A Naturlist’s Manifesto (Pt. 2): Natural History & Nature Journaling

The impetus for this four-part essay stems from a recognizable trend regarding the fading art and practice of natural history and nature journaling. Here I will speak to two specific reasons why I believe that natural history and nature journaling should be taken up and promoted as a daily practice.

Event Map

The Danger
There is a great danger in relegating natural history observation to a quite meadow or a remote alpine lake. Whether it is our intent or not, we are sending a message to our students about where nature is and is not. While this could be considered an overreaction, there is a significant problem that we face in an urbanizing world in which many students grow up believing that nature does not exist in their city and schoolyard. I certainly don’t believe any one of us who brings students into the field wants to contribute to such a bifurcated view. In fact, I’d guess that most would want to do any and every thing possible to promote the idea that we can see and experience wildness in the everyday.

Skills for the ‘Wicked Problems’ of the twenty-first century.
To prepare students, and for that matter ourselves, for the challenges we face today such as biodiversity conservation, global climate change, and urbanization, those characterized by complexity and uncertainty, we must equip them with the necessary skills. Observing, questioning, and reflecting: these are essential skills that are necessary to tackle the complex and wicked problems of today. Observing, questioning and reflecting are also at the core of naturalizing and nature journaling. They are skills that can be honed and developed through daily practice. And these issues are not relegated to wilderness areas. They are just as, if not more, prevalent in working landscapes and urban ecosystems. Thus, we must engage students in the practice of making observations no matter what landscape we find ourselves in: school yard, suburban street, city bike path, Appalachian Trail, Arctic river.

Opportunities Rather Than Barriers
In Bringing Home the Biosphere: Learning to Perceive Global Environmental Change, Mitchell Thomashow introduces the concept of what he has termed ‘perceptual ecology’. In speaking about such skills as the ability to juxtapose scale in both space and time one begins to see how a school bus ride in the morning and afternoon becomes a tool for developing students’ perceptual skills, or the commute to work for developing our own skills. While walking down a trail in the backcountry provides the opportunity to track a wolf for several kilometers, an afternoon or even a full day in the car driving to visit relatives for the holidays allows one to make observations at a larger scale, noticing patterns and changes in biotic communities, geology, and land-use not afforded by the pace or distance of a days walk. Hence, even a flight across the country affords me a different perspective and becomes a tool rather then a barrier.

Thomashow, M. (2002). Bringing Home the Biosphere: Learning to Perceive Global Environmental change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

*This is a previous post being uploaded due to a site reconstruction