Fall workshops — Nature Journaling and Nature Writing

Have you ever wanted to start a nature journal, or take the leap into nature writing? I’m offering two workshops on those subjects this fall at the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill, just west of downtown Tucson.


Nature Journaling: Learn the art of seeing and recording the world around you

Friday, November 15 – 5 pm to 7 pm in the Tumamoc Library

Saturday, November 16 – 9 am to 3 pm at Tumamoc Hill

Sunday, November 17 – 9 am to 3 pm at Tumamoc Hill

$145 per person

Keeping a nature journal can both deepen your connections to the natural world and help you learn more about it. Neither science education nor art training is needed—you will develop the skills of a naturalist and a field sketch-artist along the way.

This 3-session class will introduce the tools and processes of keeping a nature journal, with instructor Roseann Hanson and guest instructor Paul Mirocha.

“Your observations, questions, and reflections will enrich your experiences and develop gratitude, reverence, and the skills of a naturalist . . . If you train your mind to see deeply and with intentional curiosity . . . the world will open before you.” - John Muir Laws, artist, naturalist, and author

In this class we will learn how to practice “intentional curiosity” as the core of nature journaling: to ask questions, to dig deeper, to focus our minds both intently and intentionally.

The class will include:

The nuts-and-bolts of journal-keeping (paper and ink types, archival systems, how to make entries that you can refer to later, laying out pages, prompts to jump-start observations, and tips on researching science questions sparked by your observations).

Easy tips that enable anyone to get started sketching and painting. Roseann will help free you from your inner critic and start sketching and painting. Art in a nature journal is not only lovely to see, but an important component of your skillset because the very act of drawing and painting something from life involves incredibly intense observation. Your brain is wholly occupied by only that thing you are observing and drawing—it is a kind of meditation that results in new insights, deeper understanding, and even reverence and gratitude.

Instructor Roseann Hanson, who has been keeping a nature journal for more than 30 years, will be your guide on the journey to becoming a naturalist, nature journalist, and artist.

TO FIND OUT MORE DETAILS AND TO REGISTER: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/nature-journaling-tickets-69219225567


Writing the Lives of the Sonoran Desert: Exploring nature with words

Friday, December 13 – 5 pm to 7 pm in the Tumamoc Library

Saturday, December 14 – 9 am to 3 pm at Tumamoc Hill

Sunday, December 15 – 9 am to 3 pm at Tumamoc Hill

$145 per person

In this class you will learn to explore nature with words, from poetry to fiction to science writing. You will learn to participate in nature fully and honestly, as well as to observe, record, and express nature in writing, without “purple prose.”

Nature writers Jonathan and Roseann Hanson will share with you their “secret” for a daily dose of wildness, along with a simple process of recording what you observe accurately, of researching facts and details, and then potentially producing an article or essay for personal enjoyment or publication.

The class will include:

Prior to the workshop: The Hansons will share a suggested reading list and a few easy assignments to give you content to bring to the first class.

On Friday evening in the beautiful Desert Laboratory library, which resonates with over a century of powerful words about nature (it is the birthplace of the field of ecology and the venerable journal Ecology), Jonathan and Roseann will introduce types of writing and share samples to discuss:

- Nature writing (more poetic writing; examples of writers: Terry Tempest Williams, Gary Snyder)

- Natural history writing (combining science with creative prose; examples of writers: Gary Paul Nabhan, Robert Michael Pyle, Ann Zwinger, Pete Dunne)

- Interpretive writing (careful interpretation of science-based facts into interesting writing for very general use)

- Or a combination of all three, such as Diane Ackerman’s Natural History of the Senses.

On Saturday and Sunday the class will spend time exploring Tumamoc Hill and engaging with its wildness through writing exercises. Bring a lunch each day to enjoy in the Sonoran Plant garden courtyard. Throughout the weekend we’ll share writing, and discuss ways to overcome common challenges such as overly “purple” prose or writer’s block.

By the end of class, you will come away with a new outlook on nature writing, along with new skills. Along the way the Hansons will challenge your perception of nature and your role in it—and spark your creative process.

TO FIND OUT MORE DETAILS AND TO REGISTER: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/writing-the-lives-of-the-sonoran-desert-tickets-69223668857

The art of seeing instead of looking: reasons to keep a nature journal

A nature journal is about observing–questioning–reflecting. My pages often contain circled question marks, to remind me to research into a question sparked by close observation. They also contain ink sketches and watercolor paintings, not just because they are attractive to me and a great source of relaxation, but because the very act of drawing and painting something from life involves incredibly intense observation. The whole world of stress and deadlines and discord slips away and my brain is wholly occupied by only that thing I’m observing and drawing—a kind of meditation that results in deeper understanding and even reverence and gratitude.

A nature journal is about observing–questioning–reflecting. My pages often contain circled question marks, to remind me to research into a question sparked by close observation. They also contain ink sketches and watercolor paintings, not just because they are attractive to me and a great source of relaxation, but because the very act of drawing and painting something from life involves incredibly intense observation. The whole world of stress and deadlines and discord slips away and my brain is wholly occupied by only that thing I’m observing and drawing—a kind of meditation that results in deeper understanding and even reverence and gratitude.

I’ve been keeping journals for over 45 years, since I was 8 or 9 years old, and they became nature-oriented about 35 years ago, when I started studying ecology and evolutionary biology in college and began publishing books and articles about natural history. Data and sketches from my journals have been used in several books written by me and my husband, Jonathan Hanson.

This year I was fortunate to join the team at the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill as Art & Science Program coordinator—where helping put together classes on field sketching and science notebooks is part of my job.

In the process of working up some new courses for fall 2019 and spring 2020, I’ve been delving into the question:

Why keep a nature journal?

Is it just to make a collection of pretty pictures?

Is it simply a list of places and plants and animals?

Does it accomplish anything of value beyond a record?

With the passion of a crusader, naturalist, artist, and author John Muir Laws (The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling) describes the value of nature journaling beyond being a mere record:

If you “train your mind to see deeply and with intentional curiosity . . . the world will open before you;”


“Keeping a journal of your observations, questions, and reflections will enrich your experiences and develop gratitude, reverence, and the skills of a naturalist.”

If the foundation of science is the ability to “observe-reflect-deduct,” then field notes are the key to the process. The primary skills of a naturalist—a natural scientist—include not just knowledge of the natural world, but more importantly the ability to observe carefully. A naturalist records field notes, which are about observing, questioning, and reflecting. And “observing-questioning-reflecting” = truly seeing, not just looking.

“Intentional curiosity” is a wonderful phrase, full of deeper meaning about the art of seeing. To be curious is to ask questions, to dig deeper, to learn something. When you make the commitment to take down an entry in your nature journal, you are focusing your mind both intently and intentionally. So even if I’m “only” sitting in my backyard, if I focus and pay attention with intention, I almost always learn something new. Just a few weeks ago I was drawing and taking notes on the flowers of a Mexican palo verde (Parkinsonia aculeata), which I’ve seen 100 times. But by intentionally studying it, by observing-questioning-reflecting, I learned something new: the flowers have three color phases. Why, I asked? I learned that the top flower petals change color to red after pollination, to signal to bees that their nectar is no longer available and not waste their time on those flowers but to head to the yellow ones instead.


I believe that keeping a nature journal—field notes, or field notes with sketches—and developing the skills of a naturalist is more important than ever in this digital age of noise and interruptions. The digital generation is adept at multitasking, but they could be losing the ability to focus and see deeply, to slow down and see not just look.

And with this seeing, comes gratitude and reverence for the natural world, according to Laws. And only from this will we as a society be able to come together to conserve the world’s ever-dwindling wild places and plants and animals.

I’m currently re-reading John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts’s 1941 The Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, which is the acknowledged full and shared vision of their collecting expedition aboard the Western Flyer. The account is a supremely readable travel journal, philosophical essay, a nature journal, and a catalogue of species. Steinbeck described the purpose of the journey was:

to stir curiosity

And so we are back to the core of nature journaling.

Laws sums thusly: “The goal of nature journaling is not to create a portfolio of pretty pictures but to develop a tool to help you see, wonder, and remember your experiences.”

And Steinbeck concurs, in the manner of prose that made him justifiably one of our greatest writers (and a great naturalist and nature journaler):

It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars, and then back to the tide pool again.


Simple Leather Journal — 15 years on


My faithful companion now for 15 years, over five continents, tens of thousands of miles. Nothing fancy: It's a one-piece unstructured cover cut from simple vegetable-tanned cowhide, which was simply finished with olive oil. I incorporated the natural edge of the hide into the front cover. (Find a book about the size you want, cover it with plastic, get the leather wet, and shape it to the book and let dry; when the leather is wet, you can also score the cover with decorations—I added my initials.) As you can see, after 15 years of use it gets a nice patina but holds up well; it's been on five continents with me—tens of thousands of miles!

I use Bee Paper 90-pound 9x6 sheets, which is inexpensive but good 100% cotton paper that is archival and holds up well to watercolor washes.

A couple of cheap leather bootlaces act as the sheet binder and the keeper (decorated with African trade beads).

When I fill up a journal, I unbind it and transfer the pages to inexpensive three-ring binders (last photo; I plan to cover these in nice leather eventually—I have 40 years' worth!). 

Advantages: inexpensive, customizable (can add fancy papers, insert memorabilia, maps, etc.), lays flat, durable. Disadvantages: double-page spread is not contiguous (but it works fine for journaling), it's self-made so it's not as easy as buying a new notebook off the shelf, threading the leather cord into the holes is a pain, and sometimes the flexible cover makes it hard to draw (but I found a plastic board to put behind it when I need).

[Related post: Field Sketching Kit — for stand-up sketching]

EDC Field Notebook

1000w copy.jpeg

Sometimes the world aligns in wonderful ways. 

Just before Overland Expo 2016 WEST, I was looking to replace my longtime EDC notebook (Every Day Carry). Since 2006, I've used a Moleskine Cahier notebook encased in a leather cover that I had designed myself and was stitched by Jonathan.

But over the years it became too small, and also I had lost track of so many notebooks — I had no system for managing them. 

I found the Midori notebooks (now called Traveler's Notebooks) and was looking at the Bullet Journal system for tracking multiple EDC journals (


) over time, using indexes and notes-journals as well as task-journals. 

I loved how the Midori notebooks and covers were so versatile: you can combine multiple journals with a clever elastic band system.

But I found the Midori sizing to be not quite right—they offer either passport-sized (too small) or much-larger sized journals (8.2 x 5.5) in leather covers. I waffled. 

To feed my journal lust while postponing the decision about the actual journal, I ordered a new fountain pen from GouletPens.com, a lovely brown-iridescent swirled pen handmade by Brian Hall in Ohio (


), along with some Midori accessories—pockets, a pen clip, and ink.

Then, in Asheville this week while planning the upcoming new EAST show with our wonderful core staff, assistant director Alison DeLapp presented the whole team with Field Notes (


) journals encased in custom leather covers made by one of our favorite instructors, Andrew Pain of MinimalMotorcyclist.com. 

Based on the 5 1/2 x 3 1/2 size of the Field Notes (and Moleskine Cahier), it was perfect. And, it had a custom stamping on the cover: our tagline, "The World Is Waiting."

En route home from Asheville, I discovered it perfectly held two Field Notes insets plus my passport and my iPhone 6S in a Lifeproof case. 

Once home, I collected my new Midori accessories and pen, and put them together into what I think is going to be the perfect EDC field notebook:


Another addition I made was a center insert of watercolor paper (90-pound cold-press) I cut myself and added, about 10 pages total. With my Expeditionary Art watercolor set

https://expeditionaryart.com/shop/art-toolkit/  and a little mini-field-palette I made from a folded coroplast board with a water-well cut to size for an old Bausch-and-Lomb contact cleaning reservoir (which has a water-tight gasket), I have a perfect mini-field-sketching kit right in my EDC. The little bulldog clip that holds the watercolor set acts as the perfect brush holder for my No. 3 Escoda sable traveler's brush.


Maasai shield book completed

We have finalized the print and digital versions of a 112-page book detailing the work of the October 2012 shield-building workshop in southern Kenya. This book is the final visual product we have created for the Maasai community that initiated the cultural conservation program. We are printing 125 copies and are delivering them to the Maasai in November 2013. Please see our notification on the ConserVentures website for more images and ordering information. ConserVentures.org/done

The Silk Road Trilogy

Our friend Steve Bodio—writer, falconer, coursing dog fanatic, and fellow "constant apprentice"—brought to our attention this wonderful project on Kickstarter:

The Silk Road Trilogy by Russian Life — Kickstarter

A small publishing house in Vermont will team up with translators to bring a bestselling Russian trilogy, set in 749 A.D., to English. We pledged, and will receive a copy of the first book, The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas. Congratulations to this project, which was successfully funded today.

Meanwhile, we still have the Blood and Leather project on Kickstarter, with 20 days to go and $800 pledged (and a few more dollars from some friends who just don't do online money stuff).

Please take a look:

Keeping a journal

A Mini Workshop ~ Getting Started

What is a journal?

In the simplest sense, a journal is a record.
A journal can be:

•  a chronicle of your daily activities - factual, or
• ephemeral - thoughts, impressions, dreams
• descriptions of sights, sounds, tastes, and smells
• it can be just words, or
• images or 
• things - ticket stubs, restaurant napkins, bottle labels, stamps, feathers, leaves
• or a combination of all of the above.

There are no hard and fast rules. Rules choke you. Throw them out the window.

In this mini workshop I focus on the creativity - whether you are using traditional or electronic methods of recording. 

Choosing the Format: Paper or Electronic
Advantages of a paper journal:
  • portability, convenience, immediacy, reliability: jot in it whenever the mood strikes
  • romantic, historical
  • tactile, 3-dimensional; vehicle for saving objects
  • inexpensive
Disadvantages of a paper journal: 
  • length is finite or limited by nature
  • hard to reproduce or share or protect (back up)
  • secondary steps needed to combine images
Advantages of electronic journaling (self-contained on the computer, or on the internet, like this blog):
  • fast, good for words
  • theoretically infinite space
  • easy to combine with digital images
  • easy to add sounds and video - especially with new technology like FlipVideo
  • easy to back up and share
Disadvantages of electronic journaling:
  • not tactile
  • skills needed
  • expense (computer, software, hardware)

Tools for Journaling

Traditional Notebook Journal
Choose a journal with acid- and lignin-free paper. That will keep the pages from yellowing and the writing from fading, which will make your journal last even longer.
• Custom one (mine) - paper bought bulk, cut and drilled
• Commercial - Moleskine, Clairefontaine 
Make a little tool kit.  Watercolor pencils and "water brush" (a brush with a water reservoir - perfect for quick painting), pigments, glue sticks, double-tape, scissors, envelopes, Moleskine accordion file, good pens (I like Micron 02 permanent / archival black ink) as well as fountain pens and more creative ink.

Electronic Notebook Journal
Choose a product for recording your journal in your computer.
• Microsoft Word or Apple's Pages
• MacJournal and WindowsJournal by Mariner Software
• Notebook by Circusponies.com
Notebook and Mariner products allow you to publish online but work offline.
In the case of online journals, you can buy a membership in one with many tools and design options or use more basic ones for free. Here are some of the free ones:
• livejournal.com
• journalscape.com
• myspace and facebook

With these sites, you have the option of making entries public, private, or friends only. The friends-only option is readable only to other people who subscribe to the site and have you listed as a friend or who have the password that you created to protect your entries. 
Just make certain that these companies do not try to 'steal' the rights to your work, that you own your material and are not giving away your ownership by 'agreeing' to their terms and conditions (Facebook famously tried to steal all rights to all words and images posted on their pages . . . )
  • Hybrid: you can create your work electronically and then use that media to publish a book. 
  • You can combine traditional journaling - objects, receipts, labels, etc. - and affix them into the printed book.
Inkubook.com, Mac books (iPhoto) are examples of sites and services that do this.


There are two types of people - when confronted by a blank journal.
• is excited, sees open possibilities, and creative juices start flowing
• is stricken by the terror of the blank page

"Lower your standards." - William Stafford's cure for writer's block

Open that blank journal or open a new document and just begin.

But how?! Here is some advice.

First, Have a Routine
Chances are that if you are here, you yearn to be more creative in your life.
One of the best tips to focus on that is to make quiet time in your life. An hour in the morning with coffee or tea and sunrise and birdsong, writing in your journal. Or in the evening, a glass of wine and sunset.
I can’t stress enough how important that is. Even if you still are strangled or don’t know what to write - just open the pages, and record empirical things - weather, mileage, a list of wildlife or plants, names of places or people.
Use All Your Senses
If you’re really not sure how to begin recording your trip, think about what really matters to you.

  • Did the Muslim call to prayer you heard in Istanbul five times a day move you? Describe its sound.
  • Did you have an unforgettable meal in Bahia de los Angeles? Tell what you ate and describe the taste, texture, and smell of the food.
  • Each of us remembers or is moved by different things. For some of us it’s people - for others, animals. Ornament. Color. Light. Smells. Simply record them.
  • Even if all you record are the names of restaurants where you ate, the hotel where you stayed, or the people that you met, and any snippets of the language you picked up - it makes the accounts of your travel experiences much more complete.
  • Quotes - if you know a quote that makes you think of your destination, include that in your journal. If quotes seem beyond you, then record favorite local slang.
"Too many people delude themselves by thinking the mind is dangerous and must be left out. Well. The mind is dangerous and must be left in." - Robert Frost

"Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Art is a big mistake." - Allen Ginsberg

Suggested Writing Exercises

Sometimes exercise is good for you. Here are some good ones to try if writing is tough for you and you need to break free of the Terror.

30 minutes alone: 

Watch the behavior of an animal (bird, insect, squirrel...) or flowering plant or tree and write field-note style on everything you observe about that animal, without any interpretation. Fill the pages with as much "thick description" as possible. Alternatively, you could do this for a particular site, and describe the vegetation, topography, birdlife, etc., in as much detail as possible. (Knowing names of things are not so important as describing the details of what your senses take in.) 

Could repeat this with different animal or plant. If you choose an animal, note something specific about its behavior, such as, record what it pays attention to that you normally do not.

Walk and Record

Walk for a few minutes (e.g. 10) in a nearby natural setting andconsider how that place connects you with someone significant in your life.Write on that connection for 20 minutes without lifting your pen from the page.

From Joan Logghe, amended by me:

1. List favorite words you like the SOUND of, first ones that flash into
your mind. 2 minutes. Go.

2. For each of these nouns, invent a simili or metaphor (is like, is)
writing the FIRST thing that flashes into your mind (this should go
rapidly, 10-15 seconds per word). You can preface this by explaining that
this is the perfect opportunity for cliches to rear their ugly heads, but
when you write _immediately_ from the senses and from the inner self (or
shadow self), our words connect with energy and power. Metaphor works at
both an intuitive and a logical level. (Eg. the lake is a potato pancake
gone cold.)

the river current
a mesa
my mother
the sky
my father
the desert
the pond
a mosquito
wild horses

Other ideas:

1. Write about the geography of your childhood - OR map it out with a marker on a large sheet of newsprint. 20 minutes.

2. Begin with "one true thing" and write for 15 minutes - see where it takes
you. (e.g. I wrote pieces starting with "I had an old scarf I picked up in Kathmandu," and "My father wore iddy-waddies." This can be amended to something nature-related, such as "Cottonwoods turn yellow in autumn" or "I
am in love with ravens.")

3. Write about your "fierce attachment" to a place. 20 minutes.

4. Tell who you are through landscape. "I am warm red sandstone in evening light. I am raven croaks and aspen leaves spinning on the wind. My
past is all whitewater plunging into mountain pools. My father was the moon, my mother a marsh filled with birdsong..."


If you are like me, you take many pictures and collect a lot of memorabilia - artifacts. By the time you arrive home, remembering everything you did each day can be almost impossible and organizing a pile of collected memorabilia can be daunting. With a little tool kit and pre-prep, it’s actually not all that hard to do it, even on the road.


  • Journal that will stand up to ‘stuff’ - Clairfontaine, Artist Sketchbook. Prepare pages with Gesso - every other or every third (to stand up to glue, etc).   http://www.vickerey.com
  • Moleskine accordion file
  • Glassine or other envelopes
  • Simple glue sticks, tape, scissors
  • Pens, a few colored pencils (Prismacolor) or watercolor kit (mini)
  • Tins (old Altoid tins are perfect)

What are some items you might use?
  • ticket stubs
  • plane boarding passes
  • menus
  • food labels
  • information from travel brochures
  • coins
  • paper money
  • feathers (but remember, technically it is illegal to posses animal parts if from rare / endangered animals)
  • small stones
  • packaging
  • soil - for color
  • berries - for color

Keep it simple & everything goes.

Create pockets out of small bags you received when buying souvenirs for holding things that you don't want to cut up or adhere to the journal.

Keep the album in your bag and pull it out when ever you have some down time.

If you are traveling with others, ask them about their most memorable parts of the day; it can help you remember thing that you had forgotten about.

Artistic tips:
  • Use colored tissue paper to create layers - Golden Gel Medium (soft/gloss) for the adhesive, and apply the gel with a sponge brush. While the page dries, place a piece of waxed paper over it.
  • You can also highlight work with different types of leafing... gold, copper, etc. Adhere it with gel medium, too. 
  • Don't get caught up in using the most/only perfect adhesive for the job; gel medium works well for almost anything. When it won't hold, use Household Goop.
  • Source: http://www.aisling.net
  • Reference: Visual Chronicles: The No-Fear Guide to Creating Art Journals, Creative Manifestos and Altered Books (Paperback) by Linda Woods (Author), Karen Dinino (Author) 


What can your journal become?

Books. Articles. Personal satisfaction.

Our books, San Pedro River: a Discovery Guide, and the Southern Arizona Nature Almanac were both created largely from my daily nature and travel journals.

Final thoughts

Words are powerful. The moment an ephemeral thought or observation is captured and applied to physical existence, that thought or idea or fact takes on another dimension. 

It has weight, can be used, passed on, accessed. Most good essays begin with a journal or field book entry.

Another good reason to keep a journal is that, by paying attention to and recording life’s events around you, you tie yourself more firmly to place—be it your back yard or a whole mountain range.