Stories from the Barn

A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands

A Nature Journal – Drawing Inspiration From Nature


My first nature journal.

I have wanted to keep a nature journal for a number of years but lacked confidence in drawing skills to have a go. There are some beautiful nature journals on social media, drawn by professional artists, mine will not look like theirs. However my skills at observation have improved over the last year and I wanted to capture those observations in a meaningful way.

So the way forward seemed to be to jot things down whilst out walking. I use the phone to capture a narrative that can then be drawn into the nature journal later on. This seems to be the best course of action, especially as most walks take place with a black Labrador on the end of a lead. It is an entirely personal thing and therefore I can record whatever I want to record from what I observe around me. It’s like keeping a diary, there are no rules as to what is recorded.

My first nature journalThe history of the nature journal.

The history of the nature journal probably begins with the C17th and C18th enlightenment period. This was the period when science theory came from scientific observation and data collection, rather than religious doctrine or ‘magik’. During this period, the world opened up to exploration and discovery. Improvements in ship technology and marine navigation sent scientists and adventurers into new lands. New skies opened above them and an unrealized world of plants and animals below them. The phenomenon, ‘the field notebook’ was born.  These field note books were filled with observation of the natural world.

Scientific Field Journals

They are the original records of scientific discovery. From James Cooke to Charles Darwin they contain primary source material that describes a range of information. They include meteorological and geological records, to place observation of plants and animals in context.  All sorts of anthropological details were also included. The first journals were of course, hand written and hand drawn. As technology advanced, photographs were added and then later, film and audio.

Female scientists, for whom there were few, if any ways to follow their chosen specialty, also kept nature journals. These journals could be shared with their male counterparts who were members of scientific institutions. If they were fortunate enough to have such support it was a way for their work to be recognized. Amazingly beautiful and detailed botanical note books were kept by female artists. They form a significant body of field study during this period and are stunningly beautiful.

An explosion of journal keeping in Victorian society.

The rapid industrial development of the C18th and C19th, meant the pastoral idyll was no longer quite what it was.  It changed the face of Britain and what emerged were altered landscapes and communities in which industrialization held sway. There was a nostalgic longing to hold onto the concept of an idyllic countryside. Poets and writers fueled the Romantic movement and Nature dominated the English sensibility. The suggestion is that the Victorians, at least those in the middle and upper classes, used nature as a surrogate faith. It was a source of comfort and reassurance in an increasingly complex and industrialized world. Maybe it was also a way to keep hold of something simpler and more understandable. In a world where science was becoming increasingly exciting and yet alarmist, all at the same time, the natural world was a place of safety.

So the Victorians embraced nature in all artistic forms from poetry and literature, to art and interiors and architecture. Nature journals were part of this desire to keep nature close and hold at bay the inevitable march forward of science and industrialization.

Drawings, pressed flowers and poetry were frequently included in the journal.

Pressed flowers were popular in Victorian nature journals.

Why record in a nature journal now?

Keeping a nature journal is akin to keeping a diary, it is a personal thing. Don’t worry whether you can draw well or write cleverly. It is a way to engage with the natural world, to enhance all your observational skills. Watching for things that capture your imagination is an absorbing activity, filled with whatever inspires you. In the present uncertain and troubled time, it helps to be able to move away from a screen and be creative. I’ve noticed that the more time I spend taking photos, drawing, painting, and jotting notes, the more I learn about and appreciate the world around me.

What to record in a nature journal?

Record whatever you observe. Gilbert White the naturalist who, in the mid C18th captured his observations in a diary, recorded the weather each day. Cloud shapes and forms, rainfall and wind can all be part of the naturalists narrative. In fact any detail that captures the eye, that tickles the eye however small a detail, deserves inclusion. Here are some ideas of what you might wish to include;

  • Weather. It might be a literal record of conditions or you might want to describe it in more prosaic terms. It sets the scene for what you are observing.
  • Clouds
  • The geology and soils
  • Plants, look to see not just the most obvious ones but the overlooked, the common. Find out the names of the plants you walk over each day but know nothing about.
  • Look for changes in the same location. Watch out for the first appearance of things like fungi, buds appearing
  • Spot insects, actively look for them and try and identify them. Once you begin you see them everywhere.
  • Watch out for animal tracks and signs and record them.
  • Listen out and record different birdsong.
  • Spot which birds are around but also record what they are doing
  • Make field sketches. They don’t need to be perfect, just capture the moment.
  • Take a photo to remind yourself of details
  • Once home gather your thoughts. A journal page can be a record of one thing or of many.
  • Draw (it doesn’t matter how good or bad it is, it’s your art).
  • Write from your heart
  • Weave in other peoples words that have meaning for you or are pertinent to the page
  • Make a montage of photos/drawings/pressed flowers etc
  • Sketch landscapes. They can be rough and ready, drawn in the field and finished at home.
  • Don’t forget to make records of what you can hear or smell