Monday, May 19, 2014

Keeping a Field Notebook

In “Why Keep a Field Notebook?” biologist Erick Greene describes an assignment that he required his students to complete over a semester:

I asked my students to pick one “thing” and observe it carefully over the entire semester. The “thing” they chose could be anything from a single plant, one place, a beaver dam, their garden, a bird feeder, and so on. They had to record their observations at least once a week in a field notebook.

What is the purpose of a field notebook? Greene lists several functions that it can serve:

These notebooks tend to capture the beauty and wonder of the natural world and help to hone the observational skills of the authors. They typically combine field sketching and painting with keen observation. . . . Another value of field notebooks is their ability to serve as an incredibly fertile incubator for your ideas and observations. By jotting down interesting observations, questions, and miscellaneous ideas, your field notebook can serve as a powerful catalyst for new experiments and projects.

I would argue that field notebooks can be just as valuable to writers as they are to scientists. I have kept a journal of one sort or another for most of my life, and for the past three years, I’ve worked in a large sketchbook that has become a field notebook of sorts, containing illustrations and observations of the natural world. I often take my notebook into my own backyard and make notations about the garden. I also regularly visit nearby ponds and favorite trees.

This spring, I asked students in my “writing about nature and ecology” class to keep a field notebook for the duration of the semester. They were to pick a single outdoor location and to visit that location once a week to observe it, recording their observations in writing and illustrations. For the first assigned reading of the semester, I handed out Greene’s essay to help get them thinking about their notebooks.

In the beginning of this project I had planned to take my classes on an excursion into “the field”—a nearby park—but in late January on the day I selected for this trip the temperature was barely in the teens, so I improvised. If I could not bring my students to nature, I would bring nature to my students. I collected a box full of nature artifacts—pinecones, seed pods, branches, leaves, needles—and spent time observing and drawing these objects in class. I wanted to get my students drawing—especially the ones who didn’t consider themselves artists—because drawing something forces you to truly observe it, to notice it in its detail, its spectacular complexity. It takes a long time to see and then to render all the veins in a leaf. Even though I am far from being an artist (with just one semester of high school art training), I have found that drawing something not only helps me to see it and to remember it, but it also helps me to write about it. I can describe in words what I’ve drawn much more accurately than what I’ve merely observed.

What kinds of things did I want to see in a field notebook? Many students had no idea where to begin. I told them they could list data like the date and time, the temperature and weather conditions, observations of plant or animal life, but they could also write down questions that came to mind, their thoughts and reactions, descriptions based on sensory data, metaphors and poem fragments—basically, anything they wanted. The point was to go to the same place once a week and write.

I pointed out to my students that Greene offers two principles for keeping a field notebook:

First, you will forget things far faster than you expect—most people think they will remember details of their observations and studies for longer and better than they actually do; and second, you will not know at the beginning of a study all the things that might be important or interesting—for this reason, it is a great idea to record more information than you think you might need.

In other words, I told my students, record everything—even if it seems obvious or irrelevant. I write all kinds of nonsense in my field notebook. And yet, as my collection of observations, data, and questions grows, I not only become more engaged with my subjects of study, but I also begin to see central themes emerging in my thinking. Are there certain things I draw again and again? Are there certain questions that seem to come up over and over? Do images from one week to the next echo one another? Do they contradict one another? What is the creative work that my subconscious mind is trying to do? The notebook is a place for me to put down this nascent writing, these fragments, without any expectation of creating a polished, finished piece of work.
Some students enjoyed the assignment, and others didn’t. Some wrote lengthy entries while others made telegraphic notes limited to temperature and time of day. Some made intricate illustrations while others drew little to nothing. Some included photos. One student, Vanessa, even did watercolor illustrations. With her permission, I am including an image of some of her work below.

For the last reading of the semester, I passed out “Landscape and Narrative” by Barry Lopez. I asked my students to think about their field notebooks in relation to Lopez’s idea of “interior” landscape and “exterior” landscape. Lopez writes:

I think of two landscapes—one outside the self, the other within. The external landscape is the one we see—not only the line and color of the land and its shading at different times of the day, but also its plants and animals in season, its weather, its geology, the record of its climate and evolution. . . . The second landscape I think of as an interior one, a kind of projection within a person of a part of the exterior landscape. . . . The interior landscape responds to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape; the shape of the individual mind is affected by land as it is by genes.

Before turning in their field notebooks at the end of the semester, my students wrote a brief reflection on the contents on their notebooks. I asked them to think about the following questions: What kind of “landscape” dominated in their notebooks? Did they write more about the exterior world, or about themselves? Did they see any parallels between the exterior landscape that they observed and their interior landscape?

Students had a range of responses to these questions, just as they had a range of approaches to keeping field notebooks. Some students focused on the physical world, on observation, not venturing at all into the interior landscape, while others wrote freely about the feelings that were conjured by the natural world around them, even to the extent that the exterior landscape was sometimes obscured, barely present in their writings. Some shifted over the course of the project, beginning with notations about the external landscape but slowly adding more of their internal landscape as the weeks went on. In one notable case, a student started the semester making notations about plant and animal life, writing down the exact number of birds and squirrels that he saw on each excursion, but by the end of the semester he was writing intensely personal poetry about his connections to the natural world. He went from tallying ducks to looking at nature as a manifestation of divinity.

Yet even students who did not make a strong connection between the internal and the external benefited from the exercise. One student, Liam, described his experiences in his reflection:

Over the course of the semester, I chose to observe a small clearing snuggled between the river in the back of Stanley Park and a trail that runs through the park. This spot is filled with large rocks and is very peaceful, as the rocks create natural seats to enjoy the calm movement of the river. Beginning in early February, the spot was covered in snow and the river was completely frozen. Almost three months later, the river was flowing and the bushes were beginning to bloom. It was beautiful being able to see the changes in the landscape as the weather got nicer. I’ve come to realize that I most enjoyed being able to see wildlife in and around the river. I never quite observed this about myself before the field journal, but there’s something I seriously love about seeing animals in their natural habitats, just living. It makes me realize that humans are simply animals, and although our way of living is much more complex, at the end of the day, we simply want to survive, just like the squirrels, geese, ducks, and one fish that I saw at the spot. This was my first experience keeping a field notebook, and to say I enjoyed it would be an understatement. I’ve always loved observing nature, but taking time to write about what I’m witnessing actually makes the moments timeless. I didn’t really write about myself a lot in the notebook itself, but I certainly think I grew as a person by having the opportunity to observe such a peaceful natural landscape.

Another student, Brendan, chose to observe the same tree every week. At the end of the semester, he wrote:

I am actually going to miss this tree. It seemed awkward at first, but as the semester went on, though it seemed like I was running out of things to say about the tree, I was growing in the way I felt about it. I can’t wait to come back next year in the fall and revisit the tree. I can see it with all of its leaves and the way they change colors.

Jeff was a student who had never before excelled at writing, but keeping a field notebook changed his perspective. He wrote:

I have never enjoyed writing but this experience has begun to change my opinion. I enjoy being out in nature but never wrote about my experiences in the moment. During the first semester I never slowed down and observed nature around me. This assignment forced me to keep in touch with nature and immerse myself in it. I really enjoyed this writing, being able to write whatever was on my mind and what I observed. There were no requirements that would restrict my thought and writing. I liked how it took me away from all my other work and left me alone with nature. With a lot of other assignments and work, having to relax and write about nature was not a burden. When I am home I spend a lot of time with nature and I believe from now on I will bring a field notebook along with me.

I have dozens of such responses from students. Here is one final reflection, written by Cathleen:

I liked keeping this field notebook. I realized, however, that people and scientists who do this regularly really have to be committed.  It was hard to make sure I got there once a week and sometimes it was longer or I had to go twice in one week. I also found it difficult observing one single spot because for many weeks not much changed. Watching winter turn to spring was interesting but it was very gradual and sometimes I found it hard to discuss what was new every week because I felt like I was repeating myself. I learned that nature is extremely subtle. When I was forced to really look for changes I realized they felt like they kind of happened without even being visible to the naked eye. Like, one day it was winter, and the next it was spring. But so much still somehow happens in between. I also learned that keeping this field notebook was a great way to have an excuse to sit and relax. It was peaceful and nice, even in the cold. I liked this notebook because it was very different than the other assignments in the class, but I think it got across the theme of the class more than any other assignment could. It made you stop and actually observe nature through your own eyes, not just read about it in someone else’s words.

Throughout the semester, I worked on the field notebook assignment along with my students, trekking each week to observe the same white oak in temperatures that ranged from the teens to the eighties. One week the wind chill was so extreme that I drove to the location and made my notations inside the car with the engine running. Some weeks, I wrote only about the external landscape, while others I delved into the internal as well. Every week, I drew. And now, some of my notes from those weeks are working themselves into a new essay I’m finishing. And others will sit dormant for a little longer. And some will never make it out of the notebook. That’s just the nature of a field notebook.

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