Nurturing the urban naturalist inside us, through nature journaling

Debangini Ray

“The human spirit needs places where nature has not been rearranged by the hand of man” ~Someone wise and anonymous.

In this age of Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and Facebook, the one thing we can all agree on is how we like to spend more time on the internet, rather than in actual reality. I call this an age of ‘unnaturalists’, meaning people who would rather spend each day Netflixing rather than heading out for a stroll in the nearest park or digging their feet in the sand as sea waves fill them with warmth. Even our jobs rely almost completely on abstract reasoning or microscopic data that gets processed by computers. I suppose, more than it being a choice, we inadvertently fall in that grid without realising. We need more of those cafes that write, “We don’t have Wifi. Talk to each other and pretend it’s the 90s”! 

As our societies are becoming technologically dependent, we are driving to extinction, our sensory awareness, which is the most significant survival skill humans have (well, had). There was a time when everyone living on our planet knew the birds, plants, trees and other natural things in tremendous depth, and were actually life-enhancing assets to forests. In sharp contrast to this, most people today associate the presence of modern humans with vast ecological destruction. How are we supposed to care for the environment when we can’t even see the basic relationships between trees, water, plants, turtles, frogs, and everything else in the balance of nature? Sooner or later, we will realise that we may be doing our best to take care of the land, but we simply don’t have the awareness skills to do it effectively!

This is why it’s so important to become a naturalist and reconnect with nature! Being a naturalist means studying patterns of nature and observing the interconnected relationships between plants, birds, trees & ecology so we can understand the past, present & future of our local and global environments. Being a naturalist requires us to use all parts of our brain in a much more holistic way, which can have significant effects on our worldview, self-awareness & overall success in life. The effectiveness of it depends entirely on our ability to gather information by watching, listening & carefully observing our physical environment.

Before we were lawyers, engineers & school teachers, we were drawing animal tracks & maps of nature on cave walls: examples of the first “nature journals”. Much of what we know today about the natural world comes from the journal entries of naturalists and scientists: about explorations, successful hunts, specific happenings of each season, description of new species of plants and animals, as well as distribution and behaviors. Some famous scientists, explorers, and naturalists who used nature journals include Rachel Carson, Charles Darwin, Lewis and Clark, Henry Thoreau, William Bartram, Aldo Leopold, and John Muir.

Pic 1: This is a White winged wood duck, (Critically Endangered:IUCN Red List). Our group was extremely fortunate to have spotted it in Nameri Tiger Reserve, Assam during a field trip. 

“Through the naturalist’s eyes, a sparrow can be as interesting as a bird of Paradise, the behavior of a mouse as intriguing as a tiger and a humble lizard as fascinating as a crocodile”  ~ Gerald Durrell

I remember as a 12 year old, I started drawing and sketching because I was fascinated with J.K Rowling’s world of fantastic beasts and Enid Blyton’s magical realism. I started looking around my neighbourhood to search for magical creatures and instead ended up discovering magic in every creature I spotted. Before my vivid imagination turned a lonesome beetle into a sinister looking alien organism in my head, I tried to sketch it with my crayons and sketch pens, writing mysterious footnotes meant for my eyes only. Then I searched for the creatures I encountered, in visual encyclopedias and educational CDs and National Geographic channel. I had a simple motive: to remember what I saw, and understand it better. Now that my 27 year old self sits with a journal for the same reason- to remember, document, study and understand what I see around my urban settings, I know that while doing so, I will “see” things clearer than a picture clicked with a high definition camera. 

Pic 2: I sometimes go for early morning walks and sketch whatever catches my fancy, with notes.

I believe nature journaling to be a very intimate affair with nature. The more I journal, the more I am forced to learn about what I am journaling. I also use it to compile species sightings and other more scientific observations that are of great value to citizen science projects. It is difficult for a person to care deeply about anything that he or she hasn’t experienced or doesn’t know much about. In The Sense of Wonder (1956), Rachel Carson suggested that one way to open our eyes to naturally occurring beauty that we do not currently notice or value is to ask ourselves, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”

Pic 3: If you have a garden, it makes it more fun to observe and note different kinds of plants and tiny creatures or their homes amongst the greens! There’s so much to learn.

Something I am grateful for, made possible by journaling, is the form of meditation it can become. It induces mindfulness, makes us pause and focus on details that we miss in our daily busy lives. Sketching various exotic as well as native plants from my garden, made me realise that urban biodiversity, especially urban flora, is a crazy mixture of native and exotic species from all over the world (the luxury effect) as Menno Schilthuizer explains in his book, Darwin Comes to Town.

Sometimes we observe little things that bring us joy, and documenting them in some way embeds them in our memories. I make quirky notes of such things even if I can’t sketch them. For example, the baby House sparrow observing me with its head tilted every day as I wash dishes, growing unafraid and accustomed to my presence. Or the White-breasted kingfisher which responds in its signature pressure-cooker whistle call (every time I whistle to my dog downstairs,), cheekily twerking its tail and flying across my balcony before settling on a nearby pole to watch me with a smirk.

Pic 4: The Antheraea assamensis moth, which produces the muga silk, Assam is known internationally for. The book with it, is called ‘The Weavers’ written by Geetha Iyer.

Pic 5: One fine day, while passing by a pond, I saw this heron catch a fish and gulp in down

It doesn’t have to happen all in the field. We can take notes and jot down our questions, then come home to look up answers or additional information. I have learnt that no nature journal is complete without great questions. John Muir Laws, who also leads workshops on nature-journaling, frequently jots down questions provoked by what he sees: “Are the brown spots on the leaves also related to the fungus?” Another really important thing I learnt and I want you to believe, is that you keep getting better and better at it as you keep on journaling! I was never (and I still am not) an artist, as my friends and family will confirm; I was the kind of person who had to be part of  conversations like: 

Them (looking at one of my sketches): “That is one plump cobra” 

Me: “It’s an elephant”. 

We cannot all be Picassos and why do we have to be? A journal is an extension of your personality, a nature journal is an extension of your perceptions of the natural world.

If you can find a few minutes to keep a nature journal–even only once a week or once a month, I think you will find many rewards, from a closer connection to nature to a restorative sense of calm, balance and mindfulness that will hopefully extend into the other parts of your life. The neighbourhood tree visible through your window or the tree you cross on your way to the grocery store is as good a place as any, to begin paying closer attention to nature. As naturalist Karen Matsumoto rightly says, “It is unrealistic to expect our children to care about their neighbourhoods, much less the earth, if we haven’t taught them to see it and to feel what it means to them. Recording observations and feelings in a field journal can be one powerful way.” 

You can share your journal entries and nature sketches with me if you wish to encourage more people to take up nature journaling: Connect with The False Trail on Instagram @thefalsetrail_ or write to me at raydebangini@gmail.com. I would love to hear from you and read about your stories and observations. 


Some Journal prompts I use:

I notice…

I hear…

It reminds me of. 

What type of animal do I see here? 

What is it eating? Where might it be nesting, burrowing, or roosting? 

How do I describe this habitat? 


Bibliography:

  1. Bahuguna, U. (2020). In times of climate crisis, why nature-journaling can be a simple, yet potent tool to build intimacy with nature. Firstpost. https://www.firstpost.com/living/in-times-of-climate-crisis-why-nature-journalling-can-be-a-simple-yet-potent-tool-to-build-intimacy-with-nature-8156471.html
  2. Carson, R., & Pratt, C. (1965). The Sense of Wonder (Not Stated edition). Harper And Row Publishers.
  3. Durrell, G., & Durrell, L. (1982). The Amateur Naturalist: A Practical Guide to the Natural World (Illustrated edition). Hamish Hamilton Ltd.
  4. Laws, J. M. (2018). The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling. Heyday.
  5. Schilthuizen, M. (2018). Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution. Picador

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