Checking on Your Homework

by Virginia Parker Staat

As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing.
I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche.
I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.      ~ John Muir (journal fragment, c. 1871)

During the 2014 RMOWP conference, our writing workshop ended with a homework assignment. I’m checking up on you. How’s it going?

Our homework assignment was to begin keeping a field journal. Perhaps now is a good time to revisit that assignment and look a little deeper into understanding why journaling can be such a powerful tool for outdoor writers.

Like a photographer soon learns the necessity of using a tripod, outdoor writers find great benefits in keeping a field journal. A field journal sharpens a writer’s awareness and observation skills. Keeping a journal helps a writer to observe levels in a landscape, from the smallest organisms to the greater ecosystem. We recognize the symbiotic relationships between creatures and the places they inhabit and how those relationships change during cycles and seasons. Done well, field journaling heightens our personal awareness, enabling us to better interpret and understand our feelings about the natural world. Most importantly, field journaling helps us to remember our experiences and the details we witness.

Field journaling has a long history of famous followers. Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Edward Abbey, and Peter Mattheisson kept meticulous journals, using them as the basis for their writings. These journals are now treasured, revealing as much about their keepers as the places they cherished.

writer's journal
Journal sample © Ken Scott

Because our journals express much about who we are and how we see the world, their focus is largely a personal preference. Someone who writes scientifically will have a different journal focus than someone who writes from an environmental perspective. In the image provided by American frontier artist Ken Scott, his artistic emphasis is evident in his journaling pages (

We keep field journals to learn more about a place. They are meant to be working notebooks rather than personal diaries or records of elevated thought. We fill them with jumbled, fragmented sentences, scribbles, and hasty sketches. Journal types may include the chronology of a trip, seasonal changes to a particular landscape, natural history observations, or a journal of a special location or species. To find examples of journaling techniques, check your local library for How to Keep a Naturalist’s Notebook by Susan Leigh Tomlinson and Keeping a Nature Journal by C.W. Leslie and C.E. Roth.

The journal itself can also take many forms. Some prefer a loose-leaf notebook or hardbound, lined journal. Others prefer a sketchbook with blank pages and a lay-flat design. I prefer a pocket-sized spiral notebook.

My field journals have evolved over the years from diary-like entries of trip highlights to emphasizing the power of a specific place. I prefer a simple journaling approach, focusing on the sensual, searching for meaningful metaphors, and trying to capture the essence of a landscape through words. In the artistic department, stick figures are a challenge for me, so I often photograph the details of the landscape. Within the last few years, however, I have found it extremely beneficial to attempt to sketch at least one thing with each journal entry, normally an animal. This art exercise always enhances my experience. Focusing on the one thing that I am sketching allows me to discover nuances and connect to the landscape in a way that would have otherwise been impossible without the deliberate intention to incorporate art into the journal.

I hope you, too, discover how keeping a field journal can become a tremendous tool for your writing. Field journaling can help us to become keen observers of our environment. Their combination of words and art record what we see and how we see the world. Most importantly, our field journals offer us the opportunity to recall the depth of our experiences in a particular place, to share our passion for the outdoors, and to inspire others to develop their own observation skills. I look forward to hearing from you about your journaling homework.