Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Photographic Nature Journaling: Part 1

Watercolor of a durian fruit by unknown Chinese artist (1819-1823). Public domain image.
Have you seen natural history drawings and artwork of plants and animals similar to this above? Scientists and everyday people in the past frequently kept field notebooks of what they have observed and carefully recorded in nature. Scientists in nature studies still keep field journals, but the practice has fallen out of use for the general populous. It still has a small following in the art and education communities.

I recently purchased Keeping a Nature Journal 2003 by Claire Walker Leslie and have been looking at Nature Journaling videos by John Muir Laws. I've rekindled my interest.

What is the purpose of Nature Journaling?

One definition of Nature Journaling is a diary of nature observations and the recording of one's thoughts and feelings about what they observe. Each person's Nature Journal will be different. Some will be more artistic. Others will include more prose or poetry. Some will be more scientific. Others will have more personal reflection. Think of the descriptive scientific journals of Lewis and Clark, or the social reflections of Henry David Thoreau.

John Muir Laws indicates that to him, Nature Journaling has four main goals: 1) To Notice something you would not have seen, 2) To Remember details you would have forgotten, 3) To stoke the fires of Curiosity and have a tool to explore, and 4) To fall more deeply in love with the [natural] world.

To accomplish these, the first step is to observe nature, to "see deeply and with intentional curiosity", then draw it, then reflect upon it. Laws says, "The goal of nature journaling is not to create a portfolio of pretty pictures but to develop a tool to help you see, wonder, and remember your experiences in nature. You can learn to do this. You do not need to be an artist or a naturalist. These are skills you will develop as you go."

The act of drawing forces one to slow down, really see the object, and then develop questions about what your are seeing, and learn about and enjoy nature.

Can Nature Journaling be done using photographs?

Photographs can certainly be incorporated into a nature journal. But, I wondered, Can a nature journal be recreated on a blog exclusively with photos rather than drawings?

The "slowing down" and taking time to observe is a key component of Nature Journaling. Thus, the immediacy of taking a photograph compared with making a field sketch could be seen as an argument against photography rather than drawing. Learning to draw is part of the process of learning to "see" nature. If one bounces from nature subject to subject--"Look!--there's some nature,"--click, click, click--there is no time to observe behaviors and to note "context and connections" in nature.

Many people fear that they need to be artists, and thus fear Nature Journaling. But this skill develops with practice. Having "poor" artistic skills is not the reason to use photography. Rather I enjoy bird photography, carry a large camera and binoculars into the field and would rather use these than sketch book and art supplies. I would be forced to carry one or the other,... and I know which one would win.

How to modify Nature Journaling for photography

So, how can I adapt photography to the nature journal and still slow down and observe carefully? I developed a list of photographic topics or scenes or objects that would force me to really observe the world around me. My idea was to periodically interrupt my strictly bird photography (looking for that one perfect beautiful picture) with a "nature break."

Both Leslie and Laws stress varying your focus, zoom in and out, from near to far, small to large, ground to sky. And always look for context and connections. What story is nature telling me? Thus I ask these two questions when something catches my attention: What is it doing? Why is it here? Leslie sums it up this way: "Once you notice something, stop to watch how it works, and learn something about it, a relationship has begun."

Notice, photograph, and carefully observe these things:
  1. Ground-level, smaller than 3 inches, animal, vegetable
  2. Mid-level, plants, animals (especially behavior, poses--multiple photos)
  3. Habitat, trees, plants (context & connections between plants, animals, earth)
  4. Landscape, sky, weather
  5. Something beautiful, artistic: light, color, texture, patterns, shape
  6. Smells, sounds (photograph the source, describe)
  7. Human use of habitat, past or present evidence.
Then I need to put these in a blog post and tell a story, even just recounting the day's events, as if telling a friend.

Are there any examples of blog posts using photographs that could be described as Nature Journaling?

Several "birding blogs" regularly have more than just pretty bird pictures. They extend to other natural objects and vary the focus from small to large, finding context and connections.

In Crescent City (Part II) Jen Sanford takes us along on her trip in her blog I used to hate birds. She finds thumbnail sized toads and giant redwoods, purple crabs, birds taking a bath, an elk in the rear view mirror, and scenic rivers. She even gets an amazing starry sky against a Monterey cypress and long shadows.

Joe Quinn usually spends a dozen or two photos on the behavior of just one subject on Jo's Morning Walk. Such is the case in Apple Harvest Time at Lake Cuyamaca, Part 2. Here she finds a Red-naped Sapsucker eating apples. Other subjects in this post include a junco drinking from a dripper hose, a chickadee investigating a pine cone, and a jay with apple pulp all over his bill.

Update: 12/16/16: I found a "Photo & Journal blog" at William Wise Photography. Each post has only one or two photos--usually of birds--but describes nature observations and thoughts of the writer, an animal control director in Georgia.

So I took my "nature break" list, and ideas I've stolen from the two blogs above, and went out to Lake Hodges to see if I could create a true-to-form Photographic Nature Journaling post. Click here to see if I was successful.

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