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.  



“…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.  


Nature Invades Project Week

Last week’s “project week” was a huge hit!  We didn’t finish everything, but we had fun with long blocks of at-home time focusing on our list. We built a cat climber for Cambria’s kittens,


Elijah built and programmed a LEGO MindStorms elephant,



Cambria is in the middle of sewing herself a shirt,



and I planted some bushes in the yard.

However, our first priority was a last minute add-on.  We are in the process of building a small section of fence and a gate to enclose a tiny part of our yard and protect the plants from deer (most of them “deer resistant” natives!).

Last year’s twin fawns are very comfortable in our yard…they grew up sleeping under the trampoline in the back and eating roses in the front.  Our driveway is their route from the hills across the street to our (ok, their) creek.

We decided to protect a small portion of the front yard, without blocking the driveway and the deer’s route to water (our neighbors all have dogs).  However, the fence does not have pickets yet, and the year-old fawns were in the front yard every morning, nibbling on manzanita, monkey flower and aster – basically tasting everything!  They were crawling under the fence frame, so they could laugh at me through the kitchen window while I drank my tea and watched them eat the new leaves.  Amazing nature moments!

On a whim, I decided we should take some of the curly willow we had in the back yard and create a temporary fence.  This took up most of one morning, but it looks awesome and my tea time has been deer-free for over a week!



Fire Building

There’s a primal reaction to “let’s build a fire”…especially with kids, who see it as a forbidden treat. At Tod’s mention of this skill, unanimous agreement erupts from the kids – FIRE!

It always seems slightly impossible – with our dependence on dry wood and kindling, paper and a never-ending supply of matches at home – to build a fire from the surrounding forest.

Tod only offers this activity when the ground and forest is saturated, and so, the group looks around at the ubiquitous wetness and tries to determine a place to find the four sizes of kindling needed to start a fire. The redwood duff is dark with rain, our boots squish into the forest floor, a slight drizzle is falling and the first few wildflowers are dripping with rain.

Photo by Cambria.

Photo by Cambria.

We are encouraged though, as Cambria climbs into the overhang of an old, burned out redwood stump and comes out with some dry redwood needles and very thin sticks. She also has a tinder bundle (from the inner bark of a redwood tree) that she collected in the fall and kept in her backpack.

Photo by Elijah.

Photo by Elijah.

We spread out and search for tinder, pencil-lead-sized sticks, pencil-sized sticks and finger-sized sticks. We dig into crevasses, search under old shelters and break off small, dead limbs from trees and bushes.

Other sticks, that are not laying flat on the wet ground, are also a possibility. If they bend and slowly break, they’re too wet. If they snap quickly, they’re dry enough, especially if we peel off the wet bark.

After we collect for a while (and are sent back out for another round by Tod), we have our organized piles.



We clear a wide circle in the duff, down to the wet earth, and build a small teepee of tinder and our two smaller sizes of sticks.



While we were gathering sticks, Tod has made a quick bow drill out of a branch and supplies from his pack. Once the teepee of sticks is ready, he dries a tan oak leaf on his pants and gets the bow drill ready.

It’s amazing how fast Tod has a smoking coal.  To make the bow drill work, the position and angle of the sticks and your body are critical, and I know Tod is just making it look easy. My kids are determined to make a bow drill at home and learn this difficult skill.



Tod lifts up the fire board and there’s a marble-sized lump of wood dust and coals, smoking on the leaf.



He puts the coal in the tinder bundle and, holding it like a taco, gently pushes it into the middle of our stick teepee. Then, he starts blowing – focused, extended blowing – at the heart of the teepee where our tinder bundle quickly alights.


With constant caregiving and blowing, we have a small fire. The kids find it irresistible. They continue to add small sticks and take turns blowing on the fire to make the flames leap.



I find the flames hypnotizing and feel absolutely blessed to have these moments in the forest with our children.

Photo by Tod Haddow.

Photo by Tod Haddow.

Figure Four Deadfall Traps

The kids wanted to make a Figure Four Deadfall Trap, after seeing how they worked with Tod.  The trap is for knife/carving practice only, we don’t plan to kill anything.  Primitive traps are illegal in most states, unless we were in a survival situation.  However, I wouldn’t want to be making this (slightly frustrating) trap for the first time in a survival situation.  Hunger doesn’t bring out my best traits!

We watched many videos on how to make the trap, but my goal was a video the kids could “watch-pause-watch” and make the cuts without much assistance from me.  Many of the videos were not thorough enough to pass this test.  Our favorite, very detailed, video is this one by Equip 2 Endure.

The kids started working, after watching the first cuts to be made, on the vertical part of the figure four.   I liked how this video started at one corner of the trap and worked around, illustrating the cuts as they fit together.

I supervise all their knife work, but the kids are extremely respectful of the knives as tools.  We learned knife safety at our nature group and they adhere to all the rules (with more strictness than me when I’m in the kitchen…).


We continued through the video over several days, between lessons.  The trap is all about physics and geometry.  The angles of the cuts need to be exact for the trap to stand up, and then easily fall down when the trigger is activated.  It’s a great trap to know, because you only need a knife and wood – no cordage.


After a few fails and some input from Tod, the kids were able to make functioning traps.  One of the main problems was not realizing we needed the triangle of the figure four to have a right angle between the vertical stick and the horizontal stick.  I don’t think this was clearly stated in the video, though it seems obvious now.  The lower cut on the first try was too low, which caused the horizontal stick to point downward and fall immediately.  Here’s the successful set up:



The point on the right-hand side, under the log, is the trigger.  That’s the spot to place the bait.  The trail to the trap should come from the backside and a small touch knocks the trap off its balancing act and the log comes crashing down.

I hope we are never in an unexpected survival situation, but learning these different skills teaches the kids (and me) many lessons in patience and perseverance.

Homeschool Days

One of my favorite homeschool blogs inspired me to write about our “normal” day.  I haven’t given details about our homeschool in previous posts, but homeschooling enables this journey to happen, so it deserves some focus!   My involvement in the kids’ studies and their interests, lead us down paths that I never expected, yet do my best to support.  One of these paths is nature study, but this is only a part of our homeschool.

In most of our learning, we tend towards a project-based focus, and I try to work project time into our schedule.  Sometimes group activities override this personal project time and I forget our individual pursuits.  I found it timely to be inspired to write about our “normal”, when I’ve completely mixed it up this week.  More on that later…

Our normal days:

6:00am (or 4:30, if I have a client deadline, like this Monday!) – I get up and check email.  Trevor’s been up since 4:30am.  He trains on his bicycle until 5:30 and then gets ready for work.  We eat breakfast together.  This is a wonderful routine we started a few months ago.  I love starting the day with a warm bowl of oatmeal and calm, adult conversation.

6:30-8:00 – I let Beowulf, our cat, outside to do a morning prowl, and I get to work: emails, client work and organizing our day.

8:00 – Beowulf meows to be let in at 7:55am.  He heads directly to the kids’ room, jumps on Cambria’s bed and meows and purrs like a mad man.  This alarm cat is crucial, as I don’t have to participate in the waking up!  Elijah’s usually been up for about 30 minutes, reading and hanging out on the couch.


Beowulf, purring and patting Cambria.

8:00-9:00 – Getting ready, breakfast, food in the crock pot on busy days, etc.

Monday we go to our nature study group in the morning and focus on journaling in the afternoon.  It’s a great way to ease into the week.

Tuesday through Friday look more like this:

9:00-12:00 – Lessons, with many breaks.  One day we take breaks after every two lessons to make slides from pond water, another day to jump on the trampoline, another day to bake a cake, or another for whatever special project draws our attention.  Some days we power straight through so we can go to a friend’s house.

A copepod from our local pond.

A copepod from our local pond.

I am still involved in most of their lessons.  We study math, reading, writing and spelling.  I read historical fiction and non-fiction to them and we try to hit any history activities at the library…it’s not my strong point.

I sit with them and try to get some work done, in between questions and discussion.  I work on lesson planning for the following week and on the blog, do laundry, pay bills, make grocery lists, etc.

12:00-1:00 – Lunch, household chores, reading, occasional hula hooping and packing for activities.


Hula-hooping and reading are not mutually exclusive.

1:00-2:00 – Out the door.  We live about 30 minutes from town.  We listen to books on CD in the car, (our current series is Septimus Heap) and we try to do an errand or two before activities start.

2:00-6:00 – Activities, which are currently: embroidery, mindfulness and art, swimming and gymnastics.  Except on Friday, which I try to hold sacred, and not leave the house!

On Fridays, we have project time in the afternoon.  Sewing, knife work, nature study assignments, chemistry experiments, Minecraft, gardening or whatever project we’ve put off during lessons.

6:00-8:30 – Travel home if we are out, dinner with dad, read a book to the kids (currently On the Far Side of the Mountain – a great sequel to My Side of the Mountain, with tracking and animal awareness).

8:30-9:00 – Bedtime.

This all looks so EXACT, which it is not.  It’s more like our template, which works on average, but sometimes doesn’t work at all!

Last week, during my lesson planning, I realized we had two field trips this week and my kids’ project list hadn’t been touched in a while.  I decided to have a project week.  Lessons are off and we are field tripping and doing projects.   If all goes well, we may adopt a “project week” plan every 6 weeks.

Projects planned: build a cat climber (the kids designed one last month and we bought the materials, now we need to DO it), sewing (Cambria has a dress and a skirt planned), MindStorms LEGO (Elijah wants to build a printer), and finish the bathroom (the kids and Trevor painted my bathroom over the weekend and it needs some finishing touches).

Ambitious and fun!