Keeping a Nature Journal – Mary Reynolds Thompson
During the coronavirus, our daily forays into the natural world have kept us sane, and we’ve been extremely grateful for access to a park, a hiking trail, a meadow or a garden. As our world shifts, we keep returning to the landscape for a sense of solace and of comfort. More of us are keeping a Nature Journal these days, not just as a writing exercise, but as a from of mindfulness.
The Victorians were avid nature journal writers. They produced illustrated chapbooks with exquisitely detailed drawings of birds, butterflies and plants. Their ability to identity and label specimens advanced natural science. Yet they also approached Nature with an attitude of superiority, like good citizens of the Empire cataloguing the assets of their far-flung colonies.
Now we keep a nature journal for different reasons. It’s not about classifying objects and keeping nature at a safe distance. It’s about venturing into the heart of the wild and finding our place within it. While we are writing about nature, we are in deep communion with it.
This two-way conversation requires humility, a word that derives from the root humus, meaning “of the earth.” And that reference seems especially fitting. We long to feel at home in the living world and these past few weeks of slowing down, of living in a kind of strange suspended animation, has made it possible for us to give ourselves that gift.
Deepening our Attention
In the deep quiet that has descended on us, nature is speaking to us differently, her voice more audible without the traffic and construction, the constant noise of our own busyness. Many of us are hearing sounds we haven’t heard since childhood — the dawn chorus outside our bedroom windows or the hum of insects in a meadow. We are delighting in the shower of stars in the night sky. And as summer beckons and we venture outside, the more-than human world is calling out to us.
This month I’m teaching a Zoom workshop on nature writing with participants from both the United States and England. This class is one I normally give in a wildlife sanctuary yet in between writing exercises, there is plenty of time for participants to wander outdoors and commune with the plants and creatures in their own backyards.
For the poet Mary Oliver, listening to nature is an act of reverence. In “A Summer’s Day” she writes, I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention. In an essay from “Our World” she explains that this was a relationship she had to cultivate. She began simply, with noticing “the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer.”
From her life partner Molly Malone, a photographer, Oliver learned to observe a subject with an intensity and openness that went beyond mere reporting. “Attention without feeling,” she says, “is only a report. An openness––an empathy––was necessary if the attention was to matter.”
In the poem, “To Look at Anything” John Moffitt says it’s not enough to note that spring has come to the woods. Instead you must “be the thing you see.” He urges us to enter the silence between the leaves, to take our time “and touch the very peace, they issue from.” If we look long enough at a given thing, Moffitt assures us, we will merge with it. Attention, deep attention, makes all boundaries porous. There is no “out there” or “in here,” just a continuity of being. But to pay attention takes time. It’s a devotional practice. Keeping a nature journal is a way to stop and smell the roses, once daily life speeds upon again.
To start, I urge my group to spend some time outdoors and look, really look, at their surroundings. Describe what you feel, touch, taste and smell, I suggest. Consider how you can embrace a small portion of the world with all your senses. Here are some responses from the participants:
I see twenty-five summers in a cut log
hear hummingbird wings
smell the jacaranda blossoms
taste apple blossoms sherbet bombs
Shades of green and brown on the mountainside, birds chattering
the charred remains of oak and elm
blades of white-tipped grass speckled with morning dew
A Dutch still life— five lemons hanging on a spiky bough
Next, I ask “What do you believe in?” hoping to find out how nature supports the daily outlook of every person in the group. Among the answers: “I believe in the endless regeneration of the natural world—her faithfulness and good cheer. And in all the possibilities of amazement.”
Rewilding Your Imagination
Nature is imagination itself, said William Blake. More recently Thomas Berry saw imagination as ecological, noting that our creativity stems from nature’s. If we look for it, we find the earth’s own poetry everywhere. Each day, then, we can engage in a call and response with the living world, opening the cage door to our imaginations.
To keep a nature journal, all it takes is a curiosity. A willingness to swim in the silver stream of our own fascination and let the current take us. In “On a Winter Morning” Ohio Magazine February 1990, Josephine Johnson observes the drama of the birds descending, one by one, in her own backyard.
Then a hawk came, a dark pigeon hawk. It pursued a junco in and out among the bare branches, a weaving of sharp wings. It gave up and perched, vibrating with cold and rage. I saw its barred tail and its darkness, the color of creek sludge in the summer, and knew it was no hawk I had seen before. The hills and trees and snow were swept of all birds by its knife wings––except for a sullen crow, who in its turn swept the hawk away.
The crow came close on this cold morning. A great crow, with a neck so large and sleek one imagined it might feel to touch like stroking the sleek black arch of a horse’s neck. It watched the world, and I watched its eyes and tried very hard to imagine looking out from inside that shining head, imagine what it was, its cells moving about in an orderly fashion as mine moved. But nothing came to me––or I went nowhere––so locked are we in our own frames, so locked we cannot even imagine the limitations of a crow.
Then the crow began to caw. The effort of cawing! The shoulders shoved forward, the caw shoved out like vomit. Three times. Caw! Caw! Caw! Never more. Never less. First facing east, then facing west. Completely alone. Nobody answered. No other crow came.
The wild language here is wonderful. The hawk is the “color of creek sludge in the summer,” the crow’s neck “so large and sleek one imagined it might feel to touch like stroking the sleek black arch of a horse’s neck.” Johnson wants to get inside the shiny head of the crow “to imagine what it was thinking or feeling.” Her goal is to see the world through the sensibility of this solitary bird.
In my writing group, Claire Sparrow takes this task of observation one step further, focusing on the resonance between the human and the natural world:
A bird converses — it talks it listens — a response — it sings again.
It reminds me of the gentle chatter of tired children
Their soft voices calling from one bed to another.
Our Own Wild Nature
Keeping a nature journal invites the recognition that some part of us is still untamed. “In wilderness, I seek the wildness in myself––I’m cut from the same cloth,” writes Gretel Ehrlich. Say the word ‘wild’ out loud a few times and you’ll be surprised by the rush of energy you feel. The mere suggestion of it makes our blood beat a little faster. In my workshop we are starting to explore something I have taught for many years—wild language.
Jacqui Smith gets it right away. “Wild language,” she writes, “is the fruit of wild imagination, unbridled by convention, unlike the common apple or orange, exotic and bursting with extraordinary flavors.”
We are born into an immense interrelated community. Birds, flowers, trees, ants—every living thing contributes to our perspective. What we learn through keeping a nature journal is that every portion of the earth is longing to express itself through us.
Some of us are what I call ‘ground walkers’ –looking at mushrooms and the rotting wood or plants at our feet. Some of us are ‘mid-view walkers’, looking straight ahead. Others look up to birds or contemplate the sky and the moon. What calls to your wild soul? Is it the oak in your garden? The raven strutting past your front door? The coyotes howling across the canyon? How will you respond?
I ask my writing group to do a character sketch of something in Nature that has proven to be a worthy companion. Alistair Inglis offers this portrait of an old ash tree.
Not just that I’m drawn to you,
The vast twin-trunked Ash that
dominates our tiny, narrow garden.
Older than our house itself.
Your gnarled bodies bear many scars
of lost limbs and the unwanted piercings
of some long-rotted treehouse.
Gentle giants, your broad limbs
encompass the delicate twittering of Goldfinch,
raucous caws of Crow, and calm cooings of Wood Pigeon.
You two silent twins, how well do you get on?
One looking North, the other South.
Are you comparing notes, or ignoring each other?
I’ll keep watching, and wondering about you both.
Rhythm underlies wild language, for nature is all about rhythm, whether it be the cycles of the seasons or the sound of a creek filling with rainwater. In a passage from All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy describes people setting off on a journey by horseback. The language mirrors the gait and rhythm of the horses as they speed up as they move from the town into the wide-open spaces of the Texas high prairie. If you listen to nature before you write, the rhythm of language will feed what you are writing about.
Another exercise I give this writing group: Describe an experience you’ve had in nature from the perspective of a non-human observer. As Mary Nelen reads her piece out loud, we note how the pace of her writing mirrors the speech of a bossy crow. In a surprise twist, the bird turns out to be the incarnation of an old lover.
“Nice lake! This view is killer. Is there food down there? Maybe near that trash can….look over here, hey honey, yeah that’s right, it’s me, now a bird…a crow, why the hell not? and all this hair right, you knew this day you would come, I told you, I didn’t want to live past sixty. You remember don’t you?….How do you like this beak? Watch, I can jump high as superman. I told you I couldn’t marry you. You didn’t know the meaning of the word of ambivalent, but that’s because of Florida, we were drunk on sex… you wanted more than I can give and now I’m a crow. Yeah right, you prefer a raven. So shoot me.”
As we end this workshop, the commercial world is opening up again while nature seems to be closing shop. What happened to the deer that gathered in the highstreets of London, the cougar prowling in downtown LA, the ducks taking over the highways in Russia? They are returning to their own lockdowns and in the months ahead, we will have less contact with the wild.
If we learn anything from sheltering in place, I hope it will be this: A world without nature is no world at all. Gerard Manley Hopkins reminded us that we all need to breathe the “wild air, world-mothering air.” Keeping a nature journal helps us take a breath and begin rewilding our own souls.
This post originally published on:
Free Past Programs:
The Wild Scribe: An Introduction to Nature Journaling
Earth Wisdom in the Time of the Coronavirus.
MARY REYNOLDS THOMPSON
Mary Reynolds Thompson is the author of Embrace Your Inner Wild and Reclaiming the Wild Soul: How Earth’s Landscapes Restore Us to Wholeness. She is also an instructor for the non-profit TreeSisters, a facilitator of poetry therapy and journal therapy, and a certified life coach who has helped thousands of people discover and live their Wild Soul Story. She is the founder of Write The Damn Book, a program that guides writers on the heroic journey from procrastination to publication, and is a core faculty member of the Therapeutic Writing Institute in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.