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Nature Journals: An Enduring Marriage of Art and Literature

nature journal
Deb Crowder has taught elementary, junior high and high school art, and has been a senior high art teacher at Monadnock Regional Junior-Senior High School in Swanzey, New Hampshire for the past twenty-one years. She recently completed requirements for a M.Ed degree from Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, NH.

On a bright, sunny, but chilly April morning, I was accompanying my second period Art 4 class through our high school’s back parking lot, when suddenly there was a flurry of squealing and excited gestures from several of my junior and senior girls. “EEEUUU!” Jess exclaimed, as Julie pointed at a large, brown waterbug on the pavement. My class gathered around to marvel, mostly with revulsion, at the size of it, and Julie immediately decided to name it “Pierre.” I feared the waterbug was doomed in the parking lot, so I carefully picked up the motionless insect and carried him on my sketchbook out to the stand of large old white pines where we were planning to draw in our nature journals. I set Pierre on the ground where he could pose for those who decided to draw him. He revived after sitting in the sun and moved around, but he was quiet long enough for several of us to make a sketch of him. I recorded this event with a drawing of Pierre and a narrative in my nature journal, and know that when I look at that entry years from now I will be transported back to that morning and enjoy the fond recollection of my students reacting to Pierre the waterbug.

That day my class was experiencing our first outing to draw in our nature journals. The practice of drawing objects and scenes in nature from direct observation seems to manifest from an innate human tendency to be curious about natural history. The desire to study natural forms—animals, plants, atmosphere, earth—closely and record them as drawn images is as obvious in the caves at Lascaux as it is throughout the subsequent history of human civilization. It was evident in the work of German artist Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), as well as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who dedicated many pages of his voluminous notebooks to intense documentation of flora and fauna. It has likely been a common experience of people of many varied interests throughout time to have found themselves outside, looking at nature, capturing that moment with words or images or both, whether they be artists, writers, scientists or simply those who are fascinated with wild things.

A collection of drawings of natural subjects that are accentuated with hand-written notes describing details have come to be commonly called “nature journals.” Notable American artists who are known to have drawn and written about natural objects in sketchbooks include Winslow Homer, James Audubon, Roger Tory Peterson and Abbott Thayer. Lewis and Clark recorded their discoveries during their explorations by keeping meticulous journals that included drawings and writings. There are numerous contemporary naturalist artists who have published books inspired by the practice of keeping nature journals, including Aleta Karstad, Clare Walker Leslie, and David Carroll.

The creation of the nature journal has proven to be one of the most enduring forms of the marriage of art and literature throughout the journey of mankind. It is also one of the most accessible forms of art in that it requires only a few simple materials. Subject matter is infinite and usually readily available, and it does not require a background in visual arts to draw and write in a journal. It is an activity that is enjoyable to young and old alike, and many schools, nature centers and college environmental studies programs have incorporated nature journaling as part of backyard habitat explorations.

nature journalThe act of observing and recording nature offers numerous benefits. It requires close attention. It improves drawing skills. It encourages notation of detail and the act of reflection. Most importantly, it can nurture an appreciation even for the most apparently insignificant natural beings. It can also foster a love of place and can inspire positive actions to protect and preserve the natural environment. That inspiration can in turn promote a more global concern about the state of the world’s natural species and their habitats, and mankind’s responsibility to coexist harmoniously in nature. Nature is its own best advocate if people are encouraged to take note of, participate in and respect its limitless opportunities and wonders.

Out of concern for increasing problems among today’s children, including attention deficit disorder, obesity and depression, there is research supporting the idea that alienation from the natural world could be a factor. A malady called “Nature Deficit Disorder” has been described by author Richard Louv in his book, The Last Child in the Woods. His assertion is supported by the writings of Friedrich Froebel and Rachel Carson about the vital, intrinsic need of children to connect to nature. Louv’s recommendation is to change the education of young children from the current emphasis on technology, and instead encourage more direct exploration of the outdoors. I believe that Louv would agree that nature journaling offers an important avenue to help introduce children in a very personal way to the natural world that seems foreign to so many of them.


Nature journaling is a perfect aesthetic activity for children at school, whether they are kindergartners sketching flowers in the school yard, middle school science students observing and recording various species of leaves and bark, or high school AP Studio Art students deriving inspiration from nature to design a beautiful journal page. Allowing children to experience the commitment to a nature journal as a labor of love should be a common opportunity for each child. Not everyone will necessarily grasp the same degree of fulfillment and commitment, but I believe it should be offered to all.

My own experiments with nature journals, though limited, started many years ago as a result of my combined love of drawing and my concern for the environment. I just thought of it as my sketchbook, though, and I only discovered the true nature journal experience recently. As an elective for my M.Ed program at Antioch New England Graduate School, I was fortunate to take a weekend class with Clare Walker Leslie, a well-known artist, naturalist and teacher. Clare is an enthusiastic advocate for nature journaling, and has written numerous books on the subject, including Keeping a Nature Journal, Nature Drawing and The Art of Field Sketching. I came to greatly admire not only her abilities as an artist and teacher, but also her spiritual connection to nature and her knowledge as a naturalist. I was impressed with her adeptness at identifying bird song, bird species, plants and trees. She made it obvious that the natural extension of visually studying nature is to feel appreciation for it and then seek to learn more about it.

I thoroughly enjoyed that weekend class, as we were blessed in April with sunny skies and warm temperatures that made our drawing excursions extraordinarily pleasant. I filled pages of my journal with drawings and descriptions of the plants, trees, insects, birds and scenes before me. Under Clare’s urging, I learned that I love to draw with a black ballpoint pen.

When she asked us to write a reflection the last afternoon about our nature journaling experience, and how we could incorporate it into our teaching, I was struck with an “ah-ha” moment, a thought that inspired two whole written pages exploring the possibilities of my idea. I decided then that I would use the nature journal format with my high school art students, replacing their usual sketchbook assignments with this approach.

nature journalI was excited about the thought of trying this, because I have not been satisfied with the response of the majority of my grade 10-12 high school art students to their sketchbook assignments. For years, my students have reacted to the sketchbook requirement with varying levels of enthusiasm. Many of them would rush all their drawings just prior to the end of the marking period, and a few would elect to not do the drawings at all and simply fail that component. I have long believed in the value of outside of class sketchbooks, and I have tried many approaches to the assignments, including a generous amount of creative license as well as specific subjects and themes.

I want my students to learn to love drawing intrinsically, and not just regard the sketchbooks as an annoying requirement. My hope is that my students will love their sketchbooks, and regard them as precious. Sadly, I’ve witnessed that attitude with very few of my students in my 24 years of teaching. I was hopeful that my students would be receptive to the nature journaling approach, and with cautious optimism I explained my new plan to them.

I showed both of my Art 2 classes, my Art 4 and my AP Studio Art students Clare’s books as well as the drawings that I had completed during the class. I described the purpose and practice of the nature journal, and told them that I wanted to try something new as an alternative to their sketchbook assignments. I was honest with them about my desire to develop their observational skills while cultivating an appreciation for nature. I expressed my hope that they would come to love their sketchbooks, or journals, and find joy in the process of visually recording what they encounter. I told them to be prepared to go outside together as a class the next day, to dress warmly and not to forget their sketchbooks. Predictably, my students responded very favorably to the idea of going outside during class.

Prior to our excursion, I showed them sample nature journal pages again, and instructed them to be certain to record information about the session, such as the date, time, weather and temperature. I suggested that they note any other stimuli that any of their senses detected (such as birds singing) and to attempt to capture that day in their journal. I asked them to choose to draw either natural or manmade objects that they encountered outside the school, and to start with a close, detailed study of what they selected. For example, I told them not to attempt to draw an entire tree, but rather a section of a branch. I reminded them that this first session was a trial period, an opportunity for them to demonstrate that they would make a serious, earnest attempt to produce a well-observed drawing. I warned them not to just use the session as a social event. I told all my classes that I was experimenting with this new approach, and that their reaction and behavior would determine whether or not we would continue in this direction.

I am happy to report that the vast majority of my students responded very well to our sessions outdoors and to the practice of nature journaling in general. I am enjoying it as well, because in between circulating among the kids to make sure they are on task, I engage in a few minutes of nature journaling as well.

Some observations about my students that I had written to myself in my journal include “the kids I could have predicted acted the way I could have predicted—time to go, spider-killers…”, and “had to make Dave not eat a caterpillar—Garrett was going to pay him to do it,” and “wow, most of them seem to be really into their drawings. Matt kept talking, though, and Julie yelled at him to draw so he wouldn’t mess up the nature drawing outing for everyone else. I can see that many of them are enjoying this a lot and don’t want a few individuals to ruin it for the rest of them.” My favorite is my account about our encounter with Pierre the waterbug.

Since we started our nature journaling sessions fairly late in the school year, my classes only went out about five times. However, I have decided to incorporate nature journaling into my curriculum on a regular basis in the upcoming school year. I hope that the regular group practice of working in journals will, at best, encourage my students to take up the practice during their own time as well. For those less interested students who are not inclined to draw independently, these structured sessions will guarantee that at least they will be drawing from life during the sessions.

I am feeling encouraged about the value of the nature journal component in my curriculum, especially compared to my previous sketchbook assignment results. I wholeheartedly encourage teachers of relevant subjects to consider trying nature journaling as an effective means of exposing their students to their area’s natural environment, however limited it may be. I believe this type of journaling is an activity that can help nurture the human need to connect to the natural world. For a technology-immersed generation that may be adversely affected by Nature Deficit Disorder, the potential rewards of being outside—playing, observing, drawing and writing—are limitless for our students.

•Leslie, Clare Walker. (1980). Nature Drawing: A Tool for Learning. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc.
•Leslie, Clare Walker. (1984,1995). The Art of Field Sketching.
Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.
•Leslie, Clare Walker, & Roth, Charles E. (2000). Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
•Brommer, Gerald F. (1997). Discovering Art History 3rd Edition.
Worcester, MA: Davis Publications
•Aleta Karstad website. (n.d.) Retrieved June 29, 2005, from
•David M. Carroll. (n.d.) reference to Swampwalker’s Journey. Retrieved June 29, 2005, from www.david carroll. com/swamp2.htm
•Wiser, Bill. (n.d.) Nature Deficit Disorder and What You Can Do About It. Retrieved July 10, 2005, from Deficit Disorder.htm

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