Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Poetry of Now: Nature Journaling #10

I’m going back directly to the book that started this journal journey. How to Teach Nature Journaling by John Muir Laws and Emilie Lygren is epic in scope and content. Seriously good stuff. Right in the middle is Poetry of Place and Moment. This lesson was perfect for my needs today.

The weekend came and went for me without even attempting a walk and journaling. It’s Tuesday and I still couldn’t get myself prepared for a big thing, but wanted to do something. It’s gray and cold here. The news is awful. But something short, I could do, so when I flipped to this one, I knew I hit the perfect opportunity. 

Using the powerful exploration phrases of “I notice”, “I wonder”, and “This reminds me”, I could write something that depicts my Now that's right on my patio. The setting need not be fancy. With luck, I could take the next step and connect how I’m feeling inside with that outside.

I donned my coat and took my journal out. I sat for a while without doing anything. I needed to enter the space and that takes time.

My poem simply lists that process. I didn’t worry about it at all. It could benefit greatly from revisions. I could add, delete, edit, tweak. Pfft. It’s content, errors, and weaknesses fit my mood- my Now.

Last week I spent significant time on my visuals. This week, all I got was a shadow of an American goldfinch. And to me, that’s fitting, too. It’s both physically and mentally dark, obscured, and basic in today’s Now. I didn’t add any details to the goldfinch’s posting except its scientific name. I did take a photo of dried blackeyed Susan seed heads as a reminder that perhaps that will be a food source. 

Remember: journaling is never wrong. We are recording our place and moment as best we can.

If done in a class, journalers can share their work in pairs or whole-group but it’s important to give everyone the space they need. Sharing should always be a choice and expectations for audience reactions and feedback must be in place ahead of time. 

Poetry is an especially personal journey. It links one's inside with the outside and that exposes the core.

I added a picture of the dry Norway maple leaves and still-green alpine strawberry leaves that were at my feet. The green is a reminder to me that there’s still tenderness and life out there in our Now. 

The work is in becoming aware of it and acknowledging it.

Then, we can step forward to a new moment and place.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Life-Sized Leaf: Nature Journaling Week 9


How are you doing? I find myself wondering if I’m doing enough or too much. Worrying too much or too little. Supporting myself too much or too little.

What really is life-sized: really there in proper size and scope.

The fall weather was AMAZING this week. Today, it’s overcast and cooler. I’m glad I’m inside with my bathrobe and coffee, reflecting on what I did yesterday.

I got up super early and watched BTS’s Map of the Soul ON:E concert first thing. That was beyond life-sized and so incredibly fun. Huge sets, big numbers, elaborate costuming, and amazing performances left me in awe with cheeks sore from smiling and gaping for 2 1/2 hours. By the time it was over, the sun had risen and the house was stirring with Saturday’s regular living. In the afternoon I set off to Fox River Park for a tree-bathing walk.

I wanted to soak in the forest tub for a while so I picked a fallen leaf off the trail and sat upon a fallen trunk trailside to journal.

American toad 

Basswood leaf: topside

Basswood leaf: underside

I became aware of more and more things as I sat: physical sensations of the log and ground beneath my feet, aural input of squirrels and nuthatches, and smells of the woods. People and their pets walked by and I enjoyed short conversations outside my normal circle.

The act of trying to replicate a physical item drew me in. As you can see here, I only used pencil in the sketching, using words to describe what I was seeing. I photographed both the top and bottom of the leaf for additional reference. I felt very content by the time I was done. I had witnessed as best I could. I left the leaf that I spent 20 minutes within the place where I had found it. It will be able to continue its life-size existence.

I added the color this morning. That was another layer of noticing and recording. “Life-sized” should honor everything about the subject: colors, damage, and textures that truly exist. Yes, I must decide how to depict them, but my first responsibility is to bring into myself what REALLY is there.

What really is there. Sometimes we downplay our own influence- we make ourselves out to be less than our life-sized selves. Others do the opposite. Seeing and feeling that life-sized self is important.

I was reminded of that when I looked up information on Seek about my leaf’s origin. It was from a basswood tree. Basswood trees are native to North American forests and play vital roles in a host of species’ survival. The flowers provide nectar as food to insects. The seeds provide food for chipmunks, squirrels, and mice. The leaves are important food sources for caterpillars. By the looks of my leaf, it had fed quite a few organisms. The dark spots were probably a type of mold- another organism relying on it. The tree which formed this leaf has widespread connections and benefits to the forest it both helps create and exists within.

We humans do the same: we can have a big impact. I’m left considering that further.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Networking: Nature Journaling Week 8

What a time we’re living in. I hope everyone has at least something in their lives that is constructively supporting them is some fashion. Constructively, because I know there’s a lot of harmful options out there in use. I’m guilty myself. We all need support- now more than ever.

As I was on the Monches Ice Age Trail segment making my way to my Wisconsin DNR trail camera, the forest reminded me that support is required by all organisms. At every given moment, every living thing is in a dance with the other life forms and elements both near it and farther afield.

The trees, birds, and invertebrates are all noticeably responding to diminishing light and temperatures. The sights, sounds and smells of the forest indicate that. Some greens, like the mosses, are still brilliant whereas the trees are breaking down their chlorophyll and absorbing what they can into their cores, revealing those gorgeous yellows and reds that are hidden the rest of the growing season.

I love the pile of hickory nut shell bits on top of the rock. Red, grey, and fox squirrels abound in this area, as do chipmunks. Someone had a feast.

I sat on the bank of the Oconomowoc River for a while, just resting. All three parts: body, mind, and spirit, are frazzled and damaged. However, I also pictured people who I’ve been able to walk outside with over the last few months. Others whom I’ve chatted with online. Others whom I have listened to as they taught in online presentations and lessons.

Eventually, as I looked down into the water, I realized there was a huge mass of fungi sprouting over the water at the base of the tree that was leaning over the river in front of me. It took some maneuvering to get some shots of it. I decided to sketch the scene at my feet.

I used a normal pencil in the field and added color at home this morning. The photos and notes I took in place helped me recall specific textures and colors later. As I sat, I became aware of birds on the river and the duckweed collecting in eddies in front of me, and behind me several chipmunks irritated at both my sitting and another person’s and his dog’s walking presences. Air, water, sunlight, earth all connecting and supporting us. 

Earth. Sitting on a rock reminded me that everything I was experiencing was affected by the glaciers that spread down across this area tens of thousands of years ago and retreated about 15,000 years ago. That repeated grinding of ice and material destroyed what existed before and built the foundations of everything today. Time is part of our support system, too.

Looking more closely at the photos I took let me notice the spider webs clinging to the mushrooms. The gill details on the underside of these fruiting bodies have a regimented beauty in themselves. That fungi might be a honey mushroom, which is a parasite of living trees. It’s connected to that tree and offers a refuge for arachnids. The tree offers shade, oxygen, and food to species like us and may itself need fungi to feed its own roots.

An insect had flown down to my book as I drew. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize it had not left by the time I decided to close my book. Its existence will now be memorialized in a macabre way for as long as this book remains in existence. 

That’s a sad fact but it relates to a very important point of this entire practice: doing things and documenting how they feel, what we learned, and what questions we might still have as a kind of testament. What I have in this book happened. I was there. It affected me. This past will help explain the me of today and tomorrow.

Two months into this I am growing in my confidence to draw more detailed scenes. I think I’m seeing more things. I notice that I consider opportunities to journal during my days. For example, I just took my cats out for a bit of sunshine and air on the patio and a rogue pumpkin vine caught my eye. Its huge leaves and spiraling tendrils were gorgeous and I imagined drawing them. There are moments everywhere if we look.

I hope readers remember that it doesn’t matter what your pages look like- you do not have to be anything or anyone but yourself. What really matters is taking the time and doing. As in all things, failure is only guaranteed by not trying and the more we reach outward, the stronger we become.

I wish you strength this week. And moments of seeing your network of connections. We all need them.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Pros and Cons: Nature Journaling Week 7


The weather is changing pretty dramatically and that can feel both good and bad. That’s why I decided to focus on a Venn diagram for this week’s journal. Sometimes we can like something and dislike it at the same time.

I headed over the Retzer Nature Center again on Sunday afternoon, wanting to get some exercise before the expected rains hit. I knew I needed to journal, but again, I wasn’t planning on it. When I saw the picnic tables at the end of my loop, and knew there was just a bit of time and light left in the day, I had to take the opportunity. (Remember last week’s theme? :-))

A Venn diagram compares two things via slightly overlapped circles. It could be a dog versus a lion, or comparing an apple and orange. The whole point is to define what each thing has by itself and what things might be shared between them.

Saying that fall can make me both really happy and really sad is pretty generic. From my walk, I defined things that I experienced and placed them accordingly. This activity only took me approximately 20 minutes- I think I lingered a bit over finishing the pine cone drawing after my 4:25 note. 

I could add more to all three areas. That’s part of the journey, though. We can always add more every time we go out.

Please enjoy this shot of unfettered prairie life:

I really have to give a shout-out to photographers who respect the public parks. Hundreds of photoshoots occur outdoors in this area and many are done so in very sustainable ways. 

Here are just a few of the areas along the trails on the Retzer property that have been damaged by photographers and their subjects recently who aren’t so kind to the living things that make our parks their homes.

The sights, smells, and sounds of fall are unique. Here’s the Virginia creeper is turning from green to its rich autumn red and the New England asters are popping in rich purples and bright purple-pinks.

I hope you get out there and enjoy what’s out there when you get the chance, and write some of it down for yourself!

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Opportunity: Nature Journaling Week 6

Last week’s journaling was about being random. This week, I’m calling it opportunity. Maybe I should lump it all into lack of vision or drive, but that’s too negative for my purposes.

My calendar note to do journaling over the weekend came and went. I was outside a lot, but I didn’t sit down with pencil and paper. Moving my body and communicating face-to-face with friends were further up my list of priorities, and if that’s your truth, I think you need to follow that.

As I waited for a friend at Rivers Crossing Park, I found myself watching a large black ant crawling up the trunk of a honey locust tree in the parking lot landscaping. This ant was much larger than the ones I saw last week. The ant crossed over and around the obstacles of the bark with determination, always as directly upward as possible.

I looked more closely at the bark: basically smooth brown, with many lighter horizontal dash marks- the trunk’s “breathing” pores, or lenticels. In addition, there were rougher patches and vertical splits indicating adverse conditions the tree had experienced in the past and was recovering from with some scar tissue. In addition, the entire trunk was covered with splotches of other organisms: lichens.

Lichens are interesting, non-vascular organisms that are found just about anywhere. They are actually “species” formed by the symbiotic relationship of 2 living things: green algae or blue-green cyanobacteria and fungi. Different fungi can support different algae, and sometimes multiple ones can be found within a single framework of fungal cells. I noticed 2 different colors of green on the tree trunk. We usually think of algae as living in bodies of water. With the help of fungi, they can photosynthesize on trees, rocks, on soil, or on the forest floor. Wherever fungi can find a hold, lichens can form.

What do the fungi get out of the relationship? They can absorb some of the food the algae build with the sun’s energy. The algae get that physical protection of the fungal cells surrounding them and can absorb some of the minerals and water the fungi have picked up from the substrates they live upon. Both absorb water from rain and mist.

These species find opportunities in living together. I found an opportunity to study and draw as I observed them. The ant might gain something from them, I don’t know. The tree could benefit from the lichen’s presence: lichens can fix nitrogen from the air and rain can leech some of that down into the soil for the tree to use.

No living thing is really alone. Each of us is dancing intimately with a host of other organisms and the elements. I was reminded of that during this journaling. And that is yet another opportunity for me as I move forward. How can I cultivate helpful relationships? What can I do to be better prepared for changing conditions? What can I offer in exchange with someone or something else?

Today’s the first day of Fall. Seasonal changes are great reminders to take stock of where we are at and where we want to go. I hope we can all take the opportunity to do that!

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Whatever Comes Our Way: Nature Journaling Week 5

This week’s journaling is all about random. I didn’t even know I was going to journal today- it just happened. I left the house to do one thing and that fell apart, so I decided to walk instead. I didn’t know where to go, so I just went.

Every person has “outside” somewhere nearby. It may not be grand. It may be downright bleak. But there’s life out there. There’s something. It just takes some effort by us to let it enter our consciousness.

I think that’s a valuable lesson. Humans can think we’re the apex- we matter and everything else is less. That way of thinking is not only wrong, it’s dangerously so. We need other living things and the inanimate natural world as well for our very survival. And the relationship is not a one-way street. Humans don’t have to just rely on everything else to reduce our suffering. We can also make everything else suffer less. That’s a powerful concept for another time.

Back to my randomness.

As you’ll see by the pages I ended up with, I began by noting the metadata in the upper corner: date, time, weather. I then began listing some species I saw: a monarch on some white flowers. Blue jays squawking. Flickers calling and flying by, white rumps flashing and goldfinches chittering about. I couldn’t get close to these creatures to dive deeper. I walked on.

Eventually, I stopped at a pile of nut husks in the middle of the trail. I noticed there were ants on one of the husks and sat down on the wet grass to draw what I saw. Drawing what is seen and not what is expected is hard- it takes stepping out of oneself. And my notes on the page are rough- coming back to it while at a desk lets me read up on different hickory species (this was Carya ovata- shagbark hickory) and learn that the “hulls” are better known as “husks”. It was probably a squirrel who plucked the nut from this hickory tree and dug the sweet and nutritious nut out.

Terminal bud of shagbark hickory- next year's leaves!

Small honey ants on shagbark hickory husk

The ants interested me as I haven’t focused on a living species yet in my journal. Moving animals are harder to draw, so taking pictures and observing under a hand lens for at least a few minutes can be used together for greater understanding. I was able to note behaviors and question what the ants were doing. Using the phone app Seek on a photo, I was able to define an actual species: Prenolepis imparis, the small honey ant.

I made tons of mistakes.

Drawing in a journal with a pen is unforgiving. That can be hard for some people to accept, but I’m in a mood of not caring and just embracing the errors. Perhaps it’s my fluctuating blood sugar today, but I’m forgiving myself for repeatedly writing “black walnut” instead of “hickory” as I sat there. I admit I had to stop 5 minutes later to correct it when I realized what I had done- I *knew* better. Why did I write that? I have no idea. Meh. It is what it is. My scale was wrong a couple of times. No biggy. I drew over it. I wanted to add more adjectives once or twice- I squeezed them in where I could.

New England Aster

Jewelweed still blooming

Life’s not about perfection. It’s doing. Today, I just did.

I think that’s the point of my writing and drawing today. Anyone can find *something* to journal about outside. How we respond to that event will be different for each person. Documenting it all may not end up being a masterpiece, but it’s a valuable experience that should be noted. Today, I was able to just do something and accept what came to me, and that feels pretty satisfying. I got some fresh air and quiet, met a couple of people on the trail, and have a journal entry to remind me of the day.

I hope you can get outside. Whether it’s an ant on a sidewalk, or a mushroom on a log, the moment can be fleeting or long and profound. But it requires us to stop long enough to let what will be, be.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Retelling a Journey: Nature Journaling Week 4

For the second week in a row, I’m journaling after-the-fact. The weather was fine but the walk’s purpose was not to journal: it was to be in the moment with a friend.

For the second week in a row, I was again in Retzer Nature Center. Don’t be afraid to return to a site. In fact, there’s an excellent activity where one does that on purpose: have “your spot” that you visit regularly and develop a story and record of that specific place.

aster species

bumblebee on swamp thistle

bee on goldenrod

The weather was phenomenal and the insect life was busily getting things done while the season still allows.

Today, I sat down to retell our journey. First, I did my metadata. Next, I made a list on the right side of what I remembered seeing and hearing. Then, I put the title in and after that, the idea to sketch a map of our walk popped into my head. I had fun with that, detailing in words some of the habitats we walked through. With the map, I was then able to pull a couple of places out to the left side of the page and zoom in on details of 2 species we looked at closely. It took me about 45 minutes to complete my journaling.

This page doesn’t go into detail about how we smiled and laughed so much that my cheeks were hurting by the end, but the smiling stick figures might indicate that. We really enjoyed the day and right now it feels like I’m getting twice the pleasure by really focusing on remembering everything we saw and talked about.

I used a black ink pen this week. It’s important to watch paper thickness for bleed-through when using pen. For that reason, I skipped a page in my book before and after this week. I like the contrast and control of the pen I chose.

How could this be stretched out for greater learning opportunities? Each person could do a page and share afterwards for discussion and analysis. Research on the species and/or habitats could be done and added. Asking questions about how much longer the insects will have to work, or how long of a walk we took, or the elevation changes we experienced...There’s never an end to the things we can build upon!