Writing for Nature Journaling
Writing can be a tool and a toy in a nature journal.
It is a way to record, riff, rap and roll your thoughts and feelings deliciously on to the page. Text is simply images that communicate language.
Ideally use your first or home language, the language that speaks to and from your heart. In South Africa, this might be Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Pedi, Afrikaans, Swati, Tsonga, Venda, Ndebele, ǂNūkhoegowab/ Khoekhoegowa/Nama or French, Portuguese, other one of dozens of other languages.
Text can be single letters, words, lists, phrases, paragraphs, poetry and stories that fill or wander around and through pages.
You can fill your journal page with words. You can use words with a few images or symbols. You can use words as a brief reference to the date, time and place of an entry, or as labels and notes to images.
Try making a space on your pages to write your reflections on each nature journal entry or session. These reflections can also be for a series of entries made over a week, month, year, or decade.
When writing in your nature journal, relax.
Let go of worries about:
Forming complete sentences or words
“Attractiveness” of writing
Writing can be personal and private for self-reflection, self-awareness and self-expression.
Text can serve as a reference to complement photos, audio or video recordings.
Communicate with others - write down new words and check with person who is sharing their knowledge - names of things, places, people in a language that you know or that you are learning.
Natural history illustrators use words to describe their study subjects in preparation for a final work.
Text can be a design element. Think of text as a shape on the page.
Try this activity:
"Writing to Observe, Writing to Think" part of the collection under "Words: Articulated Thought and Storytelling" from John Muir Laws' and Emilie Lygren's website How to Teach Nature Journaling. This downloadable activity is an excerpt from their book "How to Teach Nature Journaling".
Students focus on a subject in nature and practice using different writing approaches to capture their observations and thinking."
Writing develops your skills and can be inspired by others
John Tallmadge's essay "Writing as a Window into Nature" in the booklet "Into the Field: A Guide to Locally Focused Teaching" is a valuable resource. It is only available in print. This is a sample of what he understands about what writing brings to nature journaling:
"... We have always looked to the nature writers to reveal stories in the land,
but how did the stories first emerge for the writers?
We think of writing as a means of expression, but it can also be used, as Thoreau knew, for exploration and discovery.
An attentive writing practice can extend perception like a microscope or an ultraviolet light to reveal the unseen dimensions of our home places.
And eventually, it can create stories that communicate those realities and their significance to other people." page 5
"... writing is a deliberate but largely unconscious act: words and ideas originate in the subconscious and are brought to the surface by noting them down." page 7
John Tallmadge offers this advice (page 8):
"The secret of writing is; to write. (Because you must start at all costs.)
Don't get it right; get it written. (Because the editor should get involved later.)
Inspiration is bunk. (Because imagination always works, all of the time.)"
He shares this exercise (page 8) "... to explore ideas and practice composition skills."
"Peter Elbow's Freewriting -
Write for a set time (3 to 5 minutes) on anything that comes into your head.
You can't stop to think, you can't correct anything, and you must use complete sentences.
Read over your writing and underline the strongest word or phrase.
Write these at the top of a new page, and do another freewriting.
Then report a third time. Ask yourself what you felt and thought during this exercise."
The writing skills you develop can be both creative and technical, scientific and cultural.
Writings from others can also inspire and focus your attention: quotes, titles, words that inspire, perplex or move you. Reflections on each nature journal entry or session. These reflections can be for individual entries or a series made over a period of time (week, month, year).
Writings by others can inspire you to connect more deeply and meaningfully with nature. Examples include:
“Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses” Illustrated Edition
by Robin Wall Kimmerer
“A Single Swallow: Following the Migration from South Africa to South Wales” by Horatio Clare, 2010 Vintage ISBN 9780099526315
“Taken Captive by Birds: A Memoir by Marguerite Poland” illustrated by Craig Ivor, 2012 Penguin Books ISBN 978-0-14-353044-2
“Island Africa: The Evolution of Africa’s Rare Animals and Plants” by Jonathan Kingdon 1989 Princeton University Press
For more on writing in nature journaling, check out:
Emilie Lygren - Interweaving science and poetry Journaling with Nature podcast, Episode 34, 26 April 2021.
What Comes Naturally: The Science and Soul of Nature Writing (video) discussion between four science writers: two of whom - Emilie Lygren and John Muir Laws - are also nature journalers and co-authors of How To Teach Nature Journaling, as well as Obi Kaufmann, The State of Water and Josie Iselin, The Curious World of Seaweed.
“Why Storytelling Matters For Science” a talk by Ed Yong and Liz Neeley. This quote
"Stories are not just tools for understanding the world, Yong and Neeley said. They also shape science and our conception of scientists."
Reported by Emily Tian in Yale Daily News 25 September 2019.