Nature Journaling: Fast vs. Slow Learning

Anybody who has watched my latest YouTube video will know that I’ve been thinking about learning strategies a lot over the past few weeks. Specifically, I’ve been musing about what exactly it is about the process of nature journaling that has helped me to learn so much more about plants and birds, and applying that to what I really want to learn about next: fungi. 

I started nature journaling in 2016, very shortly after moving to Devon (southwest UK) and before this point I only had a very, very basic knowledge of plants, trees and birds. Perhaps it would be better termed a general interest, rather than a proper embedded knowledge. I would see a bird that I hadn’t seen before, look it up, and then quite promptly forget what it was. 

This is my very first journal page ever, made back in October 2016. This was my first time to sketch out in detail a few plants, and label them. I spent the time looking them up, then reading the descriptions about them. 

Looking back at this now, I was almost certainly wrong about the central flower. In October, it is far more likely to be a later-flowering hogweed than a cow parsley (and chervil is very unlikely indeed). The unlabelled plant at the bottom is likely to be a withered hemp agrimony. 

I can say this now, after 6 years of nature journaling, spending time around plants and observing all life stages closely. I am also not sorry about being wrong, or that I put my error down in ink in perpetuity. My plant book collection has grown, and I like to read multiple different plant descriptions to inspire art and writing about any plant.

The story is similar with birds. We moved to coastal Devon from an urban area, where the only seabirds we ever saw were the herring gulls on the River Thames. Now, I live opposite a tidal estuary nature reserve and I am still learning the names of all the different waders. There are different birds in summer and winter, and some birds that have totally different plumage as the year turns!

I say all of this because I think that nature journaling keeps the “beginner’s mind” fresh. There’s always new things to observe and learn about, and we learn about them in a slow way based on careful observation and looking things up as and when we need to. 

Entering the scene in the last several years, are identification apps. Some of which are very powerful and useful, such as iNaturalist, BirdNet, ShroomID, and Obsidentify (all free!) I love these apps as a tool to use alongside my established method of observing and identifying, BUT I am glad that they weren’t available (or I didn’t know they were available) back when I started. Now that I want to learn more about fungi, I’m trying to integrate the apps into my slow learning method. I would recommend that to beginners too. “Quick answers” are forgettable answers, just like taking a photo and then forgetting all about it. 

Here’s my recommended approach to learning about nature:

1) Sketch the new thing in the field and/or write notes about its appearance.

2) Take a photograph (or a sample if appropriate).

3) Go home and get the guide books out. I recommend having several different books on one topic. 

4) Use the identification app with your photo to see if it matches your idea from the books. I also sometimes type some of the most interesting characteristics of the species into Google to see what comes up. Read about the species online.

5) Do a drawing from your photograph or sample. Include some of the interesting information from the guide book.

6) Repeat for different life stages of a plant, or different sightings of a species over time. Over the years, the information “sticks” in your mind due to repetition. 

Hope that helps. If you feel include, leave any identification advice you wish to pass along in the comments. If you’d like to learn more about these methods, the nature journaling circle membership might just be for you! Find out more here.

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