For many of us the time we spend in the outdoors amounts to the best part of our busy lives. That has prompted me to invent ways to make those times remain with me as long as possible. One way to do that is by keeping a natural history journal. It could start with the very practical aspects of a small notebook with recorded dates such as the time when a favorite wildflower can be found in bloom in some secluded ravine, or the best date to see migrating raptors at your favorite mountain overlook. It is always useful to have such information available for future reference. My interest in nature journals started early during my days in New England where I enjoyed John Hay’s poetic calendar of the arrival of spring on Cape Cod (The Run). Then on to Thoreau’s famous journal while on sabbatical and exploring the woods around my rented home in areas adjacent to Walden Pond. I soon had my own personal copies of the Lewis and Clark journals while living in Montana, and then the Ozark and Ouachita journals of Schoolcraft and Nuttall after arriving in Arkansas. All of these serve as useful examples of how to effectively record the scenes and events of an outdoor excursion.
The usual arguments against journaling involve not knowing where to start or not crediting yourself with the discipline required to keep it up. These are indeed formidable obstacles. But the advantages of having such a journal can easily outweigh the inconvenience and investment of time. At a time when my arthritic bones and creaky joints make more strenuous adventures impossible it is a comfort to have volumes of recollections recorded to refresh the memory of some of the more exhilarating times – like surprise bear encounters, challenging river crossings and occasional back country disorientation. That alone is more than adequate payback. Then there are the rewards of systematically investigating and identifying the plants, animals and geological formations that you took the time to look at and describe. Things that you might have otherwise forgotten and therefore neglected to follow up on investigating. I often find myself going back to correct identification of some obscure botanical detail or to follow up on additional information encountered along the way. Recall Franklin’s comment about how firewood warms the body twice – once in the effort of cutting, and then sitting by the stove later on. Think how many times your journal can warm your soul in first recounting a day’s adventure and then recalling the best excursions many more times to come.
Getting started can be relatively easy. Like most other ventures, what you need is a plan. Decide where to keep your journal – in a bound notebook, collated in a loose-leaf folder, or maybe just on your word processor. More involved is coming up with a standardized format you can rely on. Thoreau used an almost random list of events, observations and general musings presented in rough chronological order during each day’s outing. The hardest part in reading his journal is identifying the familiar place names he uses to identify his travels – features tied to farm owners long gone from the scene and in a landscape radically changed by forest regeneration. My own standard template is an outing title denoting date, location and perhaps the planned focal point of the day. Then a single-sentence capsule description of the weather, mostly as it affected the day’s progress. After that, just a series of paragraphs describing what I saw, what was noteworthy about it, and how that might connect to various background topics of interest. It’s just that simple. Otherwise, I am probably as guilty as Thoreau in identifying locations that are familiar to me but might be hard for others to fathom – or for me to remember decades later. So it’s important to be precise enough that you can revisit – in person or by memory – locations when returning years later while living far removed from the location and becoming unfamiliar with the details of activities a decade or more ago. It has been a special delight for me to return to the exact scenes of my first tentative adventures in the Montana Rockies or the Florida Everglades in the forgotten bloom of youthful enthusiasm, and having my journal entry from that day ready at hand.
One of my personal specialties is providing sketches of landscape scenes and botanical details. There has never been any effort at creating a real form of art – this is no more than experienced draftsmanship. That kind of developed skill can be daunting to beginners in view of my fifty years of experience in doing this.
But think how useful it can be to capture the spatial relationships you see – spacing of trees, arrangement of leaves, or orientations of inclined blocks of sandstone adjacent to a cliff face. I have always found it surprising how difficult it can be to capture the technical details of things you see in the woods with a photograph. The effort of diagraming what’s in front of you really helps when it comes time to reference what you have seen when you get back home and consult relevant sources.
This applies whether you are trying to capture the growth form of a wildflower or the texture of a rock formation. Making an attempt to sketch the geometry and spatial arrangement lets you focus on the factors that control your view at the time. Instructive practical examples come from Thoreau’s journal. He includes a number of line drawings or diagrams that may seem crude, but very effectively show exactly what he is talking about. The reader can immediately grasp what he is describing in a way that would be hard to capture with the today’s cameras, let alone with the primitive daguerreotype equipment available in Thoreau’s time.
The best way to illustrate my own take on journaling is by providing a specific example. Here is my entry for a memorable hike taken about a year after my arrival in the Ozarks – one that records my visit to one of the more remote places you can visit on the upper Buffalo, while capturing my sense of wonder at the raw natural beauty that my adopted state has to offer.
Boen Gulf bushwhack to upper Buffalo – November 1, 2011
Typical fall day with bright sunshine and gusty winds in the late afternoon. The idea is to go all the way down to the Gulf outlet on the Buffalo River to check out that waterway under extreme low-water conditions. Although the slopes above Buffalo River at Boxley are colorful, the leaves seem to have mostly come down around the trailhead and down into the upper reaches of the drainage. Leaves completely cover the rocks in the small headwater rills. Even the understory beeches have leaves that are mostly bronze with just a few yellow patches. Thus a few green leaved little trees stick out conspicuously. They are clearly small cucumber trees and growing way above their supposed habitat at the base of cliffs. Going down to the first big descent the old road/trail is so overgrown as to almost escape detection, a sign that the wilderness designation is having the desired effect. At the bottom, the creek crossing has hardly the smallest trickle of water, mostly running beneath the leaf litter. Witch hazel now in full bloom with its inconspicuous yellow flowers.
Past here the trail peters out entirely, the flow is reduced to a few shallow pools, with most of the deeper plunge pools completely dry. Marvel at the complicated tangles of exposed roots on the beeches, walnuts, sycamores, and sweetgums that are subjected to scour during high water. The big trees are mostly bare, with a few colorful leaves in the occasional oak, and bright patches where dogwood or small sugar maples hold forth among the rocks. The giant umbrella magnolia leaves litter the ground where they curl up into pale brown cylinders and give the forest floor a real snakey look. Alumroot still blooming from perches on mossy rock ledges. Beech and sycamore pretty much dominate, with some red oaks (black or northern red?) and sweetgums. Almost no acorns being shed, but some oak leaves do look like Q rubra, and find one or two acorns characteristic of that species. The scenery is dominated by giant sandstone slabs – oblong and full of bed corrugations, and handsomely dappled with various lichens and mosses. They are a little less scenic when you have to scramble over them, taking care to avoid slipping on wet leaves or falling into leaf filled crevices.
Get down past the one major jumbled block area and hope for better conditions further down. At first that’s what happens. Come down onto a veritable pavement with water running down a kind of linear chute developed on a joint. The pavement heads in a little stair-step waterfall (dry) with flat beds. There is even a sort of terrace on one side that is easy walking.
Unfortunately, that’s not how it’s going to be. Some kind of junction is apparent ahead, and it’s just a major side valley from the west. The canyon turns abruptly to the east and soon enters the worst of it. Truly immense sandstone slabs canted at all kinds of crazy angles with deep water-filled pools between them. No recourse but to repeatedly claw my way up the steep and slippery valley sides to get around one impasse after another. Good thing there are lots of sturdy beech saplings for hand holds. Then the situation is further complicated by several large tangled blow-downs of beech and oak. All of this scrambling provides a good opportunity to look at the ground cover up close and personal. Amazed by the abundance of one of my favorite plants – the round-lobed hepatica. It’s just about everywhere, with many of those tiny little jewel-like seedlings. Maybe the steep slope provides enough pockets of fertile little seedbeds of exposed organic soil for the little seeds to get started. Wild ginger seems almost as common. The scenery just seems to get wilder and wilder. Then it abruptly calms down. The valley widens on both sides into an open forest of regal trees. White ash has been consistently present along the ravine, but now some truly giant ashes, three feet in diameter and deep corky ridges for bark, join the sweetgums, sycamores, and sturdy red/black oaks. No mockernut but a few shagbark hickories on the flats. This is more of a stroll in the park. A few minor overflow channels and the occasional thicket of multiflora rose. There’s a good quarter mile of this before finally breaking out on the Buffalo River through a screen of greenbrier and brush.
The river itself is a real disappointment. Not much actual flow and most of the water in the form of shallow pools filled with vibrantly green algae. Part of this must be related to the complete absence of shade. No sign of fish life in the water, even at a deep scour pool around a large sandstone slab boulder. One small frog and one large tadpole is all. Very brushy around the edges. Mostly witch hazel and alder with hawthorn and small beeches, laced together by greenbrier, grape, and multiflora rose. A short section of flowing ankle-deep water between more shallow pools. It certainly seems surprising that there aren’t even minnows in the shallow riffles. But it’s not surprising that there are no fish-eating birds here like kingfisher and heron. Return back up the Gulf with the maze of sandstone blocks now falling into deep and gloomy shadow as the sun lowers towards the horizon.