Out There

From deep forests to open pastures, from cool branches to high rock outcrops, the natural world of our Southern Appalachian region is incredibly diverse.

Celebrate it by keeping a 3 x 5 Nature Journal. This is an interactive, collaborative project for everyone in the southern mountain region, and will be especially useful for teaching life science and biology to middle school and high school students at home. Throughout the year, “Out There” will offer nature notes, prompts to investigate nature on your own, and tips for drawing, writing, and collecting information. Join us!

1) Start by finding USED paper. Scrap envelopes work great (bonus tip: you can use the corners as a pocket for collecting – if they have a cellophane window, even better). You might also use old index cards, paper bags, backs of old greeting cards, grocery lists or notes, large receipts, insides of wrapping paper, cereal boxes taken apart and cut into pieces, any kind of paper that’s about to be thrown away.

2) Cut your scrap paper into 3” x 5” pages. These will be small enough to keep in your back pocket or in a backpack, and their shape makes it convenient for taking pictures with your cell phone camera later on. You might stitch the 3 x 5 pages into a book, wrap them with string, or tuck them in a baggie. It might be helpful to bring a small book or piece of cardboard to bear down on when you write and draw.

3) Get pen or pencil. A plain number two pencil with a good eraser works fine. If you want to get fancy, Micron pens are great, but a ballpoint pen works fine, too. Maybe you have some colored pencils or even a portable watercolor set, but even if you don’t, you can do a lot with just a simple pen or pencil.

4) Go outside and observe. While there may be enticing nature images and facts on the internet or in books, for this project I invite you to get out there and make your own direct observations of nature right here around us.

5) Journal. Draw, doodle, measure, count, describe, collect, paint, experiment… You might list birds that visit your feeder, sketch what’s blooming, or make fishing notes. Drawings can be sketchy, writing can be simple… just observe, play, and learn.

Even if you don’t think you’re very good at it, the very act of drawing will increase your observation skills and creativity. The more sketches you make, the less “precious” each one will become. As time passes, you will come to enjoy drawing even more, and you’ll get better at it. You may also find you’ll enjoy looking back on your older pages — they are artifacts of your attention.

6) On each page, note the date, time, and location of your observation. This can be just a tiny scribble in a corner, but the time and place is important. It’s what makes your page a nature journal and not just a drawing or a note. Now you have a record of natural history in your area, and you can refer to it again in future years.

7) Share your 3 x 5 Nature Journal pages. If you want to share images of your pages, you can email me photos of your pages with the subject line “Out There,” tell me your name, and give me the date and location of your observation. Some of your images may be published here on the website and in regional papers. Later on, I will provide details about how your 3 x 5 nature journal pages can take part in large collaborative exhibits in the Southern Appalachian community.

The idea is not necessarily to exhibit mastery — what I’m looking for is freshness and immediacy, and records of natural history of a specific time and place. See some of my nature journal pages above, and lots more on my art website.

Note for educators: Teachers, professors, and homeschoolers can tailor the use of nature journals for teaching high school and college-level biology, geology, and environmental science. It will be useful for middle school earth science and life science, too. Drawing is a great way to increase students’ observation skills. Even with simple nature journals, students can collect data, make discoveries, and ask sophisticated science questions. Contact me if you’d like help designing a nature journal assignment to teach science at home, for college, high school, and middle school students. During the pandemic, this project could provide a healthy incentive for students to get up from those screens and get out in the natural world, learning from experience. If you’re interested in using nature journals for teaching, see my workshops page and e e-learning page.

Watch this site. Starting in September, I’ll put “Out There” … out there! Twice a month, each “Out There” post will offer a brief nature note, a prompt to spark your curiosity and imagination, and some tips for drawing or writing your own observations.

Have fun out there!