One of coolest things I ever did was design a Nature Writing Class for Eckerd College. We held class outdoors in nature preserves all over the county. My aim was to help my students improve their writing skills, deepen their bond with nature, have some fun, and earn their Environmental or “E” credits. In addition to writing assignments and readings from a nature writing anthology, I required students to use Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth’s beautiful guide, Keeping a Nature Journal. While the course accomplished all its stated goals, it also helped us all in an astonishingly unexpected way.
I’m hearing from friends of mine who are medical professionals that it almost seems as if mood disorders are as epidemic as COVID, monkey pox, and mass shootings. If you’re feeling a little off these days, you might appreciate the amazingly easy fix I accidentally discovered while teaching a Nature Writing class. It’s a reliable boost for wellbeing that’s within reach of your hand right now.
All you need is a pencil and a notebook.
Although Leslie and Roth’s lessons on how to keep a nature journal focus on observing and recording the natural world, the practice has other benefits for writers. For example, their work displayed heightened powers of observation and more creativity Most extraordinary, for the first time in my career as a writing instructor, not one student needed to be reminded that a healthy paragraph includes concrete detail. In other words, right out of the gates, they wrote more muscular, mature, and engaging prose. My conclusion was that keeping a nature journal trains the language centers of your brain to render sensory observations into written language. For more fluid language skills and vivid imagery, nothing beats this practice.
However, it wasn’t until the end of the semester, when I asked for course evaluations, that I discovered the nature journals had revolutionized my students’ mental health, which was not the intention at all.
My students reported:
- A deeper sense of wellbeing that they expected to continue well beyond the course.
- A heightened sensitivity to the here and now, even when not writing in the journal.
- The confidence that simply re-reading any entry from the journal would immediately restore peace of mind.
What was happening?
I think their mental health improved for two reasons: first, they were spending quality time in nature offers proven psychological benefits, and second, they were accidentally practicing mindfulness with a sensory inventory. (12-Minute Meditation has an episode to harness the power of sensory inventory in creative writing.) Focusing with such prolonged and rapt attention to their senses and to their natural surroundings produced a state of relaxation and flow that held enormous benefits for them.
The nice thing about the nature journal is you can keep one at almost any age and anywhere. You can go out in the wilderness, gaze out the window of your train, or sit at an outdoor cafe. You can go alone or with others, as long as they understand you’re going to focus on your journal for a half hour or so. They may be inspired to do likewise–imagine you and another person intensely focusing on the world around you while looking into something other than a cell phone! You can journal with a friend, your children, a significant other, an aging parent. It creates a profound bond to sit with someone else and just BE.
How do I keep a nature journal?
All you need is a journal, a pencil, and a natural space, even if it’s just a view of the sky from a window.
Taking a class or committing to this practice with a group adds the camaraderie and accountability that most people need to form a new habit. However, if you stick to it alone for even just a week, keeping a nature journal will quickly become a self-rewarding solo activity. My students all declared they would continue the practice the rest of their lives.
I suggest you acquire at least one lined or unlined notebook that’s comfortable for you to carry and to write in, such as Randon Billings Noble does. My favorite writing tool is the Pentel Graph Gear mechanical pencil and, although it has its own eraser, I keep a mechanical eraser beside me too.
Here are my students’ recommendations for how to keep a nature journal:
- Get a journal you like to hold, carry, and write in. Just seeing it and having it near you will bring you joy.
- Collect some writing and drawing tools you enjoy. They recommend artist’s pencils, mechanical pencils, a favorite pen, colored pencils, and colored markers.
- Go someplace you can safely enjoy the natural world (i.e. don’t get stung, bitten, or murdered).
- Set aside regular blocks of time, make yourself comfortable and, for at least thirty minutes, record what you experience through your six senses (I’m counting kinesthesia).
When you’ve chosen someplace to observe the natural world, make yourself comfortable with your journal and writing tools, and begin:
- note the date, time, and place.
- you might also like to jot down a few notes about the weather–cloud cover, temperature, a guess-timation of wind speed and direction, whatever seems relevant.
- Begin your sensory descriptions. Being forced to render your auditory observations into language makes you pay much closer attention than you normally would. Ask yourself: what do I hear? what do I feel (i.e. touch, temperature)? what do I feel (is the branch you’re sitting on swaying, is the sand sliding under your heel)? what do I smell? what do I taste (although I don’t recommend eating anything you didn’t bring with you)? what do I see? (If you noticed I started with hearing, here’s a 12-Minute Meditation that discusses the power of auditory meditation in nature.)
- Whether writing only or writing with illustrations, you can approach the observations one of two ways. Either describe your surroundings from one direction to the other (e.g. sky to ground, left to right) and note observations through each of your senses, OR isolate each of your senses and exhaust your observations before moving to the next sense. In the latter case, we avoided starting with sight, which will by human nature dominate.
- Pour your observations, either by writing or sketching, into your journal without stopping, for at least a half hour. You might want to pick up and move to another spot for another half hour, if possible.
Here are a few samples from my own journals:
What’s sold me most on this process, besides my own experience, is feedback from my students’ testimony. They resist at first. Most find it intrinsically rewarding and discover it boosts their creativity and productivity as well as their overall sense of wellbeing.
Still Not Convinced? Take it from the students:
A nature writer’s journal is a diary of the seasons. It expresses what nature what wants to say though the writer. You may feel a new sense of purpose. A strange satisfaction comes to us, as if we’re connected to nature herself. . . .
Once a nature journal’s pages are filled or class is over, that doesn’t mean you stop. Nature’s always happening. Keep up the routine. A nature journal can’t be considered a product made by you alone. It’s a record of how you communed with nature and how nature communed with you. In essence, you and the natural world combine to develop this formulation observations. . . .
Tell yourself that when you venture off alone into the woods that you must write a least write two paragraphs and sketch what you’re describing. Take your time, but do try to see as much as you can. Watch the time—before you know it, you’ll have to go back. Study your object closely and imagine what it could look like at other angles or in the eyes of someone else.
The goal of nature journaling is to immerse yourself amongst the detail and endless complexity nature has to offer. Not only should you blindly draw a twig or describe a blue heron bathing in the water, but you should describe how this ‘actor’ in nature makes you feel. What is its purpose? What is it doing? Why is it there? Concentrate on one square centimeter of your subject if you want to. Spend thirty minutes following an ant through the leaves. You should feel no restriction. . . .
If you’re in a group, every now and again you should walk off alone and really listen to yourself. With a group, I’d be embarrassed and reluctant to record a given observation that triggered excitement. Don’t be embarrassed. If something fascinates you, go for it; devour it. Write a page about it. Write ten pages about it. During nature journaling you should feel no restriction. Walking alone really allows you to concentrate without worry or restriction. Concentrate for an hour if need be, on whatever it is that fascinates YOU. . . .
Also, if nothing fascinates you, DON’T feel obliged to make an entry simply because it’s assigned. Your journal will be meaningless if you do this. You will notice, however, that it is extremely difficult not to find something fascinating and new to you. . . .
I HIGHLY recommend taking photos. I wish I still had my camera (I had sold it). Photos will enhance your journal so much. Something often IS too wonderful for words. Take a picture of it, and THEN write about it. This way, you’ll never lose sight of the beauty of the original observation. . . .
Also, spend some time picking out your journal. This’ll be the chest of your thoughts for the whole of the class. Make sure that your journal feels good in your hands, that you like the paper. You want to look forward to writing in it. . . .
To summarize, record without restriction. Record anything and everything. Concentrate on detail. Be philosophical. Pick a journal that you like, a lot. This was a truly meaningful course. I genuinely enjoyed it. I’ll be back to visit the burrowing owl at the Sea Bird Sanctuary!”
However you go about it, make it work for you.
I promise that within on entry, you will begin to feel better. Noticeably better.
Even if you only create that one entry, you can go back to it any time and will instantly feel better. Try it and see!
If you already keep a nature journal or if you give it a try after reading this, I’d love to hear about it! Send me a picture! If you’re interested in learning to keep a nature journal in a group course, let me know that too, and maybe the Sirens can put something together for you.
In fact, poet and educator Katie Riegel has a short but powerful book on easy, everyday meditations, There’s No Wrong Way: 44 Meditations. For more from Katie Riegel on the creative writing and meditation, click here.