Learn How to Keep a Nature Journal

Now in its 3rd edition, Leslie's classic guide continues to teach and inspire.

woman draws in nature

Getty Images/pepifoto

Long before there were smartphone cameras in every pocket, nature lovers carried sketchbooks and pencils to record what they saw. These nature journals, as they're called, have provided us with remarkable insights into what historic travelers, like Lewis and Clark and Charles Darwin, saw as they moved around the globe. Their unique sketches and visual notes reveal species and seasonal changes.

Today, you too can keep a nature journal. It's a wonderful way to connect with nature, to have a reason to slow down and spend time outside, to learn to identify types of trees, birds, plants, and mammals, and to improve your perhaps rudimentary art skills. Where, how, and why to start is explored in the third edition of Clare Walker Leslie's classic book, "Keeping a Nature Journal." 

When Leslie first published her book in 2000, it was endorsed by Jane Goodall and E.O. Wilson, with Goodall calling it "invaluable." Since then, the book has been guiding people to use art as a means of connecting with the outdoors, regardless of their knowledge and skill levels. With guided journals becoming ever more popular (think of "The Artist's Way" and "The Bullet Journal"), "Keeping a Nature Journal" fits in with that theme while providing valuable education.

"A nature journal is less a personal diary and more a recording of your responses to and learning about the natural world," Leslie writes. It's not a place for private reflection, but rather a good spot to "get out of your head and into the world of nature." It provides an opportunity to truly see the day. Leslie quotes an enthusiastic 8-year-old, who said after an outdoor journaling session, "Boy, I have seen the day."

Leslie offers additional suggestions as to why nature journaling is a worthwhile endeavor. It's a lovely way to document the changing seasons, sitting in the same place in May and again in November, and comparing drawings. It's a way for one to participate in citizen science, by providing a kind of informal record-keeping about the natural environment.

Similarly, "phenology" is the collection of data having to do with seasonal changes in the weather, plant growth, and animal behavior. This crucial data, Leslie explains, helps scientists to understand and address future environmental challenges. It's also a way for individuals to feel like they're doing something in the fight against climate change, simply by keeping track of what's going on around them.

nature journalling

Storey Publishing

The next part of the book delves into the "how" of nature journaling—the best way to set it up, which observations to make, and questions to answer in order to provide yourself with easy future references. One chapter has a crash course in drawing, with lessons on how to warm up, use perspective and color, and draw specific things like leaves, flowers, insects, and more. It would be a great way to teach kids to draw, while also educating them about natural history. 

Leslie recommends seeking out and keeping a list of Daily Exception Images, or DEIs, as she calls them, that remind one of happiness, peace, and gratefulness. "As I've grown older... it has become more and more important for me to seek out these moments of reassurance that at least in the world of nature, all continues on. These DEIs are free, easy to find, take no talent, and are always there."

The book itself is a work of art, filled with four decades' worth of nature journal entries from Leslie, as well as other contributors of all ages. Art is such an interesting way to view nature, as it puts a personal filter over what's being viewed in a way that cameras do not. It's impossible to read this book and not feel inspired to pick up a sketchbook to take on your next hike.

nature landscape

Storey Publishing