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The Art Of... Nature Journaling



Nothing escapes the attention of naturalist and author Nona Estrin.

Even in the first, hello-my-name-is moments of a workshop last May at Plainfield's Cutler Memorial Library, she stopped mid-sentence to make an observation: signs of "browsing" on trees spotted through the window. Deer appeared to have nibbled away the bark and low foliage of the cedars along busy Route 2. 

"Do the deer really eat so close to the road?" Estrin asked librarian Loona Brogan. She accompanied a teenager and a 9-year-old who had come to learn how the naturalist fills her journals with the sights, sounds and smells of a particular time and place.

Deer often do stop to dine at the edge of the road, Brogan confirmed, usually as they travel through the village to a nearby branch of the Winooski River. 

After devoting roughly 60 years to studying the natural world, Estrin, 72, remains a curious — and astute — observer of her surroundings. "What I do isn't art and it isn't nature," said Estrin. "It's bearing witness."

The secret to nature journaling is to be curious, pay attention and ask questions, Estrin said. Children can try it as soon as they're comfortable with writing.

To prove her points, she led the small group on a path to the water's edge, pointing out wonders with every step: a spring azure butterfly, two red admiral butterflies, the song of a house wren, a patch of late-blooming coltsfoot, fiddleheads past their prime, segments of a scouring rush plant, a cardinal's call and Estrin's first whiff this season of freshly mowed grass.  

Estrin surmised that the night before had been a "really good flying night" for migrating birds. She said she had spied a hawk that morning, which qualifies as an early spring sighting. She also spotted warblers awaiting the season's bountiful buffet of blackflies. 

When journaling, Estrin carries her supplies with her — a notebook of heavy paper, a fine-tip pen, a watercolor kit and binoculars. Rather than taking notes as she walks, she gets herself settled in one spot. Opening her notebook, she writes down the time, place, date and weather. And then she watches, listens and takes in the smells. 

There are infinite ways to journal, Estrin told the group, as long as you allow yourself time to observe. Sitting still is important, she said, but even five minutes is enough to fill a journal page.

"Pay attention when nothing is happening," she said. "When nothing is happening, everything is happening. Nature is not like the Nature Channel. It's the opposite of the Nature Channel." 

When she began to sketch for the group, Estrin kept her eyes on the scene around her, not on the page in her notebook. Some trees were still bare; others were just beginning to bloom. The river water was a cloudy brown, except for a patch of green slightly upstream from the pebbly beach where everybody sat. On the opposite bank grew a cluster of skunk cabbage.

Once Estrin had drawn the basic shapes, she took a small water bottle from her pack and moistened her paints. Using her fingers and a small brush, she added splashes of color to her sketch, hewing to her journaling philosophy: "Get in, get out, don't judge it." 

To finish the entry, she jotted some brief notes around the picture — "Warblers in, dead crayfish, warm beach rocks" — and offered a last piece of advice to young naturalists. "A nature journal is so personal," she said. "Never try to make yours look like someone else's." 

A collection of Estrin's journal entries can be found in "In Season: A Natural History of the New England Year," which she published in 2002 with her husband, former state naturalist Charles Johnson. To schedule private instruction or a workshop, in exchange for donations to the North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier, call Estrin at 223-7745.

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