Nature Journaling as Meditation

This essay was originally published in The Rhythm of the Home, Winter 2010.

Thoughts ricochet through my brain all day; when I sit down at my desk to work, drive in the car, cook dinner, take a shower, lie down to sleep, even when I read to and play with my children, I hear a constant inner chatter. I have not been able to develop a yoga or meditation practice that slows my thoughts--sitting quietly or lying in shivasana only sends my mind into overdrive.

However, when I take a short walk into the natural world and sit down with my journal to jot down my observations or sketch whatever is before me--from magnificent oak to humble acorn--my thoughts slip off their hamster wheel in my head and I become fully focused on and absorbed in my immediate surroundings--the sounds of crickets in the grass, the feel of the breeze on my skin, the sparkle of sun on fresh snow.

No matter how short or long my journaling session, I always come away feeling calmed. The steady buzz of anxiety that normally occupies my chest cavity subsides. I walk more slowly and notice more of the small details around me--a bumblebee nosing into a tree’s green flower, the shape of hemlock cones in the snow, spring’s first trembling green blades of grass.

I have kept a nature journal off and on for about 12 years. My reasons for starting to nature journal included wanting to improve my drawing skills, to tune in to seasonal rhythms and to learn more about birds and plants and the landscape where I lived. Those reasons still apply to my nature journaling today, but the greatest benefit I gain from the process is mindfulness.

I very often find myself feeling overwhelmed by the demands of my three children, my work and my other obligations. Time spent alone in the nurturing embrace of nature with my journal almost always brings a sense of balance to my life and puts other worries and cares into perspective.

Wherever you live, I would encourage you to begin a nature journal of your own, to learn more about the place where you live, and to balance yourself within that place.

How to Begin
I often like to start a new journal with the new year in January, and even though I spend less time outdoors in winter, I find I generally do more nature journaling at this time. Winter is a time to slow down and be more reflective, while the other seasons involve more vigorous outdoor activities. I love to make a cup of tea and sit near a window, sketching birds at the feeder or the skeletal branches of bare trees. Or I will bundle up and take a walk through the woods near our house, settling down to sketch or write, wearing a pair of fingerless mitts, unassailed by bugs.

Keeping a nature journal requires very little in materials, and you probably already have everything you need at home in your children’s art supplies. A simple notebook and a pencil or pen are all you need to get started, though over time you may want to add other types of writing instruments or select a special book. I prefer a hard-covered wire-bound field sketchbook about 7 x 10 inches--it’s small enough to carry in a bag or pack and the wire binding allows me to fold it back on itself--but any book with blank pages will do, including inexpensive sketch books or hardbound journals.

I keep my notebook in a zippered shoulder bag with a fabric roll that holds a mechanical pencil, a black roller ball pen, a brown felt-tipped pen (for when I’m feeling fancy!) and a small selection of watercolor pencils.  

Once you’ve assembled your supplies, go outside!  Look around.  What do you see?  Hear?  Feel?  Over the years my journaling has fluctuated between more writing-centered to more drawing-centered. You may want to sketch something in your yard--try drawing something big (say a tree) and something small (one of its leaves). You may want to describe whatever it is that’s going on outdoors today, write a short essay or a poem, or you might prefer just jotting down words--the colors of leaves or flowers, the sounds of birds, the shape of tracks in the snow.  

There are no rules, and don’t worry about whether you think you are a good artist or writer. No one has to see what you put in your journal. It is about the process of slowing down and tuning in to what is around you, in this moment, not creating a work of art or literature. If you’re uncomfortable drawing (and even if you’re not), try some of these techniques for turning off your inner critic and waking up your right brain:  
  • draw with your non-dominant hand; 
  • make a blind contour drawing, where you only look at the object you’re drawing, not your paper (no peeking!); 
  • set a time limit (say five or 10 seconds) and do a quick sketch, or gesture drawing, of whatever it is before you (this is an especially helpful technique for drawing things that move, like birds, animals and children).  

Some of my favorite drawings are ones I made with my left hand or without looking at the paper; even though they end up somewhat crazy, they somehow manage to capture the essence of my subject.

Remember to put the date, time (approximate if necessary), location and notes about the weather at the top of your page for future reference.

I often use my nature journal as an avenue for learning about some element of nature. For, instance, when I wanted to learn birds, I filled pages of a journal with drawings of common birds from a book.  This way I learned details about their coloration and markings that I never would have noticed by just looking at a picture.  

Once I knew the common birds fairly well, I set out to find more challenging species, like warblers and thrushes. When I find a bird I don’t know, I watch it through binoculars, make as many quick sketches as I can before it flutters off and jot down some notes about its coloration, behavior and songs or calls. Later I look the bird up in the field guide, listen to its song on my old Dick Walton tapes, and make a detailed, full-color drawing from the field guide. This process helps me to know and remember the bird next time I see it in the trees (or hear it singing while I lie in bed in the morning). Last summer I began a similar process for learning about dragonflies and damselflies.

If you’re interested in learning birds, winter is the perfect time to start--they remain active throughout the day, searching for food (so you don’t have to get up at 4 a.m.); the limited possible species makes identification easier for a novice; and the bare trees makes them easy to see. By the time the spring migrants arrive, you’ll be ready to learn more.

If you’re not sure how to get started, try this: look for one natural object for every color of the rainbow; sketch or list and describe each item you find. This can be done in any season, though as you can imagine it’s a lot more challenging in the winter.

Nature Journaling with (or around) Children
I have not actively tried to involve my children in nature journaling with me--they spend their week days in structured activities so I try to keep their home time as free as possible--however I often journal in their presence and they are welcome to join in.  

If I pull out my journal while on a family hike or trip to the beach and the spirit moves them, I let them use my materials and my journal, or one of the small, handmade blank books I sometimes keep in my journal bag. Some of my most cherished journal pages contain their childish scribbles.

My children are my most honest critics--sometimes I hear “Wow, Mom! That looks real!  How’d you draw that?” and sometimes, “That doesn’t even look like what you’re trying to draw.”  

Once in a while I’ll take drawing supplies outside in the shade and we’ll sit down to draw together.  Because they sometimes feel intimidated by my drawings and don’t want to try on their own, I will just scribble or play around with color, or we’ll try other activities like collecting leaves or bark to make crayon rubbings or making prints with berries.

To have a truly meditative experience, though, I usually need to be by myself. I know this is not generally possible when children are young, but there are ways to modify the experience to fit in around a busy family life.

When my oldest son was a small, my nature journal consisted of a few sentences jotted down in the evening about whatever nature-y activity we did that day. I love looking back over these journal notes and remembering what it was like to be a first-time mother:

April 17, 2002
Morning “hike” in Vaughan Woods w/ 3 other baby-mom pairs.  Milo enjoyed the waterfall on Vaughan Brook--we didn’t think of playing Pooh sticks at the bridge. It’s so amazing to share new experiences with him--like the rain now pouring down outside--as if I’m experiencing everything for the first time myself.  A reawakening of the Sense of Wonder!

May 24, 2002
I sat outside with Milo this evening to cool his fever and calm his fussies. The almost-full moon glowed in the sky over my shoulder.  He reached for it as if he could snatch it out of the sky and said, “bah” (ball).

When my younger two children were toddlers and my oldest in kindergarten, I would take my journal along when we went to meet the bus after school (we have a very long driveway). I would get in a few minutes of sketching while the twins played in the grass or snoozed in the stroller as we waited for the bus to rumble up.

Recently, I started keeping a very tiny sketchbook (3.5 x 5) in a drawer of my desk at work. When I have time at my lunchbreak, I will take a walk at the arboretum across the street, sit down by the pond and make a few notes or sketches in the book. I have found a walking route that takes about 25 minutes, which leaves me five minutes to journal. The small size of the notebook ensures I stick to my time limit. But even after five minutes I return to work calm, balanced and refreshed. If I had thought of it when my children were small, I would have kept such a notebook in my pocket or the stroller, to steal five minutes of journaling time when I took the babies on a walk.

Even if you can’t find a way to get outside alone with your journal, you could take a few minutes while your children nap or play and sketch a houseplant, the cat or the view out your window, or, after tucking the kids in bed for the night, sketch whatever treasures--rocks, feathers, shells, leaves--have made their way onto your nature table (or into your kids’ pockets) that day.

If you can find a few minutes to keep a nature journal--even only once a week or once a month (there are months-long gaps in many of my journals)--I think you will find many rewards, from a closer connection to nature and the seasons to a restorative sense of calm, balance and mindfulness that will hopefully extend into the other parts of your life.

Check out these books for further inspiration:

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