John Muir Laws (no relation to THAT John Muir) is like a Pied Piper, encouraging the exploration and appreciation of nature. His enthusiasm is contagious, and during the pandemic he started offering three online sessions a week about his favorite topic: nature journaling.
John, who goes by Jack, discovered his love of the outdoors naturally, following his birdwatching father and botanist mother on adventures. Growing up as a dyslexic kid in San Francisco, he’d find solace after a frustrating day of school exploring areas like Golden Gate Park. On a pivotal trip with his mom and her friend Neila Whatley, Jack watched Neila record her nature observations in a journal. He was entranced. “My eyes grew wide,” he said. “Wow. This is it. This is what I really, really want to do!” He became Neila’s shadow with more focused attention than his mother had seen before. On the next family outing, his mother presented him with his own versions of all her supplies: notebook, pencils, everything. Just like hers. “I knew just what to do with it and I’ve been journaling ever since,” Jack recalled.
Nature journaling at its essence is observing nature and recording what you see using words, drawings, and numbers. Jack said he believes you need to use all three to get “the most joyful and rich experience for your brain.”
“I have gone all in with nature journaling because it is such an important skill,” Jack explained. “It’s a skill that changes the way you think, changes the way you see, changes the way that you live the world. So, it’s not just about making a little book. It can fundamentally change your world and that’s important. That’s useful to people and I want to help share that. My role exploring what nature journaling is and helping people be able to do it themselves has grown over time. It’s exciting to see the response people have had to keeping their own journals. It’s opening doors to the world.”
Observations can be prompted by asking questions such as “Who, what, why, where, when, and how” or notations such as “I notice,” I wonder,” and “It reminds me of.” Nature journaling has been around for a long time — Charles Darwin recorded his observations in journals, as did Leonardo da Vinci — but the practice has grown exponentially during the pandemic. Between having more time on our hands, discovering the solace of nature in frightening times, and the many resources shared by Jack and other leading nature journalers, people all over the world are taking part. The Nature Journal Club Facebook page which Jack started has almost 14,000 members in countries around the world who share their journal pages and observations.
Amy Tan and Nature Journaling
One journaler who was inspired by Jack is novelist Amy Tan. She is part of the Facebook group and got started by attending some of Jack’s presentations in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2016. They recently did an online chat together, where they discussed their mutual love of nature journaling. Amy shared that with nature journaling, “I feel smarter. I notice more. Drawing helps me remember more vividly.” As a writer, it’s not surprising that she sees the animals she records in her journal as characters she gets to know through observation and drawing, and she often posts her drawings with interesting notes she calls her Backyard Chronicles. She wonders, “What’s the story here?” and wants to find out the story along with the characters and their history.
In June, International Nature Journaling Week was held online, with daily themes, prompts, and video guidance. Over the summer solstice, Jack encouraged people to record the positions of the sun throughout the day and plans to guide the same activity on the winter equinox for comparison purposes. Some journalers are scientists and illustrators; most are everyday people with an interest in nature.
So, if you love nature and being outdoors, and even if you don’t think you can draw but are willing to learn, nature journaling may be for you. Jack is quick to point out that nature journaling is not about creating pretty pictures, but about recording your observations and making your mind more curious through intentional practice of noticing, making connections, and asking questions.
Anyone with an interest in the natural world, from youngsters to seniors. Jack says kids can start as soon as they can hold a pencil, doing their own version of recording what they observe. He and co-author Emilie Lygren wrote How to Teach Nature Journaling specifically to help teachers, parents, and youth leaders teach the practice of nature journaling. It is available for purchase or as a free PDF download on his website, johnmuirlaws.com.
Why should you journal what you see in nature? You can help develop your natural curiosity, hone your observation skills, and while doing that, find both respect for and solace in nature.
Record anything that catches your attention: plants, bugs, mammals, birds, or even the sky or landscape. Pick a theme for your journal or find something new to appreciate every day.
Anywhere! Head to a nature area or explore your own yard. During lockdown, Jack even spent time journaling an onion that sprouted in his pantry, an orange that got moldy, and the lifecycle of an iris in the neighbor’s yard.
Pick a sketchbook or journal (Jack has a helpful list of suggested supplies on his website), grab a pencil, and get started. Record the date, time, temperature, and weather conditions. Sit quietly and just start noticing. What catches your eye? Some journalers start with a small landscape to show where they are, while others focus their page on a single plant or animal. Draw a sketch, note what you observe, count and measure, ask yourself questions, and hypothesize possible answers.
There’s no time like the present. It’s fall, the weather is cooling, and the desert is beautiful. With so many resources available, like Jack’s The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling and his dozens of videos, along with those of other journalers, and the helpful community of the Facebook group, what’s stopping you?
Nature journaling resources
Johnmuirlaws.com and the John Muir Laws YouTube channel
Find many tutorials on how to draw different animals and plants as well as the basics of nature journaling. Explore his books and suggested supply list, some of which can be ordered directly through his website.
The Nature Journaling Club on Facebook
Join an international group of supportive fellow journalers. Find a variety of online classes taught by other nature journalers such as Roseann Hanson, who offers both free and paid workshops and virtual field trips. In late July, club member Marley Peifer launched a new learning opportunity, The Nature Journal Show, with 30-minute sessions aired at 6 p.m. Wednesday evenings and archived on YouTube.
Cornell Lab Bird Academy Nature Journaling and Field Sketching online class
In this fee-based course by scientific illustrator Liz Clayton Fuller, learn the basics of drawing, practice along with the videos, and do activities to expand your knowledge.
The website was developed for the event in June 2020, but the resources are still available to help you get started.
THE GREAT SOUTHWEST NATURE FACTBOOK
This book by Susan Tweit is full of interesting tidbits about plants, animals, and landforms in the Southwest. It’s agreat source of facts for nature journal pages.
In August 2020, Mas Art moved from Main Street in Las Cruces to a new, larger location at 155 Wyatt Dr. They are offering nature journalers a local resource for some of the materials they need. Visit them for journals, field watercolor kits, markers, pencils, and much more.
Written by Cheryl Fallstead • Journaling pages courtesy John Muir Laws
Originally published in Neighbors magazine
Posted by LasCruces.com