What is Nature Journaling?

Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.

E. O. Wilson

Sometimes, after I casually throw the term around, someone will ask me, “What is Nature Journaling? My spell check doesn’t even think that journaling is a correct verb!”

Nature journaling is a process or substrate for externalizing and recording the dynamic interaction between human curiosity and the natural environment. By making sketches, writing notes, and jotting down other information, the journaler engages with the observed surroundings. This process can be highly focused with a planned subject or it can be spontaneous and based on the unpredictable environment.

Nature journaling can be a solitary pursuit or it can be a communally-shared activity. It is a relatively new movement but clubs are being formed around the world, providing a support group, motivation, and sharing for people in the same locality who want to nature journal together. Nature Journal Clubs

A typical nature journaling club expedition might go like this:

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning at the entrance to a California park full of mixed oak woodlands, rolling hills, and blackberry covered creeks. A handful of people are milling about near the entrance with sketchbooks, binoculars, and hiking shoes. More people arrive; some know each other and some are totally new, some are seasoned artists and naturalists, others are just getting started with watercolors. The mixture of skill levels, backgrounds, and experiences benefits the entire group.

After a short round of introductions and maybe a motivational talk, the group heads off down the trail like a pack of curious kids. Occasionally, the group will slow down and someone will point out an osprey flying by or a snakeskin on the trail. Some people will capture a few quick sketches of the bird in flight and jot down some notes about the shed snakeskin. Then, the group will stop for longer, people will do a mini landscape painting or try to capture the details of a wildflower.

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Once everybody has filled a few pages there is usually a chance for everyone to lay out journals on the ground. Now is the chance to see what others have been up to, share ideas, and borrow methods form each other.                                                                           There is always something to learn from others.

After a few hours of journaling, most people have developed an appetite and there will be a break for a potluck lunch. Fun and educational conversations continue during the potluck and sometimes someone will read a poem or a quote or give a technique demonstration. If there is a facilitator or main organizer of the club they might ask for donations to help keep the group going.

After lunch, the group will continue their exploration; observing, sketching, recording. There might be another round of journal sharing before the group returns to the entrance of the park and everyone heads their separate ways.

I believe that nature journaling is the most powerful toolkit for learning about nature. It is affordable, accessible, democratic, and it can be modified and specialized in almost infinite ways. The process is also encouragingly cumulative; the more you do it, the more you will notice, the more you learn, and the more beautiful and meaningful your journal pages become.

For many useful videos on nature drawing and journaling, check out John Muir Law’s youtube channel: John Muir Laws
He is one of the main champions of nature journaling and is a storehouse of good information on drawing and natural history. He also has the most comprehensive book on the subject: Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling

 

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Rigidity vs Fluidity

 

Bruce Lee’s philosophy on the rigidity of style and dogma is equally applicable to the visual arts, gardening, land management, and all other realms of human endeavor. Instead of subscribing to one school of thought blindly one should try learning from many masters, weaving together one’s own synthesis. Do not become crystallized. Crystals are beautiful but they are dead, static, inflexible, and unlearning. Be fluid; adapt and incorporate diverse elements into a liquid whole.

Born to Track

So what if you don’t live near a nature preserve with elk, mountain lions, or other big charismatic mammals? Maybe you don’t even have a suburban park nearby with coyotes or raccoons. Never fear, you can still practice tracking.

Paradoxically, tracking is not about animals or footprints in the sand, tracking is a way of seeing the world. It is a way of observing patterns and thinking about cause and effect. It is a system of connecting the dots that is so fundamental to the way our human brain works that it is impossible to separate ourselves from it. All humans are born trackers but it is up to each of us as individuals to either ignore this fact or embrace it.

Sherlock Holmes embraced the fact that he was born to track and he practiced his skills with assiduity. He used deep observation, deductive reasoning, and the testing of hypotheses; the same techniques used by the hunter gatherers that all of us descend from. Today’s forensic scientists and detectives continue in this tradition.

Modern archaeologists embrace the fact that they were born to track. Despite their use of high tech imaging and chemical analyses, archaeologists are asking the same big questions that every tracker asks: who, when, why, and in what order? They look at clues, signs, and remains left behind and piece together stories of what happened in the past.

So, if you are not tracking elk, coyotes, ancient mummies, modern criminals, or Professor Moriarty, then what are you tracking?

A Match Made in Heaven!

IMG_2516Tracking and nature journaling; a match made in heaven!
Come explore coastal lagoons, meadows, and dunes for an awesome day of tracking and journaling in a great location. We will approach tracking in a holistic sense and learn to integrate it into our quiver of naturalist skills.

Abbot’s Lagoon in Point Reyes National Seashore is a world class location for tracking and bird watching where we are sure to find many goodies to fill our journals. Badgers, otters, bobcat, owls, ravens, falcons, and foxes are a few of the denizens whose tracks and sign we might see.

Meet at the parking lot at the trailhead on Pierce Point Rd, approximately 15 minutes from Point Reyes Station. Wear lots of layers and be prepared for variable weather, sun, and wind. Also be prepared to walk in sand dunes.

Sunday February 28th from 10-4pm

Meet at Abbot’s Lagoon Trailhead on Pierce Point Rd in Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, CA.

 

more information: http://www.johnmuirlaws.com/event/nature-journal-tracking-workshop-and-field-trip

Seeing and Not Seeing

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”

–Sherlock Holmes

Have you ever revisited somewhere that you have been many times and seen things that you didn’t notice or never paid attention to before?  I know that I have.

Have you ever noticed that after shopping for one type of a shoes or reading about one type of animal all of a sudden you are noticing them everywhere? I know that I have.

It is easy for the conscious mind to come up with faulty explanations for these occurrences, such as, “Wow. Everybody is getting the same shoes as me now.”  But the truth is usually not in the outside environment but in one’s own perception.

When I was a kid, growing up in Southern California, I was very observant and I noticed more things in nature and saw more animals than the average kid my age and much more than the average adult. However, I was an untrained naturalist for the most part and when it came to birds I knew few by name. When it came to local birds of prey I knew even fewer by name. The name that I definitely did know was red-tailed hawk. And sure enough, the only raptors that I remember seeing were red-tailed hawks.

Later, when I moved to another part of the state for college, I had the good luck of taking a natural history class where I learned about five different local birds of prey and learned to identify them frequently in the field. My first interpretation was: “Wow, there are so many more raptor species here than in Southern California, there must be some environmental reason.”

In subsequent visits to Southern California however, I started seeing many of the other species of raptors. Apparently, some of what had been “red-tailed hawks” turned out to be red-shouldered hawks, and some were probably even accipiters, while surely many of the other birds had just gone un-named and therefore un-noticed.

The field of cognitive science has learned a lot about perception in the last few decades and much research has been focused on vision. Most people take what they see for granted as an unadulterated, objective view of reality. As it turns out, what we see is vastly mediated by what we know, what we think we know, and what we expect or don’t expect.

If you only know the name of one kind of bird you might not see much else besides that bird. But if you read a whole book about the elusive Cooper’s hawk you will probably start seeing them (and hearing them) all over the place.

The morals of the story are:

  • What you see and what you don’t see is shaped by what you know and don’t know.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions about environmental reasons for what you see or don’t see.
  • You can train yourself to see more

 


I will be adding more related articles about observation in small digestible segments.

 

Paralysis by Analysis…(rant)

There is a terrible affliction among humans past and present, it does not kill but it cruelly cripples, and it wastes many lives of those who otherwise have all of their physical needs well met. Many of the greatest minds, the most intelligent people, and the most creative types have been ravaged by this disease. And humanity has been robbed of much great art, great literature, and the greatest of inventions by the actions of this horrible disease.

What do I speak of?

I speak of Paralysis by Analysis!

It is a terrible disorder and it seems to become an epidemic especially among populations that have their basic survival needs met but are overstimulated, over-educated, over-developed, and in general have too much of everything they need. The chief irony here is that those with the most free time, the most opportunity, and the most means to achieve great new things fall into this disease by which they fritter away their time pondering what best to do and how best to do it. So much time do they spend on this analysis that they never quite get around to the execution of their overthought ideas and overwrought works.

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While I am a big fan of “protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor” there is something to be said for “just doing it.” Unfortunately, the people who spend so much time perfecting their ideas and creating the best designs often lose and are preempted by the people with the bad, half-baked ideas who actually have the cojones to get out there and produce their ideas. Perhaps this is why we are being inundated by piss-poor ideas and terrible designs.

This then is a call to arms. If you are one of those who thinks a lot but diddles away your time trying to decide how exactly to do that thing you really love and that might actually help the world but you are not sure if you have the time or the resources or the will to actually do it…this is for you. There are plenty of people on the planet with bad ideas and the grit and the gumption to produce those bad ideas and push them.

Break free of the self-imposed shackle of analysis paralysis and start producing something! Putting yourself and your ideas out there will create feedback loops that accelerate your learning and improve your product faster than your solitary pondering.

I hate to quote corporations but the most fitting rallying cry is “just do it.”

 


 

“protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor” is paraphrased from a Bill Mollison quote.

The ink drawing at the top is by Tiepolo.

 

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Pattern Recognition Saves Lives

On a warm summer afternoon you walk down the rocky trail at your favorite regional park. Despite the beautiful surroundings, your head is full of thoughts about work, family obligations, and financial concerns. Coming to a steep part in the trail, you are about to grab a rock for support when your hand jerks back with a mind of its own.

Your distracted consciousness snaps back to the here and now. And then you see it. Coiled menacingly on the rock, inches from where you were about to put your hand, is a rattlesnake. Looking at it now with all of your attention you realize how camouflaged it is yet how striking the overall pattern is. There is something archetypal about the diamond shape of its pit viper head, the bulge of its jaw and the ridge over its gleaming eye.

Our human ancestors needed to recognize patterns in order to survive. This ability allowed them to discern dangers and take advantage of opportunities. As our proficiency for patterns grew it allowed our species to learn faster, adapt to new conditions, and eventually spread across the face of the planet. While there are fewer hidden predators and poisonous snakes for us to contend with, the modern, more urbanized human still depends greatly on the ability to recognize patterns. And for those of us who are interested in reconnecting with nature, tracking, or hunting, a fluency in the language of patterns is essential.

So what is a pattern? Two definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary stand out:

1. An arrangement or relationship of elements, especially one which indicates or implies an    underlying causative process other than chance.

2. A regular and intelligible form or sequence discernible in certain actions or situations; especially one on which the prediction of successive or future events may be based.

The first definition points to the fact that a pattern is not a superficial event and is not random, it is based on an underlying process. This is crucial when filtering information through awareness and focusing learning. Paying attention to patterns will lead to an understanding of underlying causes while paying attention to noise or superficial elements will not provide the same advantage.

The second definition points to the crux of the matter, namely the ability to predict. Patterns repeat themselves in a meaningful and intelligible way. Understanding the pattern allows the brain to make accurate predictions about future events. The ability to remember previously encountered patterns and make accurate predictions is the basis of intelligence. See my review of Jeff Hawkin’s book “On Intelligence” for more on the brain science behind prediction “On Intelligence“.

In the rattlesnake example above, the brain recognized the pattern in a “bottom up” process, where the more primitive parts made the call while the conscious neocortex was thinking about family problems and finances. Have you ever jumped back from what looked like a snake or a spider before you even realized what you were doing? Have you ever known what someone was going to do before they even did it?

These are a common occurrence that many people refer to as gut reactions or intuition. Much of our interpersonal relationships are actually based on the lower parts of our brain reading minute patterns in other people’s body language, tone of voice, and even smell. These intuitive, sometimes almost magical, predictions are also a central part of sports mythology and any field that requires high performance. Being open to these responses and training our brains through repeat exposure to these patterns we can react more quickly and more accurately whether in sports, business, relationships, or in the wilderness.

It is important to be aware of our bottom up pattern recognition but we can also bring our conscious awareness to the task and achieve great benefits. Paying special attention to patterns when learning new things will make it easier and faster to develop a holistic understanding of the subject matter. For example, When learning a new language, you can get a huge head start if you look for words that share a common ancestry with words from your native tongue. As this understanding of etymological patterns grows, your ability to learn languages and predict the meanings of foreign words will improve. If you start from scratch, with rote memorization of long vocabulary lists you will take much longer.

Some patterns repeat so often in nature that they demand special attention. The branching pattern of a river into smaller and smaller tributaries and streams can tell us much about the basic functioning of our universe. This pattern can be seen in plants, in our veins, in minerals, and even in our families.

By intentionally thinking in terms of patterns we can accelerate our learning, deepen our understanding, and make more accurate predictions in our field.
Whether predicting the presence of a poisonous snake, learning a new language, or tracking a trophy elk the ability to recognize patterns can save your life, and make it much more magical.

Eating Babies

Spring and early summer are surely one of the most delightful times of year to be outside. In this vibrant phase of the yearly cycle nature is overflowing with tender new growth, fresh life, and amazing vitality. It is the perfect time of year to enjoy the bountiful blooming of wildflowers, to watch the lazy flight of newly emerged butterflies, and to eat the succulent flesh of babies.

“What did you say!? That is horrible! I would never eat babies.”

Most people will be surprised by one element from that list of spring delights. Some will be disgusted and offended. Nevertheless, I would argue that eating babies is as much a part of the spring season as wildflowers, bird song, and the verdant carpet of green that covers the hills.

Why is it that we romanticize the unfurling of flower petals, the prodigious buzzing of pollinators, and the chorus of frogs while feeling revolted and indignant when we see opportunivores swooping in to eat vulnerable babies? This is one of those instances where many scientifically-minded, and usually objective naturalists feel an uncontrollable urge to step in and “interfere” with the natural processes. The same person who professes a “leave no trace” backcountry ethic and a hands-off conservationist approach to wildlife management suddenly finds themselves chasing a hungry predator away from a fragile baby animal.

Is this just another example of our imposition of arbitrary and misguided ethics onto the natural world? Is this a product of the Disneyfication of nature in our modern Western society? Or is it perhaps a deeper human instinct, an innate and adaptive desire to protect our own babies that is easily triggered by the young of other species? A deeper look at the logic behind our diet and a cross-cultural survey might provide some semblance of an answer.

If you are adamantly anti-baby-eating, I suggest we take a look in your fridge. Do you have any baby broccoli, baby carrots, or baby corn in there? “But that is different,” you might protest, “those are just plants.” What about sprouts, the quintessence of tender babiness, that the health-conscious human might ingest by the thousands in a single meal? You might argue,“Those are still plants. They are not really babies.”

If eating baby plants is morally acceptable because they are more distant from us on the tree of life that might make some kind of sense. We won’t delve into the controversy of whether or not plants have feelings here, nor will we look at baby mushrooms which are phylogenetically more similar to animals like us than they are to plants. Instead, let’s take another look into the fridge of the anti-baby-eater to see if we can find any other ethical contradictions.

What’s that in the cardboard carton in the door? “Those are just, well, uh, you know, eggs…” you respond someone guiltily as if realizing the logical inconsistency mid-sentence. “ But they aren’t really babies yet and, uh, everyone eats them.” If an egg is not the best example of a helpless, tender, succulent, vulnerable, under-developed baby then I’m a mountain gorilla. Yet in our society we scarf chicken eggs in astronomical quantities without thinking twice about their nature.

It is a delicate ethical tight-rope walk that we navigate with egg-eating. We eat eggs by the dozen and incorporate them into more recipes than almost any other ingredient. Yet many people in our society get squeamish if they see a speck of blood in the yoke or think too much about the biological meaning of an egg as they eat their omelette. While we Westerners hard-boil eggs and put the whites in our desserts we are revolted by the mere mention of some of the Asian uses of eggs. The partly developed “balut” eggs prized in the Philippines are particularly difficult for most Westerners to stomach. This embryonic delicacy is but one example that shows the ethical ambiguity of eating eggs and babies when a cross-cultural perspective is taken.

In the case that you argue, “But I don’t eat Balut eggs, that is just weird and wrong!” let me bring up some other examples that are more appealing to the Western palate. As we continue our perusal of the fridge of the anti-baby-eater we might have to look in the freezer. Are those lamb chops? And is that veal? These examples of baby eating require less explanation to the average American and despite growing concerns about the ethic of veal production both of these meats are still commonly consumed in the US.

I think that baby-eating is a perfect example of where the ethics of humans and the ethics of nature converge in an ambiguous gray area that we must examine further. The simple fact that such topics incite powerful and conflicting emotions in most people means they deserve more thought. There is a tendency to do the opposite, to assume that something is either right or wrong, to make an unconscious value judgement based on one’s instinctual reaction or the majority opinion of one’s mother culture. This is a perfect time to slow down and observe our own thought process, our emotional responses, our social programming, and the realities of the natural world. It is at this frayed edge of our comfort zone where deep learning takes place.

Culture: Definition and Function

“Culture refers to the learned, socially acquired traditions of thought and behavior found in human societies. It is a socially acquire lifestyle that includes patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.”  –Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson 2003

If you were to take a person and peel away their clothes, food, tools, language, ideas, beliefs, and worldview, what would you have left? Would that naked body and empty mind still be a person? Would they be able to survive?

Humans are the only animal that depends more on culture than biology. Our bodies are weak and unimpressive compared to most animals. We are ill-protected from the elements in our thin skin, our senses seem mediocre compared to most, and we seem to have few physical adaptations for self-defense or harvesting of food. Nevertheless, we have colonized more of the planet than any other species and have developed strategies for surviving in some of the harshest bioregions.

Since the emergence of anatomically modern humans, 200,000 years ago, culture has been our main way of adapting and evolving. Unlike biological evolution, cultural evolution allows for much faster change. In many cases, cultural evolution allows for adaptations and novelties that would not be possible with biological evolution. Human populations that migrated to the arctic did not have to evolve thick layers of blubber, dense fur, or other physiological adaptations to the cold. Such evolution would have taken thousands and thousands of generations if possible at all.

Cultural characteristics, whether they be material culture or worldview, can be analyzed from a sort of evolutionary perspective. The basic assumption is that if culture is our way of adapting to the environment then there should be a rationale to cultural characteristics. While this view can be criticized as overly simplistic and deterministic I feel that it often provides useful insight and is capable of explaining many things. This way of seeing culture can also be helpful to get away from the idea that some cultures are superior to others or that there is a progression of cultural stages from lesser to greater. All cultures came about as an adaptation to a particular environment over time. Cultures that have been in the same region for thousands of years must adapt to fit that environment. From this perspective, the aboriginal culture of a region is likely to be the best-suited culture for that region.

This essay outlines the basics of the anthropological definition of culture. Whenever I refer to culture it is this anthropological definition that I am referring to.

Why learn primitive skills?

Stretching goat hides - 1
Your ancestors did not hop into their GPS-guided, climate controlled SUV’s and drive (while texting) to the nearest Wal-Mart to take care of their survival needs. They did not have heat, light, and water at the flick of a switch next to the refrigerator full of food. Your ancestors depended directly on their skills and in-depth knowledge of their surroundings to survive.

“Why do primitive skills still matter today? Aren’t we beyond that?” Some people might ask, implying that modern technology negates the importance of such ancestral ways. There are several major reasons why these skills are worthy of study and appreciation. First, I would point out the fact that for 99.9% of our existence humans have lived in small, non-hierarchical, minimally-specialized bands of foragers. That means that individuals understood, owned, and practiced the skills necessary for their survival. That is the context in which our species evolved; that is who we are.

When you begin to learn some of the basic skills that your ancestors used to survive you will develop a new understanding and connection with what it means to be human. You will be humbled by the level of sophistication, strength, dexterity, coordination, and creativity required for “primitive technologies.” Failure, frustration, exhaustion, and blisters will teach you to appreciate ancestral skills and hopefully you will stop taking for granted the luxuries of more modern technologies.

While humbling, primitive skills offer endless rewards for those who take time to practice and learn. In addition to a newfound sense of connection and respect, you will develop an empowering sense of self-sufficiency and a new way of seeing the world. Knowing your survival priorities and how to take care of them from materials found around you is a powerful and extremely basic set of skills. In today’s society the average person knows more about video games and celebrity pregnancies then they know about what their body needs to survive! Ask them to list their survival needs in order of priority and they will fail. No, Wi-Fi and caramel macchiatos are not survival priorities!

Studying ancestral skills will make you feel more confident, more connected, and more self sufficient. It will also put your life in perspective and help you deal with many modern issues. When you understand the basics that have provided for our species for the majority of our existence it will be easy for you to detect bullshit in the modern world. You will have a better grasp on what matters and what does not matter; you will see which modern technologies are indispensably useful and which are worthless trash.

Some primitive skills, such as tracking and nature awareness, have the potential to entirely change how you see the world! You will notice things and recognize patterns that other people will be clueless about. Not only is this perceptual shift fun and intriguing it is also utilitarian. Noticing things and being aware of subtle clues comes in handy in the modern city world just as much as in the woods. It could give you new insights at work, help you find your keys, or save your life.

There are also ecological benefits to learning and practicing Ancestral Skills. Basic human survival skills are the most fundamental way in which we relate to our surroundings. When you spend more dirt time practicing you get more connected to your environment and better understand your relationship with it. This should lead to a sort of environmental ethic that is not naive, city-born, or blinded by the human-nature dichotomy. Such an ethic and understanding can inform wiser daily choices. In general, our pre-industrial ancestors had a much deeper and culturally codified understanding of sustainability, resilience, and ecological responsibility.

Other benefits of practicing Ancestral Skills can come to our social lives, and our mental and physical health. Getting outdoors and cooperatively working with other people on tasks that we evolved to do has a powerful way of inspiring and satisfying. Communication, teamwork, and conflict resolution are also survival skills that served us in the past and are necessary in the modern world. This social aspect combined with the nature of many of the Ancestral Skills provides great exercise for the brain and the body. Many of the skills require new perceptual training, sensory development, and cognitive functions that we don’t engage sufficiently in modern life. Working on the type of tasks that our bodies and brains evolved to do has a powerful effect.

“Now I see why these skills matter, and they sound fun and interesting, but how am I supposed to learn about them? They don’t teach those things at my school!”
Ironically, now is the best time in history to learn these skills. There is a resurgence in the US and other countries to teach and practice primitive skills and technologies from different cultures and time periods. Below are links to several events and organizations that are good places to start.

Buckeye

Acorn

The Sharpening Stone

Saskatoon Circle

Wintercount

Rabbit Stick

Bulletin of Primitive Technology

 

 

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