Track-A-Long: Gray Fox vs Red Fox

Last year I had the luck of visiting some delicious tracking substrate on the sand dune shores of Lake Michigan. Coming from California, I was ignorant to the bio-region but applied what I knew from home and tried to learn what I could.

Tracking is one of the lenses through which I see my travels. I greatly enjoy approaching new places from the illuminating perspective that tracking offers.

People might look at me weird as I stare at the ground with a smile on my face…but that is just because they are not yet in the know.

You will never again look at the ground in the same way.

I am getting ready for a visit to Tanzania and I hope to do a lot of tracking while I am there!!! I heard there are a few species of mammals!

 

Journal Means Daily

The etymology of the word journal indicates clearly its greatest strength. First appearing in English between 1355-1356, it came into the language through the Anglo-French words jurnal or jurnale, meaning a day or a day’s work. It comes from the Latin diurnalis just like the word diurnal. (Chambers Dictionary of Etymology).

A journal is not a place where you draw or write only when you are inspired. A journal is a place where you draw or write every darn day!

It is a practice, it is a routine, it is a habit. It is the shear repetition that makes it so powerful, in an unromantic, uninspired, unstoppable, and self-reinforcing way. Journaling every day is like Bruce Lee doing pushups. You have to be focused on the pushups, not on showing off. Embrace the practice and enjoy the work and power and ability will come on their own.

 

Tracking Plants

A track is a readable mark left by a movement, action, or process. Tracking is the observation of these marks and the attempt to imagine the movements, actions, or processes that created the marks.

Right about now you might be saying, “yeah, yeah. I already know what tracking is; looking at animal footprints. Here goes Marley stating the obvious again.” Well, you might be right. I’m restating the obvious, in the most general and all-inclusive way possible, before making a leap of faith to include plants in our conception of trackable beings. Why not?

Most plants move slower than most animals and their lifeways are considerably different but they still follow patterned growth cycles, respond to stimuli, move towards some things and away from others, they reproduce, and they die. And most importantly for this discussion, they leave behind marks and signs of their actions.

There are several reasons why including plants as trackable subjects is helpful. First of all, it will help us learn more about this foundational kingdom of living beings from a unique perspective. Second, it will help us with our holistic understanding of the ecology and natural history of the area in which we track. Plants are, after all, one of the most important biotic players in the drama of life. Seeing them as engaged actors instead of as immobile, passive furniture can help us better understand what is happening around us. Third, by becoming better plant trackers we will be more able to identify or tune out the “noise” of plant tracks and sign mixed in with animals tracks and sign when we are focused on tracking animals.

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In the above photo we can see a plant doing two distinctly trackable things that are important to be aware of. On the left side of the photo we can see actual tracks left by the movement of the plant in the sand. This is a common phenomenon and important to recognize and filter as noise when tracking animals. It can also be an important clue in determining wind patterns, directions, and intensity. In the bottom right of the photo we can see the plant performing what I call “sorting.” The plant is creating an uneven distribution of rabbit scat by it’s physical presence; creating a sort of dam that traps the pellets and accumulates them. This type of sorting pattern is important to understand so that we do not jump to incorrect conclusion about why there is so much scat right next to this plant.

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Plants are also very useful substrates for recording information, containing animal sign, or for calculating age of animal sign. The bruising, oxidation, wilting, and callusing of plant tissue can be very useful in estimating age but these processes are also dependent on weather.

Whether you are a wildlife tracker, an avid hunter, or a curious gardener you should learn how to track plants.

 

Some photos showing trackable phenomena in plants:

IMG_3029 Trees live a long time and they are dying for half of that time. Their woody tissue and predictable growth patterns allow for tracking into deep history (dendrochronology for example)

IMG_4015Vegetation can be a very precise substrate for information about animals.

img_2384Small feet-like sticky tendrils left on a painted door by a vine.

 

Nature Journaling Class at SRJC!

This Spring, I’m excited to be teaching a nature journaling intensive through the Santa Rosa Junior College! Signing up for this class is a great opportunity to commit to a chunk of learning in nature. Four Saturdays in a row, each 3 hours long, packed with fun learning, shared with a group of other interested people. IMG_3002

By the end of the class you will have sharper eyes, better nature awareness, and a beautiful journal documenting your experience. You will also possess the tools and mindset necessary to pursue a life-long learning adventure. Some drawing experience recommended and ability to be comfortable in the outdoors and do some moderate walking is required.

The class will be held on four Saturdays from April 29th-May 20th. Register soon to save your spot, the class is already more than half full.

Cost is $124    register here

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The North Coast Nature Journal Club

I started the North Coast Nature Journal Club as a way to share my personal passion for observation and learning and as a way to connect with other people in nature. Sonoma and Marin counties in Northern California are full of diverse and rich ecosystems and there are many people interested in connecting with nature. On the third Sunday of every month we explore a different location, from sand dunes to mixed oak savanna. We use our sketchbooks as a substrate for our interaction with the natural world.  I’m passionate about facilitating learning in a group and we constantly bounce ideas off each other and otherwise benefit from nature journaling as a group.

We also share a potluck lunch on every outing!

What is Nature Journaling?

When do you meet next?!

 

Are there other nature journal clubs? Check out the nature journal club facebook page for more info about other groups and the Bay Area group that started it all.

Sketchers Learn Faster

There was once a ceramics teacher who did an experiment with his students. He told half the class to make as many pots as they could over the course of the semester, focusing on quantity not quality. He told the other half of the class to put all their energy and inspiration into making the single best pot they could. He told the first group they would be graded solely on quantity and the second group on quality.

At the end of the semester the teacher compared the pots of the two groups. Guess which group had produced the best pots?

Those students who had focused on producing as many pots as possible were free to practice without fixation on a finished product. They were able to learn and improve their skill. Ironically, the group that was told not to think about quality ended up producing finer pots. It appears that we learn better and faster when we are focused more on the practicing then on the outcome, a concept beautifully described in the book “The Practicing Mind.”

Simply put, sketchers learn faster.

Let yourself scribble, jot, sketch. Just fill up the page. Just keep your pencil moving and your eyes observing your subject. Just let your brain ask questions about what you see. If you do this regularly, you will learn much faster, you will improve. Ironically, you will begin to produce the superior images whose elusive promise inhibited your learning in the beginning.

 

This learning principle applies to most physical and intellectual pursuits that I can think of.

Try it out. Leonardo da Vinci did.

The Most Powerful Learning Technology

Journaling is the most powerful toolkit for dynamic human learning. It is affordable, accessible, democratic, and it can be modified and specialized in almost infinite ways. All you need is a pad of paper and a pencil.

Whether your learning is emotional, scientific, or artistic, journaling should be an essential part of your toolkit. Some of the greatest minds of history relied heavily on diaries, journals, and sketchbooks as a substrate for their thought process. Notable examples include Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, and of course Leonardo Da Vinci.

marie-curie-notebookPages from the journal of Marie Curie

How it works: I have done my best to break down journaling into what I see are the 7 major benefits.

Commitment and Attention : When you sit down to draw a flower in your journal or write about an idea you make a commitment to focus on that thing. This is very different from daydreaming where your brain might briefly consider something in passing. By writing about something or sketching it in your journal you show your brain that this is something important and you give your brain a chance to actually work on this subject. You will notice more about your subject, be more creative, and have better problem solving ideas when you attend to something by working it out on paper.

Visual-Verbal-Manual: Words are abstract and language is a recent innovation that uses a limited part of our brain. Many problems can not be solved in this part of the brain. However, when we put words on paper, when we write by hand, and especially when we combine images with words, more and more of our brain is engaged in the task. Even off-topic doodling during a lecture has been shown to improve retention of information (doodling).Visual thinking in general is a very powerful tool and incorporating graphic facilitation or sketch-noting into your work can be very beneficial. Sketch-noting

Externalizing your thinking For Objectivity: Another huge benefit of journaling or keeping a diary is that it allows you to get ideas, feelings, and emotions out of your head and down on paper. This is a powerful way to break cyclical thinking, unproductive rumination, and downward depressive thought spirals. If you are feeling super frustrated about a team that you work with and you start to write down how you feel on paper you immediately put some distance between yourself and the emotions. Now you can be more objective. Even if your only goal is to record your feelings you will find creative solutions start to bubble up on their own. For more artistic projects or group projects, externalizing your thinking is essential for feedback. And you know how I feel about feedback! Put your logo idea, business model, or permaculture design on a piece of paper where you can stand back and evaluate it. Now, it is not so personal, now, you can see the strengths and weaknesses, now, you can learn, now, you can move forward. Your journal can document these feedback loops and revision cycles.

Externalizing your thinking For Mental Space: Another benefit of getting your ideas out of your brain and onto paper is that it frees up mental space for higher level thinking. One of the main weaknesses of the human brain is our inability to simultaneously hold many pieces of information in mind. The more you are trying to hold the less freedom you have to make connections between the pieces or solve problems in a creative way. Get that stuff out of your brain and you will find new energy and inspiration to take your ideas to the next level.

Venting: People have used pen and paper to vent their emotions for a long time. This is another form of externalizing your thinking and your emotions. Just by expressing the emotions onto paper you get more relief than cycling it through your mind. The paper won’t get exhausted, judge you, complain, or resent you (some of the common drawbacks when venting to friends or family.) Venting in your journal or diary is healthy and can be emotional or intellectual. For example, when I am nature journaling at an aquarium and I am trying to accurately draw the subtle profile of a salmon I might get frustrated at my inability to quite capture the look. In my notes next to my sketches I will often write something such as: “This curve is tricky! Gah!” Or I might write a funny expletive next to an indelible mistake that I made. This helps me  get over it fast, not take myself too seriously, and not get to precious about the appearance of the page.

Chronology and Trajectory: The human brain is weak when it comes to remembering precise dates, times, and chronologies. It is also weak at noticing (or caring about) long trajectories and big patterns. Journals and diaries by their very nature become valuable sources of chronological information. When a journal keeper looks back at a journal from 3 years ago they are often able to see connections and recognize patterns. Is the snow on the mountains melting earlier this year then it has for the last 10 years that I have been keeping a journal? Am I noticing a pattern in my romantic relationships over the last decade since I have been journaling? These are the types of insights that by themselves make journal-keeping infinitely valuable because they are precisely the things that our human brain would often miss.

Record: Last of all, a journal provides a record. Do you need to double check how you conducted an experiment last year? Do you want to remember the name of someone you met or a secret waterfall you found? What about once you are dead? The world would be a much poorer place if Leonardo DaVinci and Frida Kahlo did not leave a piece of their brain behind on paper.

If you are already keeping a journal I commend you. If you are thinking about starting a journaling practice then I remind you: all of the great geniuses had a journal.

darwin-journal Pages from the journal of Darwin.

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The Power of Visual Thinking Part 1: Sketch-notes

I first heard the term “sketch-notes” at a nature journal club meeting where John Muir Laws was describing this type of visual-note taking and it’s power as a learning tool.
Sketch-noting is a synthesis of sketching and note-taking where each form of communication is used for what it is best at. Sometimes an image can be worth a thousand words and other times 10 words are worth a thousand pictures.

As it turns out, there are some people doing some quite amazing work in the field of sketch-noting and there are also books out about the subject.
http://rohdesign.com/sketchnotes/

The work of another great sketch-noter and graphic facilitator, whose work I sampled at the top of this page, can be seen here: http://sketchit.co/

This is one of those meta-topic skills that can be applied to virtually all forms of learning. It is a high-return on investment. I see it as a form of journaling which I have described as the “most powerful learning tool” in an earlier post. It is another way of externalizing your thinking. The techniques have been very refined with sketch-noting to improve the communication of ideas. I plan on studying and gleaning as many useful tips as I can and applying them to my own work. I recommend you do the same! It is fun!

Here is a short video about sketch-noting