5 Ways Keeping a Nature Journal Will Improve Your Writing

Once upon a time, drawing was considered an essential academic skill. Necessary to explain visually the concepts being explored, the ability to render an image allowed a teacher to explain or describe a subject in more depth. Of course, the invention of the camera changed things, and the inclusion of drawing in school curricula fell by the wayside. These days drawing is considered a frivolous activity, yet it is anything but.


The act of observation married to the act of moving a pencil across paper leads to an increase in brain activity. According to Milton Glaser, author of Drawing is Thinking, “When you draw an object, the mind becomes deeply, intensely attentive, and it’s that act of attention that allows you to really grasp something, to become fully conscious of it.




Add in the nourishment that the natural world offers, and nature journals become a winning hobby. Here’s how keeping a nature journal can give your writing projects a boost:


1. You’ll learn to see the details in what you are looking at. Over time, you will become attuned to the branching vein patterns of leaves, the rounded edges, and the nuances of color in overlapping leaves in the canopy overhead. Selecting colors to represent the reality of what you see becomes an exercise in precision and decision-making.

2. You’ll learn to determine scope and scale to suit your page and purpose. Will you zoom in and draw a blossom on a tree? Or will you back out and draw the entire tree? Either way, your thought process will involve planning and composition. How much do you want to show? Is a piece of the whole enough to represent your experience? These choices apply to writing as well.

3. You’ll learn how to see what is truly there in front of you, without bias. When you draw what you see, you learn to distinguish between what you actually see and what you imagine. Pay attention to the parts of the leaf that folds down, the flower petals that are chewed or misshapen. If you want to draw the ideal, then you’ll be making a composite of bits and pieces, but if you want an unbiased rendering, draw just what you see.


4. You’ll see small narratives playing out in the natural world. Squirrels chase each other and cardinals splash in the bird bath. Pollen floats in the air and rain dribbles down tree trunks. Try making lists of verbs. In what may seem a quiet ordinary scene, you will be krzysztof_coloredpencilssurprised to find plenty of action.


5. Changing the channel and switching creative media can jump-start your creative juices and feed your writing projects. Sometimes it helps to take a break from a writing project and think about something else. Especially when you walk away from screens.


There is something about the natural world that refreshes the mind and spurs new ideas.

To start a nature journal, you don’t need anything fancy, just some blank paper and a pencil. The important part is the doing. Happy drawing!


Florilegia for them, nature journals for us

Florilegium is a modern Latin term for a type of book composed of a collection of flowers, either literal drawings and descriptions of real flowers, or, metaphorically, a collection of the flowers of literature. We’ll explore the second type of book in another post, but for now let’s think about the florilegia created as botanical records.

Florilegia as literal collections of flowers emerged as a genre in the 1400s, with a few earlier works of a similar nature. Herbals were books devoted to the description of plants used for cooking or healing, and florilegia were devoted to ornamental plants and flowers. Botanical illustration as an art form rose in popularity as the interest in documenting plants increased, along with the ability to collect and distribute information.

At first, these books were gorgeous and expensive to produce, created at a time when private gardens were on the brink of becoming all the rage among wealthy Europeans. Before the printing press made books easy to reproduce, artists had to be commissioned, parchment had to be made (although starting around 1450 or so, paper became more commonly available), scribes needed to be engaged to handwrite the descriptions, and the pages, once completed, needed to be bound.  Books of this type were private, shared with a select audience, and rarely served a public function.

Sweerts, E.: Florilegium amplissimum et selectissimum. Amstelodami: J. Janssonium, 1647-54.


Of course, the printing press changed everything, and between more readily found paper (by the 1600s, paper mills could be found all over Europe) and the ability to print multiple copies, the drawings and descriptions found in florilegia could be shared widely.

Passions for exotic plants collected from overseas travel spurred on the production of botanical illustrations as a way to share (or show off) one’s collection, especially as overseas exploration in the 1600s brought more variety. Later versions tended to focus on the plants and flowers growing in a specific region or garden, and the florilegia that survive often contain precious information about extinct or endangered species.

Florilegia strike me as the great-great-great-grandmothers of today’s gardening notebooks or nature journals. How so? While today’s gardeners aren’t going to hire an artist and plan a fancy book to show off, a modern gardening notebook documents both the current state of a garden, along with its past and future. Similarly, a nature journal is a collection of nature experiences, drawn or written by a regular person to document the experience. Both types of collections typically operate along a chronological timeline, noting what is happening when.

Gardening notebooks, though, have room to expand beyond simply documenting what is growing to include notes and reference material. Plant care information is collected, and logs are kept throughout the year to note watering and feeding efforts, pests noted and battled, and so on. In terms of function, a gardening notebook is valued more as a useful product rather than a creative experience in itself or a finished work of art, although there are exceptions.

Nature journals tend more towards combining the creative experience and finished product, depending on the mindset of the journaler.

To me, the value of a nature journal is in the experience of tuning into the natural world and tuning out my own thoughts and impressions. Similar to the way you are instructed in yoga class to focus on your breath, I say in nature journaling workshops: focus on one color, one line, one movement, just the one thing. Forget everything else.


I encourage people to draw on paper bags or plain paper on a clipboard, aiming for a process over a product. Other nature journalers draw in nice hardbound books, using a pen and watercolors, aiming for artistic integrity. In keeping a nature journal, your experiences of tuning into the natural world are collected and embodied in the material form of whatever kind of book you decide to keep

Stories from the land (of Oz)

The Yellow Brick Road

The Yellow Brick Road and beyond

When I first learned about an abandoned Wizard of Oz theme park in the mountains, I couldn’t resist. At the time, I was taking a creative nonfiction class and had essays to write, so I planned my adventure with an eventual essay in mind.


Afterwards, sitting at my desk, I sifted through my notes, photos, memories, and thoughts about the experience and drafted a mess to be workshopped by my peers in class. With feedback and advice in hand, I let the work stew for a while until I had some clarity regarding sequencing and organization.

View from the peak

View from the peak

Eventually, I knew exactly what to do: Rather than organizing the essay around me and my adventure there, I needed to organize the essay around the land and the stories it held. From there, reworking the narrative was simple. After sending it out to a few places I had success in October. (Yay!)

So what did I learn? Listen. Write. Share. Allow the story to unfurl. Write some more. Persist.

You can read the essay in the 2015 New Southerner Literary Edition.


Balloon frame

Balloon frame