Nature Journaling Prescribed Fire

Recently, I taught nature journaling at a prescribed fire training program in Quincy California. The North Complex fire, one of the biggest wildfires of the 2020 season, hit this area hard. In part due to this they are trying to get good fire on the ground in Plumas County. In fact, prescribed burns are the only practical way to prevent future catastrophic fires.

I will give some background on prescribed fire and show you how nature journaling can help. A lot went into making this: preparing the workshop, nature journaling and filming in extreme conditions, and hours of editing but I am really passionate about sharing this information with you.

Before the fire…

I knew I would be working with a different audience when I was invited to teach at the Plumas Cal-TREX. My goal was to share a valuable tool with this audience. That’s because I firmly believe that nature journaling is more than just a relaxing hobby that helps people connect with nature. In fact, nature journaling is a powerful tool that can help people in many fields including fire-fighters, fire scientists, land owners, and foresters.  It can improve observation, communicate ideas, and help make novel connections. This would be an opportunity for me to prove the practical application of nature journaling. We need to get nature journaling into the hands of more people. We need to apply nature journaling to more critical fields.

teaching nature journaling at a prescibed burn
Here I am teaching a segment about nature journaling to the prescribed burn participants
Some Background…

TREX is the prescribed burn training exchange program of the Nature Conservancy. These exchanges were started to deal with the shortage of trained people. Prescribed fire is the easiest and most cost effective way of reducing excess fuels. Excess fuels are one of the main causes of the catastrophic fires we have been seeing. However, there are not enough trained people. Therefore we need TREX. So far I have nature journaled at two TREX live fires.

participant in a prescribed burn putting down fire with a drip torch
Prescribed Fire practitioner laying down fire in “dots” on our burn day.

Plumas County Fire Safe Council put on the specific TREX event that I taught at. The goal of the council is to prevent loss of human and natural resources caused by fires. One way to do this is to use prescribed burns for reducing fuel. Logo for Plumas Fire Safe Council

The Mountain Maidu are the main indigenous people residing in the Plumas County area. They historically used fire to manage the landscape ecology and select for ethnobotanical resources. Most of California was managed with fire by indigenous populations and was essential for their food production and other resources. The suppression of fire by European Americans was a direct attack on indigenous livelihoods. Efforts to bring back prescribed fire and cultural burning in California is often be spearheaded by California Native groups. One example is the Eco-Cultural Revitalization program of the Karuk Tribe

Recent Fires in the Area

The North Complex Fire started on August 17th 2020 and grew to a perimeter  of 318,935 acres before being contained completely on December 3rd. The fire moved through the Plumas National Forest in Plumas County and Butte County.

In addition the devastating North Complex Fire, the Camp Fire burned through neighboring Butte County in 2018. This is the fire that devastated the town of Paradise California in November of 2018. It covered and area of 153,336 acres and destroyed more buildings and killed more people that the North Complex Fire. The drought in California was one factor that allowed for this fire. Normally the area would have received more rain by this late time in the year. I drove through some of the burn scar from this fire on my way to the Plumas TREX. I was also able to nature journal near Lake Concow in May and see the fire regrowth there.

Another Reason to Nature Journal Prescribed Fire

You might be asking yourself this question.

“Hey Marley! How does this kind of extreme nature journaling during a fire apply to me?”

That would be a good question. Some of you might live somewhere in which fire is not a big part of the local ecology. You might not be as mobile as I am or even have the access that I do. For this reason I like to bring it back to the average nature journaler. With this in mind I test techniques and supplies in extreme conditions. What I have found is that the things that work under duress will be easier to use in the average situation. This principle helps me recommend better techniques and supplies.

nature journaling at a prescribed fire
Me nature journaling on the burn day with prescribed fire practitioners.

For example, my main drawing tool worked great during the prescribed fire and is my favorite nature journaling tool. The gray and black ink allowed me to draw smoke, make text and images stand out, and create an appealing visual hierarchy.

nature journaling prescribed fire using a brush pen with gray and black ink to create the feeling of smoke
You can see how I used the gray ink to create the appearance of smoke and the black ink to show the foreground trees using the Pilot Futayaku Pen
Nature Journaling at a Prescribed Fire page showing notes and drawings with gray and black ink brush pen
You can see here how I created a visual hierarchy and page composition with the gray and black ink.

So obviously the Pilot Futayaku Brush Pen is a good choice but what about choosing other art and nature supplies? In that case check out Nature Journaling Supplies: What You Need and What You Do Not

Post-Fire Nature Journaling Workshops with Laurie Wigham
nature journaling at a prescribed burn, Laurie Wigham teaching Quincy community members how to use art as a way to process and connect with areas that burned recently around their homes
Laurie Teaching Nature Journaling and other art techniques to locals in an area that burned in the North Complex Fire.

In addition to teaching nature journaling to the prescribed fire participants there was also a community art workshop led by Laurie Wigham. Laurie is an experienced urban sketcher and nature journaler. She taught workshop attendees how to observe degrees of burn severity and also how to use twigs dipped in ink for drawing. This was a free workshop for the local community of Quincy California and was sponsored by the Plumas Fire Safe Council. As I assisted Laurie I soon realized with the therapeutic role that nature journaling could play for people who had traumatic experiences with fire. Recently, Miriam Morrill, John Muir Laws, and Scott Amick organized a mini conference on the potential for combining nature journaling with a trauma-informed therapy approach for communities affected by fire. You can see the sessions on youtube here.

Are you new to nature journaling? If so, then this post has the basics : How to Nature Journal in 10 Steps

here is a view of an aread that burned in the North Complex Fire and some green regrowth from a shrub that survived
Regrowth is apparent at the base of a tree that looks dead in this area that was hit hard by the North Complex fire.

Extreme Nature Journaling with Kim Mcnett

Extreme nature journaling has lessons for all of us even if we are just nature journaling from home. Do you want to find a deeper connection and purpose in your nature journaling? Do you want to nature journal more in the winter?

I was so excited to talk to Kim Mcnett for this interview.  Her pages on the nature journal club facebook page are great. But I knew I just  had to interview her for the Nature Journal Show when I saw the crazy expeditions she was nature journaling on!

Why Extreme Nature Journaling Matters to You

Despite my obvious interest in extreme nature journaling I think there are lessons here for everybody. Even if you are not nature journaling in the arctic, in the amazon, in the grand canyon or with hunter gatherer tribes in East Africa, there is still a lot to learn. First, we can all be inspired by the work that extreme nature journalers are doing. These people can also contribute to the global awareness about the environment and the role that nature journaling can play. Imagine if there were thousands of nature journalers on the frontlines: Documenting endangered species on every continent? Sketching and sharing about critical restoration projects around the world? Asking questions and painting landscapitos of shrinking glaciers in the arctic?

Lastly, and more practically, extreme nature journaling is a crucible for testing techniques and supplies in the most challenging situations. If a watercolor palette works in the high Andes or on a sea-kayaking trip it will probably work at your local park. Extreme nature journalers can then help the rest of our community grow and learn better.

10 Tips for Nature Journaling in the Winter

  1. Take care of your basic physical needs first. If you can’t stay comfortable and warm you will not be able to focus on higher level things such as nature journaling.
  2. Reset your expectations. You might not make your most beautiful art while you are working in challenging conditions. Rethink what your goal is. What else do you value besides a pretty page?
  3. Keep your supplies simple. Your winter kit should be basic. You don’t want to be fumbling with a lot of different materials.
  4. Practice being outside more. It is hard to practice two new things at once. You might need to just practice being comfortable outside more before you try to add nature journaling to your expectations.
  5. Try journaling from your window. You can nature journal the winter while staying in the comfort of your home if you sit at a window and look outside. This is a setup that is worth investing in. Maybe just moving some furniture around can make it work.
  6. Nature Journal from your car. Similarly, you can use your car as a mobile nature journal studio. Park it somewhere cool!
  7. Keep your hands warm with mittens. Kim recommends mittens over gloves.
  8. Keep warm with disposable chemical hand warmers. Have one of these in your pockets in case you start losing dexterity in your hands.
  9. Insulate your bum. Kim has cut a small piece of a sleeping pad to sit on. Or you can draw standing up.
  10. Cold weather watercolor tips: Although multiple people say you can use vodka instead of water to prevent freezing Kim has not had good luck with this. She also warns that gloves and mittens often smudge watercolor so be careful.

Why should I nature Journal in the Winter Anyways?

First of all, nature journaling is good for your mental health. Winter can be a dark time in more ways than one. Connecting with nature, unlocking our creativity, slowing down to pay attention, and getting some light exercise outdoors are all scientifically tested ways of improving your mood. Second, not nature journaling for five months out of the year is gonna put a huge dent in your learning and skill-building. You can also fall out of the habit, lose motivation, and miss out on nature journaling community or friendships. (nature journaling outside with friends is a fine way to connect during covid). Third, nature journaling in the winter will help you understand where you live so much better.

Nature Journaling can help save humanity

I often like to ask guests on the Nature Journal Show what  they think the future of nature journaling is. When I asked Kim she was adamant in her belief that we are in troubled times and that nature journaling could be one of the most important ways to help people shift their perspective. Living in Alaska for 10 years she has witnessed the accelerating climate change that is impacting the far north faster than the lower 48. She has watched permafrost disappear and glaciers recede. She argues that we have all the technology and know-how to fix this problem and prevent the destruction of our life support system. However, it is our willingness to change that is lacking. It is a shift in priorities and values that is needed and nature journaling can help people value nature in a deeper way.

More extreme nature journaling?

If you want to learn more about the nature journaling expeditions that Kim is doing and the other awesome work that she is up to check out her website.

If you want to a deeper look into some of the videos that Kim mentioned and the work her partner Bjorn Olson is up to check out his website.

Just getting started with nature journaling?

Need more tips? If so, check out this post. It will walk you through how to nature journal in 10 steps.

Need help choosing nature journaling supplies? Check out Nature Journaling Supplies: What You Need and What You Do Not