The Nature Of Notebooks



In her poem “45 Mercy Street” Anne Sexton writes these words:

I live in,
my life,
and its hauled up

It is an idea I can easily identify, having kept notebooks for most of my life. I try to keep a small moleskin journal on me wherever I go to jot down ideas, questions, or observations. This was a habit I started as a boy, always sticking a small spiral-bound notebook into my jeans or short’s pocket along with a pen or pencil. Being an observer and constant asker of questions, my journals were filled with them: everything from seeing a king snake sleeping on a rock in the summer sun or watching a formation of geese fly overhead or the feel of wild fern fronds brushing against my leg as I walked through the woods.  Or I might sketch the flowers, birds, animals, plants or trees I encountered.

From a very young age, I have had what E.O. Wilson coined biophilia. This is the term he used to describe what he believed: that all humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with the natural world.

With my own notebooks, I would set out into the woods to observe nature, jot down what I saw or to create stories about the plants and animals. Certainly my view of nature first came to me from the literature I read: from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows to Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings. In fact, it was the latter that made me imagine every grand old oak as the ent Treebeard. As a boy, I strived to “stuff” my eyes with wonder, as Ray Bradbury suggested.

I felt a kinship with the poet Mary Oliver when I learned that she started doing the same thing from the time she was a girl of twelve and has continued to keep a notebook and pen on hand with her at all times, as she explored the natural world around her. As she wrote:

 Bless the notebook that I always carry in

     my pocket.

And the pen.

Bless the word with which I try to say

      what I see, think, or feel.

With gratitude for the grace of the earth.

The expected and the exception, both.

For all the hours I have been given to

      be in this world.

Is it any wonder that she became the poet of the natural world that she is today? Her notebooks allowed her to write down the contemplations she made while encountering wildlife, like a heron. As she told Krista Tippett, “I went to the woods a lot with books. Whitman in the knapsack. But I also liked motion. So I just began with these little notebooks and scribbled things as I — they came to me. And then worked them into poems later.”

Charles Darwin

Recently I read James T. Costa’s book Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led To A Big Theory. Throughout his life, Charles Darwin kept notebooks filled with his questions and ideas. He was a keen observer and asker of questions. From the time he was a boy, Charles had a questioning mind and was eager to investigate and experience things. He was deeply curious about the natural world and loved spending time in it and finding things (collecting beetles remained one of his favorite past times throughout his life).  As Costa writes about Darwin’s mind and his need for writing in notebooks, “Looking at the world in a wholly new way calls for asking questions about the world no one had thought to ask before – questions that would need to be answered by careful observation in some cases, and experimentation in others.”

Darwin’s notebooks, Costa writes, “served as a storehouse of ideas and questions” on a variety of subjects including pollination, breeding, and variation. In the journals that would be published as Journals of Researches (1839): the words observation and observe appear 73 times, examine another 48, beautiful and beauty appear no less than 105 times along with delightful and delight, which are used 37 times.

Darwin's notebooks

It was from these various field notebooks that Charles Darwin was able to write passages like this one in Origin of the Species:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms… have all been produced by laws acting around us…

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on
according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful  have been, and are being, evolved.

Darwin kept at least fourteen journals during his voyages on the Beagle.  The field notes he took with him while he explored the Galapagos Islands are quick, jotted observations and thoughts of what he saw. Only when he was back onboard the ship did he take the time to write out in any detail what he saw as well as lists of specimens. No, the field journals were merely for him to go back to so that he wouldn’t forget any of the details. The journals are energetically written and reveal those things he found fascinating: whether that be plants or animals or even volcanic formations. What the journals show is an active and attentive mind at work.

Darwin's notebook inside

“… in the privacy of his notebooks,” Costa writes, “his speculations and questions ran rampant as he immersed himself in literature of all kinds, from hard-core geology, botany, and zoology to practical agricultural improvement and breeding, with philosophy. religion and literature thrown in.”

I was also fascinated to discover that Darwin kept extensive notebooks of books he’d read and those he wanted to read, which is something I also do.

What Darwin’s journals show is what Urusula K. Le Guin talked about when she said, “If I had to pick a hero, it would be Charles Darwin – the size of his mind, which included all that scientific curiosity and knowledge seeking, and the ability to put it all together. There is a genuine spirituality about Darwin’s thinking.”


As a child, Jane Goodall began keeping what she referred to as her “Nature Notebooks.” In her book Seeds of Hope, Goodall talks about these notebooks she started when she was a girl of twelve, “I spent a great attention to detail, had sketched and painted a number of local plants and flowers. Beside each drawing or watercolor I had handwritten a detailed description of the plant, based on my careful observations and probably a bit of book research. This was not a schoolbook. This wasn’t done for an assignment. I just loved to draw and paint and write about the plant world.”

Jane Goodall writing in notebook

At the age of twenty-six, when she got on a plane and went to Africa to study chimps, Goodall carried only a notebook and her binoculars. There she would sit, observe, and write down what she saw. “I could see my camp in the valley to the south, and the dense forest of the lower Kasekela Valley to the north. I gazed through my binoculars at the chimpanzees feasting on fruits and leaves and began to gather my first impressions of their daily life.” She would also note the names she had given the chimpanzees: David Greybeard, Goliath and Frodo (the latter a nod to one of her favorite books).

“I well remember writing my first observations, describing how David Graybeard not only used bits of straw to fish for termites but actually stripped leaves from a stem and thus made a tool. And I remember too receiving the now oft-quoted telegram he sent in response to my letter: “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

Jane Goodall with chimp

Jane Goodall meticulously recorded the daily lives of the chimps. “I became totally absorbed into this forest existence. It was an unparalleled period when aloneness was a way of life; a perfect opportunity, it might seem, for meditating on the meaning of existence and my role in it all. But I was far too busy learning about the chimpanzees’ lives to worry about the meaning of my own. I had gone to Gombe to accomplish a specific goal, not to pursue my early preoccupation with philosophy and religion. Nevertheless, those months at Gombe helped to shape the person I am today-I would have been insensitive indeed if the wonder and the endless fascination of my new world had not had a major impact on my thinking. All the time I was getting closer to animals and nature, and as a result, closer to myself and more and more in tune with the spiritual power that I felt all around. For those who have experienced the joy of being alone with nature there is really little need for me to say much more; for those who have not, no words of mine can even describe the powerful, almost mystical knowledge of beauty and eternity that come, suddenly, and all unexpected. The beauty was always there, but moments of true awareness were rare. They would come, unannounced; perhaps when I was watching the pale flush preceding dawn; or looking up through the rustling leaves of some giant forest tree into the greens and browns and the black shadows and the occasionally ensured bright fleck of blue sky; or when I stood, as darkness fell, with one hand on the still warm trunk of a tree and looked at the sparkling of an early moon on the never still, softly sighing water of Lake Tanganyika.”

Jane Goodall -Jane_s entry in a 1961 field notebook

“Those two worlds of my childhood,” she wrote, “that of the imagination and that of nature – were, I think, equally important in shaping the person I have become.”

John Muir

While working as a shepherd for a season in Yosemite, as a young man, John Muir used that time to begin keeping his nature journals.  Overwhelmed by the landscape, he began to record his observations. His writing was greatly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essays he loved reading by the campfire underneath a canopy of stars.  As he traveled alone, he kept a copy of Emerson with him at all times. Muir wrote, “As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”

John Muir's notebook

“One way to open your eyes,” wrote Rachel Carson, “is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?” What a great way to approach writing a nature journal. To approach everything with new eyes and a fresh perspective.

Rachel Carson

All creativity begins from a place of questioning and curiosity. One sees this in the work and writing of Rachel Carson. “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth,” she wrote in Silent Spring, “find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” Her writing is filled with precision and lyricism, a poet scientist. She was not a transcriber of nature but one who brought a real sense of wonder to the page. As a child, she began keeping a journal after becoming fascinated by birds. Her notebooks show how she did, as she would later write in her book The Sense of Wonder, “…drink in the beauty and wonder at the meaning of what you see.” Carson was able, throughout her life, to retain that “inborn sense of wonder” that enabled her to observe and rediscover the world in a way that made her reader feel that same sense of “joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”

Rachel Carson's notebook

Certainly one of the most famous examples of a naturalist’s notebooks were those of Henry David Thoreau that became Walden. Thoreau once said, “We should not endeavor coolly to analyze our thoughts, but, keeping the pen even and parallel with the current, make an accurate transcript of them.”


“My Journal,” he said, “should be the record of my love.”

Thoreau, like the others I have mentioned, grasped that for one to even begin to understand and appreciate the natural world, one must first be open and awakened to it.  As he wrote, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” With his keen eyes, Thoreau saw the sublime in everything.

His faithful, thoughtful, and provocative journals are a roadmap for mindful living with its encompassing of nature, philosophy, community, and solitude.

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour,” he wrote in Walden.  Thoreau allowed the world to ignite his imagination and he found such interconnectedness to it that from his he turned the writings of the natural world into that of  a defining spiritual journey. As he began Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

At the age of thirty-two, when he went to live a life of simplicity at Walden, he would spend his afternoons taking long walks. On those walks he took instruments for specimen collecting, a spyglass to watch birds, a walking stick to measure things by, and small scraps of paper that he would jot down his thoughts. At the suggestion of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau had begun journaling after graduating from Harvard in 1837. After returning from his walks, he would set down at his table to transcribe his notes into his journal. His journals are filled with entries on the natural world. His rigourousness was that of a poet and a scientist.

His journals are filled with his ever expansive attention to the natural world: filling pages with questions and observations about everything from birds and pines and the rings of a stump from a fallen tree. All was beauty. All was mystery. He was fascinated by the “marrow of nature.”

In her book Henry David Thoreau: A Life, Laura Dassow Walls writes about how Thoreau began on November 8, 1850 to write in his journals like he had never done before and how he “wrote up everything he noticed and thought during his daily walk as one long entry . . . filling pages with a stream-of-consciousness flow of words as if he were writing while walking: “I pluck,” “I heard,” “I saw yesterday,” I notice.” And he continued to do so even on his death-bed where he penned his final entry.

Thoreau's notebook

Luis Pasteur once said, “Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind.” The “prepared mind” is the one that is aware, that is constantly seeing and looking and questioning and wondering. To be astonished and never bored.

Stephen Whitney wrote in the preface to the Audubon Society Guide to Western Forests, “A notebook is the single most important piece of equipment a naturalist takes into the field. It is useful for recording daily observations, sketching plants and animals for later reference, taking notes on behavior and habitat, and assisting in identification by recording field marks that otherwise might be forgotten. The naturalist’s notebook only increases in value as time goes by and observations accumulate. Soon, patterns begin to emerge from what initially may have been chance encounters with various plants or animals. A well-kept notebook that preserves a record of their activities at a particular place over an extended period of time can contribute information valuable to our understanding of nature”

The journals by all of these great naturalists reveal how they all were passionate observers whose wisdom revealed a sense of delight and wonder at what they encountered. Each one was alive to the possibilities and approached their subjects with a child’s sense of awe and speculation. They were connected to every bird or plant or tree or animal they watched. They were drawn in to the rhythms of the natural world and were stirred by the realization that we are, indeed, all of us connected and necessary. Each studied their own small corner of the world but, in so doing, made the world seem not only grander and more amazing, but that all was important for the survival of each other.

All of the journals are more than a collection of words or thoughts but are alive and cause the reader to feel alive as well. They each give us a sense of wonder and curiosity that makes us want to grab a pen, a notebook and enter into the rich and diverse kingdom of the natural world.



One thought on “The Nature Of Notebooks

  1. Pingback: Hungering After Beauty | Begin In Wonder

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