Drawing observations from nature is one of the oldest human activities. Over many thousands of years, we have used drawing to keep track of plants we use for medicine, animals we hunt, and changing positions of the rising sun. Keeping a nature journal can be a casual activity, just pausing a few minutes with a sketchbook… or it can be precise and formal, such as when documenting scientific data in a field notebook.

Some journals have a theme, such as the seed journal above, or the journal below that documented a journey to Cabo Blanco on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica.

I’ve been keeping field journals and sketchbooks for years and I love to look back at them — not just to reminisce, but also to compare older records of natural history with what I observe in the present. As our climate changes, as we lose habitats and species, records kept in nature journals will become more critical in understanding how the environment will adapt.

But ultimately, nature journaling is not about the finished thing, it’s about the act of drawing. When I draw in a field journal I slow down and look carefully, and in that pause for close observation, I always notice new things. For that reason, I find it’s a great tool for teaching.

The drawing above is a simple thing I sketched in five minutes — just a pipevine flower, common enough where I live in the Appalachian mountains, and I’ve looked at them for years. But until I stopped to sketch it, I had never noticed the bract just at the base of the flower’s stem.

I enjoy making little accordion-folded journals that I can tuck into a backpack, and that later I can display vertically on a wall. In this little journal, I focused on Witch’s Hat Galls. These galls are made by an aphid called Hormaphis hamamelidis. The female causes the leaf to form a cone-shaped tumor around her, and that gall becomes both food and shelter as she (ideally) raises 50-70 clonal daughters. In some of the galls I examined, instead of baby aphids I found other critters, which I documented through these drawings and notes. Gall-making insects are often parasitized, and galls are later taken over by insects other than the original gall-maker. This one was no exception.

I have kept this particular journal hanging on my wall for years, mainly because it reminds me of the excitement of discovery that comes from close observation and drawing in the field. Every day I pass by it, it tempts me to grab my nature journal and hit the trail.

Want to join me? Learn about nature journaling workshops and other activities by visiting my teaching page.