Time outdoors is a gift to yourself. Writing about your experience could be a gift to the next generation. Anyone can enjoy observing and recording natural phenomena—warblers migrating, wild orchids blooming, mayflies hatching. It's a practice worth cultivating. Here are some examples to encourage your note taking.
A legend in wildlife conservation circles, the late Arthur (Art) Hawkins filled scores of notebooks with field notes during his lifetime. As a young ornithologist and then a graduate student in game management (under Aldo Leopold), he developed the habit of documenting his observations. This past year I had the pleasure of meeting Betty Hawkins, his wife. Art and Betty began keeping journals together in the 1940s. She showed me her collection of slim volumes with the word journal embossed in gold letters on each spine and cover.
The journals refer to Art's work as a waterfowl researcher with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but they concentrate on life at home and in the neighborhood. For example, Dec. 26, 1954: "Checked our gravel pit for oxygen content. Found it dangerously low. Flushed 14 pheasants along edge of marsh east from house. Saw kingfisher fly over." Jan. 3, 1955: "Office routine … Still hasn't dropped to zero this winter, almost a new record. (Latest on record for 1st zero day Jan. 9)." May 31, 1955: "Last night a polyphemus moth emerged from its cocoon on our back porch." On family vacation in Wyoming, June 14, 1960: "Awakened by Clark's nutcracker behind camp. Tex and Ellen took early morning hike. They saw a bull moose. … We all saw a cow and yearling up a draw across the valley. … In PM Tex and I hiked the 2½ miles into Fish L. and were rewarded with 12 cutthroats all between 11-14 [inches]."
The beauty of these journals lies in the everyday details. Together, they make a portrait of people and place.
Writing letters can also create a personal history. Aldo Leopold, conservationist and author of A Sand County Almanac, first exercised his writing muscles in letters home, according to his biographer Curt Meine. When teenage Aldo left for boarding school, his father told him to write "as often as you can every detail of your life in school as it will be of interest to us." And so he did, Meine reports, four or five times a week. "Aldo's correspondence was … his literary training ground, his naturalist's notebook, and his private connection to the family. … Most important, Aldo's letters allowed him to explore and express his absorbing relationship with nature."
The intention to write can sharpen a person's observation skills. It might also prompt speculation about interactions of people and wild things. Writing can heighten awareness of the moments that make a day. Writing jump-starts memory. It challenges the writer to organize thoughts, pose questions, and deepen thinking. These are all good reasons to practice nature writing.
This past spring Metropolitan State University professor Julie Daniels invited me to listen to her students discuss their nature writing. The weekly evening class, American Nature Writers, attracts about 30 working adults from the cities and suburbs. Most sessions begin with each student finding an outdoor observation spot on the urban campus. Their field notes furnish material for writing essays.
Listening to these men and women talk about their experience, I was struck by how little contact with nature most of them had before the course. One student described how the observation practice has helped her enjoy her early morning walk to the bus stop. A young woman said she feels jealous of all the time Henry David Thoreau spent in Walden Woods, immersed in nature. One student concluded, "Nature makes your thoughts bigger than yourself." All expressed gratitude for their outdoor encounters.
At a recent Minnesota Master Naturalists conference, I led a session on storytelling. A volunteer naturalist told us his wife began writing to their son when he left home for college. She called her letters "Small Town News" and wrote them as daily reports. When their son moved to Chicago, she stopped sending her steady stream of news—until he asked her to please keep writing.
Someone in the next generation may be grateful if you write as often as you can, every detail, as it will be of interest.
Kathleen Weflen, editor