Category Archives: Nature Journal

Our Journaling Progress & Positive Comparison

On Monday, a friend at nature group told me that her son has a nature journal, but feels that everyone’s art is better than his and doesn’t want to share.  While not sharing is completely okay, I am saddened by her son’s (and my kids’) comparison to others.  Cambria does it with reading; Elijah does it with art.  I do it too, mostly with homeschooling, but I’m consciously trying to stop.

I’m trying to stop, because it is a negative habit and it never makes me feel better.  Comparison to what others have and can do, focuses our minds on what we don’t have and can’t do.  The negativity builds on negativity and, I find, it’s hard to dig myself out of the downward spiral.

If I compare my nature journal art to someone’s journal who has more experience, I see only my deficit, not my progress.  If, instead, I look at the person’s journal and seek out tips and new ideas and greater understanding of my potential, that’s an active, positive choice.  The person who has dedicated more time to a given skill could be looked upon as a mentor, not necessarily a peer in a particular area of expertise.

We are all focusing on different things in our lives and accomplishing different talents that are our individual, favorite ways to spend our time.  In our household, we spend time journaling, but I would never compare my work to John Muir Laws and feel discouraged.  I am inspired.  Inspired to be better at something that I enjoy.  I don’t spend hours a day drawing (or even minutes most days)…How could I reach that level without more investment in myself?  Without more trial and error?   I can’t, and that’s okay, but I do appreciate the progress I have seen in my journal.

On that note, I thought it would be fun to do some comparing on a different level.  Comparisons of our individual journals.  We have changed and grown and progressed and, since we’ve kept journals for several years, it’s fun for the kids and me to see our development — without comparing it to others!

Cambria’s rough-skinned newt in 2013:

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Two years later:

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Elijah’s great egret in 2013:

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Beginning of 2014:

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End of 2014:

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My great egret from January, 2013:

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August, 2014:

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It was so fun to look through our old journals and see our amazing progress!

After-note: A few days after I wrote my this post, I came across this quote by Joshua Becker at Becoming Minimalist.  (Instead of saying:) “That’s just the way I am,” replace it with, “That’s something I really need to work on.”  Love it!

Understanding Plants (and learning to listen)

I had a physical reaction to a plant this week.  Not a rash, not a cure, but unexplained feelings after handling the plant – I scrubbed my hands and experienced uneasiness.  My body understood the plant’s communication, but my brain didn’t listen.

Tod has talked many times about “feeling” (without touching) a tree in front of us when walking blindfolded, about being aware of our surroundings so we can close our eyes and point to the different plant species, about truly looking at a plant and noticing its individual nuances and more.  All of these exercises bring us closer to realizing a nature connection.

On Monday, Tod stopped beside the trail and picked two leaves.  He asked us to think about how they made us feel.  Then he held them up and said, “Raise your hand if you would rather eat Leaf A (a soft, heart-shaped leaf) or Leaf B (a pointed, thin, slightly jagged-edged leaf).”

I recognized the plants, but even if I hadn’t, Leaf B looked evil.  Most of the group agreed that they would stay away from Leaf B, even the kids who didn’t recognize the plant, which was a type of nightshade.  This nature connection exercise, on the side of the trail, was quick and basic.  Tod illustrated the plant’s communication with us, if we took the time to be aware.

We should NOT eat any plant without an absolutely, positive identification!

The next day, I was having a “I-homeschool-and-never-celebrate-miscellaneous-holidays” moment.  No doubt public school kids would be partying for St. Patrick’s Day.  Cutting out shamrocks, having green cupcakes and golden chocolates, reading limericks with gusto.  All the things my kids are totally lacking from their education.

I needed some St. Patrick’s Day inspiration and, as luck would have it, I remembered some green flowers had just bloomed in a corner of our yard.  Green flowers!  The perfect solution at 6am for an unprepared-homeschool-holiday-mom.  I didn’t know what the flowers were, but they were green and that would help relieve my lack of holiday planning.

What caught me off guard, was my feeling as I was cutting the beautiful flowers.  I felt uneasy.  I didn’t know what they were, and I needed green decorations, so I brought them into the house and put them on the table.  And, immediately, felt like I needed to wash my hands which, honestly, I rarely do after cutting flowers.  Hmmm…what was Tod teaching us yesterday??

To illustrate my lack of trust in my body’s reaction, I left them on the table and we admired them all day.

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The next morning, I laughed off my flower-mistrust instinct over breakfast with Trevor.  Then, I decided to research the green flower, because I suddenly realized I was having a nature study FAIL.

Turns out, it’s of the genus Helleborus.  It will make us and our cats vomit if ingested.  Some sources say it can irritate or burn our skin.  “Poisonous.  Handle with gloves.”  Wow.  How about listening to the nature awareness part of my body that’s been screaming since I cut the flowers??

John Muir Laws has several great journaling exercises surrounding plants.  One of my favorites, which helps us “know” a plant, is called “Zoom In, Zoom Out”.  You can find this exercise in his free journaling curriculum.  The activity creates a study of an individual plant, zooms out to document it with its surrounding plants, then zooms in on the details of one part.

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Butterfly bush. I quickly sketched the plant’s location, studied the leaf and flower, then zoomed in on the individual flowerettes and a cross-section of the stem.

I love this activity!  When doing it, I always find a particular detail I had never noticed before.  It let’s me spend time “knowing” the plant and solidifying the identification in my mind.

Benefits of Nature Journaling

I read a quote recently, which eloquently expressed my feelings regarding the benefits of nature journaling.  The quote is from the preface to the Audubon Society Nature Guide to Western Forests, by Stephen Whitney (Knopf/Borzoi, 1985).  It starts: “A notebook is the single most important piece of equipment a naturalist takes into the field…”

As I’ve built my journal over the past three years, and used it to extend our family’s nature exploration, I fully agree.  Our journals bring many opportunities for learning and later reference.  We combine scientific sketching with language and create memorable sensory connections.   We would not experience nature in the same way if we were just taking our walks and not bringing nature moments back into our home for further study.

“…It is useful for recording daily observations, sketching plants and animals for later reference, taking notes on behavior and habitat, and assisting in identification by recording field marks that otherwise might be forgotten…”

At the marsh, during nature group, we saw three geese near the mouth of the creek, which has breeched to the ocean.  The geese were standing on the rocks, preening and getting knocked into the waves every few minutes.  They were smallish and stout, had a distinctive white marking on their upper neck and a vividly white backside.  

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“…The naturalist’s notebook only increases in value as time goes by and observations accumulate. Soon, patterns begin to emerge from what initially may have been chance encounters with various plants or animals…”

As I stood on the beach, I flipped excitedly back to last spring’s entries in my journal and found my Brant sketch on March 3, 2014 – we had seen them last year at almost the exact same time. Cambria and I had studied and sketched them, near the end of this post.

“…A well-kept notebook that preserves a record of their activities at a particular place over an extended period of time can contribute information valuable to our understanding of nature…” 

The pleasure of seeing the Brants again, recording their seasonal visit to our marsh, and feeling that we were connected to these birds was priceless.  

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Field Guide Browsing & Study

We have many field guides that are left out in the living room for exploration, browsing and study.  Learning happens at random – hence: skulls, birds and LEGO…

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Or, in an organized fashion, as we recently explored several guides to research Snowy Plovers (Charadrius alexandrines nivosus).

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Having a variety of guides available stimulates curiosity more than the single, short paragraph in our main bird book.  The guides give us more information on skulls, tracks, nesting, young, habits and habitats.  We compare pictures, drawings, maps, graphs and diagrams.  These books, combined with several websites (allaboutbirds.org and westernsnowyplover.org), give the kids and me opportunities to find more details and discover the exact variety of bird (plant, animal, fungus) that lives in our area.

In these organized “assignment” studies, we pull out all the guides which apply to our subject and mark each book with tabs.  Then, we assemble our journals with the information we each find most interesting.  The kids are getting good at using reference materials!

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We spent several hours on our Snowy Plover journals.  It’s amazing to see the kids’ focus and involvement in the research.  I always feel a bit excited by this intense learning!

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Snowy plover journals.

Assignment: Dark-eyed Junco Journal

This week’s assignment is to journal the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis oreganus).  Perhaps we will all learn to better imitate Juncos during our Jays and Juncos game!

Here are the beginnings of the kids’ journals:

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Elijah’s junco is about to land on a branch.

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Cambria made a special note about the junco’s tail feathers in her journal.  She had seen a junco fly up from the ground during her sit spot time and noted the white flash on the tail.  She wanted to do this journal right after sit spot time, since she had just experienced the bird in our yard.  We read junco’s have white outer tail feathers that they tend to flash during flight.  I love this instant connection between sit spot, journaling and scientific notation!