Home and Back Again
Take your nature journaling to new levels by:
Reflecting on your records and experiences
Connecting your nature journal to other interests, projects and people
Create a Foundation for Learning
A learning mindset is essential to developing your skills. If you do not believe that you can learn how to do something, your brain believes you. Remind yourself these are not talents or abilities, but skills that you can learn.
Reflective practice is important to making progress. As you practise, think about what you have done, how you have done it, what you want to keep doing, and how you will do it differently the next time. Successful practice relies on your persistence, patience and compassion for yourself.
Nature Journaling Skills
“We assume that if we can see, then we know how to observe.
But true observation is a skill that we must practice & learn.”
“Observation does not happen with your senses;
it happens in your brain!”
John Muir Laws
Your eyes, ears, nose and skin collect information that is sent to your brain. Your brain processes these inputs into perceptions from which you create an understanding of your experiences.
Sometimes, the way our brain processes sensory information can lead to misunderstandings and mistakes. However, we can train our brains with experiences! The same way we have learned to communicate, read, write, and speak.
There is much more happening than your brain take in. To deal with this information overload it:
Tunes out inputs not needed for immediate tasks
Has mental gaps and blind spots
Is wired for survival, so prioritises hearing sounds, seeing movement and jumping to conclusions
Attempts to make meaning of sensory input. Meaning is made from our experiences, the languages we speak, etc.
How can we become better observers?
Learn the difference between observation and identification, opinions, feelings, and possible explanations of an observation.
Deep observation needs a focus and a strategy for externalising observations (John Muir Laws and Emilie Lygren).
Softly talking aloud, recording on paper, or on a voice recorder are ways to process your observations. Your brain works differently when you think to yourself than it does when you speak or record thoughts and feelings on paper with numbers, musical notation, or other symbols.
Where do you place content on a page? There are at least three ways. One, you record things as you do in the way you usually write. For the English language, we start at the top, left-hand side of a page, and continue left to right to the bottom of the page. Two, record things in the order, arrangement and format that appeals to you. The spontaneity of this approach can also remove the pressure of achieving “perfect page or nature journal entry.” Third, plan your page as graphic designers do, or as photographers compose a photo. For more on this go to Pulling it All Together.
A powerful tool is to use “I notice ...” as you begin to describe your observations. It is a prompt to observe and to pay attention.
Choose a specific part of nature that you love or that interests you. If you have a wide range of interests, choose the one for which you have subject matter close to hand.
Here are some exercises that are fun to play with. They are helpful in developing your naturalist skills and can contribute to you being a better birder, botanist, writer, artist, environmental activist and nature journaler.
Create Individual- or Species-level accounts
Label parts of habitats, animals, plants, fungi, water, weather, landforms, the sky during day or night, to help you identify and make sense of what you notice.
Form and function – Label parts of things like different shapes of bird wings, animal arms and limbs, fungi, habitats, land and water forms. Imagine and explore possible functions.
Make Collections on your journal pages – draw, describe in words or make rubbings of leaf shapes, types of tree bark; create a page or list of birds seen and heard, of all species of flowers in bloom of one colour; findings in one spot like a tidal pool, on the beach or one square metre of ground, types of moss, lichen, fungi, findings on a beach, scat/poo, animal prints or spoor, cloud types.
Make comparisons and contrasts – similar species of plants, or of similar-looking but different types of plants, animals, fungi etc. For example, aloes with knifophia, cycads with ferns and palms, insects with spiders, dragonflies with damselflies, or different habitats.
Make your own field guides for one or more places. In addition to plants, animals and fungi you can create a field guide on:
Habitats, spaces/places, paths
Soil, rocks, land formations
Timelines of flowers from buds to seed or fruit, geological and human history of a place, behaviour and interactions of wildlife, shadows at different times of day.
Notice change and causation - shoreline shape and movement, temperatures, light and shadow, effects of humans and our behaviours on habitat and wildlife. What is different before and during pandemic lockdowns?
Practice these at home, and you will be better able to use them as tools in the field.
You can also develop these exercises into projects that connect your experiences in the field with your activities at home.
The information above is adapted from:
“How to Teach Nature Journaling: Curiosity, Wonder, Attention" John Muir Laws and Emilie Lygren March 2020. Available as a free download during the pandemic lockdown/shelter at home from either author’s website John Muir Laws or Emilie Lygren
"The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling" John Muir Laws in collaboration with Emilie Lygren, pages 18-57.
BEETLES List of All Student Activities
”Curiosity is not a trait you are born with. It is a skill that you can develop and refine with practice. It is more essential than any drawing trick or tool and can make a nature journal burst to life.”
John Muir Laws
People tend to notice when something is different than they had expected. When you give attention to small surprises, you can train your brain to notice these moments.
Pause and ask yourself a question. A useful way to start is with “I notice this is different than I expected.”
Then ask a question. Start the question with “I wonder…”. Then explore who, what, when, where, how and why. Ask questions about your question. How many levels of questions can you find?
Creativity thrives on curiosity, playfulness, and joy. It arises from making unexpected associations and connections. Creativity is developed when you use different approaches, processes, and perspectives in relation to the same subject. It grows when you ask multiple questions. Use brainstorming and mind maps to come up with diverse ideas and possibilities.
To develop your creativity, try new things, experiment, question your assumptions embrace being wrong, enjoy seeing life from different perspectives, and connect with diverse communities.
Examples of changing your point of view
Zoom in: Zoom out
Different types of cross-sections
Landscape - From Above – From Below
Look Up – Look Down – Look All Around
If I were a (fill in the blank), I might notice or feel…
Nature journal with a different perspective - Explore ideas here
Link up with nature journalers with different perspectives, approaches and experiences. Expand your world by connecting with people from languages, cultures, socio-economic realities different than your own.
They all work together - Observation, Attention, Curiosity and Creativity
I notice ...
I wonder ...
It reminds me of...
Are prompts for observation, curiosity and connection that all encourage creativity.
We are translating these into various languages. To date, we have translations into isiZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans, German, Dutch and Swedish. Download a copy here.
Make a Plan
Begin by identifying the skills you want to develop.
If you want to develop a complex skill like mapping or drawing, choose one part of a skill at a time. If you want to develop your drawing, writing or use of numbers in your nature journal, you will need to decide what parts of the skills are involved in something more complex.
Practise with exercises that use that skill for at least a week, or ten or more times.
Have a starting point (remember to put a date on every page) as a point of comparison so that you can see your progress, and where you are getting stuck. For example, if you want to improve your drawing speed in the field, try exercises with gesture drawing.
Get to know subjects at home before you observe them in the field. A popular, and fun, subject is birds. It works just as well with any subject: animal, plant, fungi, habitat, sky, space, etc. This practice at home trains your brain to record these subjects more quickly and accurately when you are in the field.
Check out John Muir Laws blog for excellent guidance:
Quantity, not Quality blog post and video
Pencil Miles blog post
Journal More, Journal Better blog post
Kung Fu Naturalist blog post
What are your thoughts on this section of the Nature Journaler’s Code of Conduct:
“I learn by practicing my nature journaling skills. I learn in multiple ways. Much of my learning is from others, who in turn have learned from those who nature journaled before. I acknowledge and respect people and sources of knowledge.[ii]
I benefit from the knowledge shared by indigenous peoples with colonialists. The early European explorers are attributed with “discovering” and naming many species that are known today. I seek to counter the erasure of indigenous languages and peoples in developing the current state of science.”
Before you step out
Take care of practical matters, so that you are prepared to enjoy and deal with issues that may come up in the field.
Things – supplies and kit, appropriate clothing, first aid, food and liquids, keep a nature journal kit with you at all times.
Information - know where you are going if you are venturing out beyond home ground. How long do you plan to go? What are the predicted weather and other conditions?
Safety and re-assurance of others – have emergency contact details, and contact reserve managers if going into a nature reserve or national park.
Pause and focus on your mindset. Is your attitude primed to expect wonder, notice it in the small moments of the unexpected, and connect with nature?
Decide on your focus. You can choose to focus on observations that arise. You can choose to record your stream of consciousness.
If nature overwhelms you, choose what to focus on before going outside. Make a note of it in your nature journal.
Projects are another useful way of focusing your attention. See “What to Put on a Journal Page” for ideas.
Back Home Again
Take care of practical matters: remember to unpack and restock your kit, recharge electronic devices, download, sort, label and back-up photos, and dispose of trash.
Deepen your nature connection with reflection and connection.
It can be fun and satisfying to look back over your pages. You can create a reflection section in your nature journal, or in a separate journal. It may be something that you do every time, sometimes, or never.
If you do reflect on your pages, here are some ideas:
Reflect on what you recorded and your observations. Is there something that you want to come back to at another time – a plant, a habitat, etc? What was the most surprising or interesting observation that you made about the most recent entries?
Is there a pattern emerging across your various entries? Perhaps an underlying connection, or message?
How do you feel now? Compare it to how you felt during the session?
What made nature journaling easier or more difficult?
Do you have too much in your kit? Did you run out of something? Is there something that you would like to have next time?
For more examples of reflection prompts see Things to Put on a Nature Journal Page.
See Putting It All Together for ideas from pulling a page together to ways to make your nature journal easier to use as a reference.
… Bush to books
Ask questions, look up information and answers to questions.
Identify things you saw and heard. Identification can open a door to learning more. Learn how to use identification keys to open those doors.
Follow-up on things you want to learn more about through reading. If you find something different from your observations, make a note of the difference. Avoid the temptation “to correct” the details. If the flower you saw was pink, and the book says red, that doesn’t mean the book is “correct”. Your observation is important and valid.
… Pages to Personal, programmatic or professional projects
Transfer information or pages into
Personal Field guides based on your observations, records and research
Species studies, for example, Purple-crested Turaco
Species comparisons within a genus such as Erythrina
Lists: bird, mammals, insects, plants, global life and place-specific lists
… Contribute to Citizen Science Projects
Start with iNaturalist.
Then join and contribute to one of the many South African projects on the iNaturalist platform.
Share your entries, experiences, and reflections with a community of nature journalers
at home or abroad.
Nature Journal South Africa (subscribe to our mailing list at the bottom of the page)
The Nature Journal Club on Facebook (started by John Muir Laws)
There are nature journal groups in many parts of the world. Find a club here.