in the late afternoon sunlight and listen to the birds.”

Moments like those are important to me, and worth sharing with others. I didn’t see anything of great biological importance, but I experienced something of psychological, maybe spiritual importance. It might be some individual quirk of mine, that the solitude and golden light in the savannah grassland worked such magic, but I don’t think so. Many other people have similar experiences in nature, perceptions and feelings that transcend the simple reality of grasses and leaves. They may experience a sense of peace and joy, wrapped in that moment and that place. Past and future concerns drop away and for a while do not exist – only the present, only right here and right now.

Savannah Sparrow

This is an example of what is referred to as “mindfulness,” a practice that is now widely used in therapy and mental health. It is not new; it has much in common with meditation techniques that have been used for centuries. A focus on the present moment, letting go of thoughts about the past or future, quieting the inner discussion in which we evaluate what is happening, simply accepting our current experience – these things happen in meditation. You do not have to be out in some quiet, isolated spot in nature to practice mindfulness, but for many of us, nature makes it easy to let everything go and be at peace.

Our connection with nature has been explored by lots of people, in many ways. Famed biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote about the “biophilia hypothesis,” the idea that our species is wired to be attracted to other life as a result of evolution. Researchers are testing how humans respond to experiences in nature, compared with experiences in urban settings. They are finding numerous benefits, in terms of stress hormones, ruminative or depressive thinking, and so on, when we spend time in nature. 

In this blog, I want to explore some of these ideas. What does it mean to say that a particular time spent in nature was “spiritual” or gave rise to states of mind that seem spiritual? Are the health benefits of time in nature (such as in the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”) real and significant, or just the opinions and testimonials of people who simply want to believe?

I also want to simply share experiences in the field. I have written a lot about the natural history of reptiles and amphibians and I often wear the “natural scientist” hat while writing about nature facts. As important as the objective findings of science are, the subjective experience might be just as important. Words are usually inadequate to communicate the beauty and meaning of these experiences, but I have to try to do so because such things cannot be kept quiet. 

I hope you will join me in this exploration, and I hope that you post a comment if something resonates with you or if you have another way of looking at something that can expand the discussion.