See nature differently by journaling

The Bulletin reports on Land Trust volunteer Kolby Kirk's nature journaling class.
By Kim Himstreet
The Bulletin


Many people live in or visit Bend because of the abundant outdoor recreational opportunities. As the weather gets warmer and you dust off your hiking boots, kayak or mountain bike, consider adding one more item to your pocket or pack: a journal.

“Journaling is the act of observing and engaging your curiosity in what’s around you, then writing that down for future reference,” said Kolby Kirk, a master naturalist for the East Cascades ecoregion, avid hiker and journal keeper.

A volunteer for the Deschutes Land Trust since 2015, he leads two- to five-hour hikes that provide an introduction to nature journaling along with helpful tips, tools and techniques. The Trust is a nonprofit that works with landowners to conserve and restore over 9,000 acres of land across several sites in Central Oregon for the benefit of wildlife and people.

Kirk created his nature journaling hikes to help people of any age better appreciate their time outdoors or in a different way. You don’t need any prior journaling experience or to be particularly knowledgeable about the region’s flora and fauna.

“I don’t hike to get somewhere; I hike to be somewhere and really be present during the experience. Journaling helps me capture that and increases my awareness of my surroundings and the power of my memory,” Kirk said.

Over the years, Kirk’s approach to his outdoor adventures has changed and his nature journals have played an important role in that evolution. While hiking 1,700 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail over five months in 2011, he gradually realized he was focusing too much on reaching his planned finishing point and not enjoying the journey as much as he could.

By taking additional time to journal and capture his surroundings and emotions, Kirk found himself more immersed in natural landscape around him. He discovered he was noticing and appreciating details he may have overlooked before. By the time his journey along the Pacific Crest Trail ended, he had filled 600 pages and written around 170,000 words.

Amie Walter took part in a recent nature journaling hike in the Whychus Canyon Preserve near Sisters. Walter had journaled before, but wanted to get suggestions and see what’s in Kirk’s toolbox.

“There’s a lot of subtlety to this landscape,” said Walter, who moved to Bend from Portland seven months ago. “There’s not always obvious things to see leaping out at you everywhere you turn, so sharpening my powers of observation is very helpful.”
Another participant, Heather Marr, agreed. “Journaling made me notice a lot more than I otherwise would have.”

Kirk tells those new to nature journaling that finding a rhythm and their own style for keeping their journal is important.

He insists that regardless of anyone’s writing or artistic abilities, there is no wrong way to journal — other than not journaling at all. He views it as a personal and introspective form of writing that’s usually not intended to be published or even shared.

Kirk advises people to use a field book that has a protective cover and is small enough to fit in an easily accessible pocket. Field notes can be transferred and expanded into a larger journal later if you wish.

“Show me someone who has their journal in their backpack and I’ll show you a somewhat empty journal,” Kirk said. “If you have to fumble to get to it or stop to open your pack, there will be many times you won’t bother. It’s important to be able to access it quickly because a thought may be fleeting and may be forgotten by the time you reach your next stopping point.”

He recommends writing for yourself first. When deciding what to include or exclude, ask the question, “If I picked this up 10 years from now, would that be interesting to me?” He also likes to include items such as area maps and post office stamps to add interest and detail to his pages.

There is no magic formula to determine the ratio of hiking to writing, sketching or photography. It can vary from hike to hike, or be based on your own interests and abilities. Sometimes you have to make tough choices based on conditions, the mileage you need to achieve or the opportunities that present themselves.

Kirk’s key tools for journaling include his field book (about 3.5 inches by 5.5 inches in size), his journal (around 5.5 inches square), a mechanical pencil, archival pens (so the ink doesn’t discolor or fade), watercolor pencils and a water brush. He also carries a digital minirecorder for quickly and safely capturing thoughts while walking (and to record bird calls), a loupe to better view small details of plants and other items, and a GPS device to note the coordinates of interesting sites or objects.

As the hike progressed, Kirk encouraged the group to research at least one unfamiliar plant or animal they had sketched or described in their journals after they returned home.

He urged them to tap into their curiosity about the natural world with a quote from the French novelist Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

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