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Journal Writing with John Muir

by Harold Wood

"This was my 'method of study.' I drifted about from rock to rock, from stream to stream, from grove to grove.... When I discovered a new plant, I sat down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance and try to hear what it had to say... I asked the boulders I met whence they came and whither they were going... "
- John Muir.

"John Muir wrote in his journals about the beauty he saw in nature. He also drew sketches detailing information about plants, animals, mountains, and landscapes. He used his journals to compose letters to friends, articles, and books to share his love of nature and to enlist people's support to preserve wilderness. Muir's journals gave him a wealth of recorded experience from which ten books and over two hundred articles were published. We continue to gain insight into Nature's beauty and importance in our lives from Muir's writings. Your own Nature Journal provides an opportunity to study the natural world, to grow a deeper relationship with the Earth, to develop a greater awareness and caring for the Earth. A Nature Journal is an opportunity for personal growth and to study the evolving natural world."
- Dr. Bonnie Gisel.

Both before and after Muir's time, many thoughtful people have extolled the benefits of keeping a journal. Whether to record new ideas and knowledge, to reflect on one's own life, or to help you measure your progress as a human being over time, a journal is a practice that enhances your life. Above all, keeping a journal helps you become more mindful. There are many kinds of journals. Some just one for doodling, brainstorming, or meditation. Some keep a journal of books read with personal commentary, or a "life list" of birds observed. Many advocate simply keeping a travel journal at the least, but also point to the value of keeping a journal of your daily musings, experiences, or observations, or one focused on gratitude or dreams.

A journal is more than a "diary." A diary just identifies things done in a day. But a journal goes further - to really observe or reflect on life. A journal is a "fundamental thinking tool" that helps you observe more carefully and remember more effectively. As John Muir Laws (no relation to John Muir) says, "You see so much more when observing through the journal. The ability to hold things in our head is really limited. Journaling gets us past the limits of our brain's capacity of how much information it can store and hold and manipulate at one time. The journal frees up our brain, once you've got all of this down on paper, your brain is freed up to operate at more sophisticated levels."

One way to get started with writing a journal is to at first write a diary entry, but then reflect on how you are feeling at the moment. Then consider how you would like to feel, and copy down a writing from someone who inspires you. Although this is a starting point, the danger is you will become too self-absorbed. John Muir's kind of journal writing goes much further, to engage with the universe.

In our world today, restoring gratitude for our own natural surroundings - that which makes life possible both physically and psychically - is our greatest need. Accordingly a "Nature Journal" may be the best kind of journal to maintain. Keeping a nature journal is one way to help restore the kind of connection with the natural world that John Muir felt was so necessary. As John Muir Laws says, "Journaling is an invitation to dive into the world and rediscover beauty, and awe -- a way to turn sustained, compassionate attention toward seemingly everyday moments and find reason to celebrate and give thanks."

Keeping a nature journal on a regular basis awakens our senses and helps us become better observers. It is a way to integrate art and science. Nature observations may include writing, sketching plants and animals, making tree rubbings, pressing flowers, collecting seeds, or taking photographs of a nature walk. If you see a berry, you might make a smear of its color on your journal. Instead of "collecting" you will put down what you noticed, what you wonder about, and remarking on what it reminds you of. To keep it alive, make at least two to three entries in your journal per week.

We can learn a lot about keeping a personal or nature journal from John Muir. On the flyleaf of his first extant journal, beginning in 1867, John Muir wrote his cosmic address : "John Muir, Earth-Planet, Universe." He kept a journal of his experiences for the rest of his life. He always put the date and location at the top; often a note on the weather, and his observations of species he witnessed, sometimes with insect tracks surrounding what he wrote, or a sketch of a flower or a tree, drawn not to make a pretty picture, but to help embed its defining characteristics in his memory.

John Muir was likely inspired by his admiration for the journal keeping practices of Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. In particular, Thoreau followed a process we can see in Muir’s own journaling:

  • Whenever out walking, both men wrote notes in a field notebook.
  • Frequently, they would enter their entries into their journal.
  • Both recorded carefully what they saw, smelled, tasted, or did.
  • Both recorded their observations of plants, animal behavior, the weather, and other happenings.
  • Both made very simple sketches and maps to illustrate an observation or an event.
  • Their journals are filled with simple nature essays, character sketches, stories, quotations and snatches of conversations along with their social commentary on human society.
  • They later used all this raw information to write essays and lectures.
By following the lead of John Muir and the Transcendentalists, we can enrich our own lives.

Make Your Own John Muir Nature Journal

  • Keeping a Nature Journal (PDF) by Bonnie Johanna Gisel, Ph.D. - Using a separate template (PDF) - download separately - create a simple 4-page (or 8 page) nature journal, with inspiration from John Muir on how to write a journal on the back. You can tie your journal with a red ribbon to hold it together, just like Marion Randall Parsons, an early Sierra Club leader who helped him write his last book.
  • Nature Journal With John Muir Edited by Bonnie Johanna Gisel - A "blank journal" of 160 pages with quotes from John Muir interspersed throughout. The quotes help provide stepping-stones for inspiration and thoughtfulness for your own writing and sketching journey. Includes an introduction on "How to Begin Writing and Sketching in Your Nature Journal."
  • John Muir Observer Journal, by the University of the Pacific. - A "blank journal" of 144 pages, with an initial 16 pages filled with drawing, notes, and writings from John Muir's personal journal, as well as useful tips designed to get you to observe the world around you like John Muir did. A collaborative publication with the University of the Pacific's John Muir Center.
  • John Muir Nature and History Route Saunter Journal - print out this PDF in landscape format to record your visit to John Muir's neighborhood in Marquette County, Wisconsin. Use in conjunction with the Marquette County John Muir History and Nature Route - a smart phone-friendly app guiding visitors to Muir-related sites feaaturing the places where Muir grew up.
  • John Muir Notebook (The Signature Notebook Series) by Cider Mill Press (2016). A pocket-sized (4 x 0.8 x 6 inches) leather bound blank journal, with rounded corners, easy to stuff into a back pocket or a day pack. Half the size of most blank journals, it features a beautiful cover with the name and signature facsimile "John Muir" and a color half-portrait of John Muir. About a dozen quotes from John Muir, printed in artistic lettering, are interspersed throughout the blank pages along with a few black-and-white photographs. 192 pages.
  • Journal: Page From John Muir's Journal by PlainSimpleBooks, 2016. A no-frills "blank journal" of 150 pages, which are lined and numbered. Only reference to John Muir is the cover art, which artistically depicts a page from John Muir's journal.
  • Songs and Seeds: a Journal with John Muir by Mountain Meadow Press, 1996. 140 blank lined unnumbered pages are interspersed with inspirational quotes from John Muir, and attractive line drawings of flowers, leaves, cones, seeds, etc.
  • There are numerous "blank journals" available, many with nature themes, which interlace blank pages with sample drawings of flowers, leaves, etc. Some even have pockets for collecting leaves or flowers. Some have straps, or built-in ribbon place holders. Try to get one that lays flat. Another helpful tool may be a pen holder to affix your pencil or pen to your notebook or journal. Some have a dedicated space for recording weather or dates or location.
  • Or -- perhaps best of all -- just get a cheap spiral bound notebook instead. If you buy a fancy tool like one of those above, you may be loathe to use it. But if you get yourself a cheap bound notebook or sketchpad, you won't be intimidated with trying to fill your blank pages with something as dramatic as the artwork or creative writing in the examples. You can just write or draw for yourself, unfettered. Many of John Muir's journals were small notebook "freebies" that he obtained catch-as-catch-can.
  • You can make your own journal with recycled paper, stapled together with a cover made of cardboard from the inside face of a cereal box or from a recycled paper bag. Decorate or color the cover yourself with sketches, poetry, stickers, rubbings, etc. Punch holes on the side of the loose‐leaf paper and tie it with a cover together with ribbon or twine. Glue an envelope on the back page for keeping ephemera you pick up - a feather, a leaf, museum tickets, a scrap of fabric, or a business card that may end up being pasted in your journal later.
  • You might also think about using an electronic journal or diary app instead or in addition to a hard copy one. If you carry a smart phone or tablet around anyway, that might be the easiest to do. An excellent app for that purpose is Day One by Bloombuilt, Inc. Check your device's app store for many others. A simple note-taking or sketching app might be enough for you, already built-in!
    • John Muir Award Record eBook -  This technology platform encourages participants in Scotland's John Muir Award program to embrace technology to help connect with nature and the outdoors.With a smartphone in hand, young people can use it in a positive, creative way to record and share their experiences working on achieving their John Muir Award - sharing pictures, videos, sound clips, and stories. Although the Record eBook is designed as a social media sharing platform for John Muir Award participants, many of the same concepts can be used to use your own smartphone to keep aprivate journal - taking photos and videos, sound clips, and text entries describing your experiences. If you wish, you can just independently share photos on public photo sharing sites, videos on YouTube or Vimeo, sound clips on SoundCloud, and text on a blog or Facebook; or you can just choose to keep your experiences private. This video presentation of the John Muir Award Record eBook can give you ideas for how to use your mobile device to keep a nature journal, even if you don't participate in the John Muir Award program itself.
  • The important thing is making journaling a habit.

Related Journaling Resources

  • Observe Nature like John Muir by Joseph Cornell - Observing that "Most people look but don't see," Joseph Cornell provides this online page from Sharing Nature: Nature Awareness Activities for All Age (2015). The text paraphrases John Muir, and provides specific tips and prompts to help you discover and remember the physical characteristics and special quality of an animal or plant.
  • John Muir: My Life with Nature, by Joseph Cornell (Dawn Publications, 2000) An unique simplified "autobiography" of John Muir, using his own words and colorful expressions as often as possible but condensing his words to make them more accessible. Cornell includes about ten journal-writing activities that assist in appreciating Nature through the inspiration of John Muir. 
  • How to get started with Nature Journaling by John Muir Laws - Here, Laws (no relation to John Muir), give some ideas for "getting started" with nature journaling, with an emphasis on sketching and drawing. One tip is to use the "alphabet trick" - ie. choose a random letter of the alphabet, then look at the forest or field all around you and find things with that letter or color.
  • Thoreau's Style of Keeping a Journal by Donna L. Long. Discusses how Thoreau's style of keeping a nature journal is a guide for nature journal keepers. She also provides a variety of additional very useful posts on Nature Journaling.
  • Field Journaling with Students by the Lawrence Hall of Science (PDF), University of California, Berkeley. - 52-page professional learning materials for teachers on how to introduce and use Field Journaling as a learning tool to improve observations. Includes Leader Guide and Slides, Session Handouts, Background Information, and related videos.
  • Opening the World with Nature Journaling by the California Native Plant Society. An interdisciplinary curriculum of art, science, writing, and observation, intended to help engage students of all ages in the incredible natural world, to inspire them to keen observations of the wild places in their own backyards, and to foster a desire to protect these unique habitats.
  • The California Naturalist Handbook by Greg DeNevers, Deborah Stanger Edelman, and Adina Merenlender (University of California, 2013). This is a a fun, science-based introduction to California's natural history, which includes an illustrated guide to how to create and use a field notebook. As the authors' note: "John Muir is the quintessential California naturalist. Muir possessed the two key qualities vital to any naturalist: the power of careful observation and the ability to communicate and inspire others." Using both Muir and Rachel Carson as inspirations, the authors point out that keeping a field notebook and a naturalist journal is one of the best ways to learn about the natural world: A journal is a place to note your experiences, frame your questions, and check your facts... Journaling is a way of setting aside time to put your thoughts in order, to frame your experience, to help you share with others, and to prompt you to be exact in your observations. For the "field notebook" aspect, the book lists an 8-point "observation checklist" to help you record your observations. Many naturalists then write a separate journal where they rewrite their field observations in a ore accessible format, enabling them to reflect on what they observed and learned. Additional very practical tips are provided, such as leaving wide margins, numbering all pages, and making sure the date, location, weather, and habitat type is noted in a very visible way for each entry. Another practical suggestion is to write on only one side of a sheet, saving the opposing page for sketches, maps, or photos. Available as paperback or kindle edition from Amazon.
  • Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie focuses on helping you create your own art, as you see nature with your own eyes and interpret its images as you sketch and draw its shapes and colors.
  • Nature Observer: A Guided Journal by Maggie Enterrios includes prompts to encourage organization, creativity and mindfulness, and follows the seasons. Includes blank calendars and days of the week for you to identify monthly and daily goals, as well as ideas for recording astronomical events, seasonal changes in plants and animals, and a space to list your activity or intention with a corresponding space to check-off your accomplishments or record your observations.
  • Artist's Journal Workshop: Creating Your Life in Words and Pictures by Cathy Johnson gives creative ideas for starting a journal, primarily focusing on sketching and artwork, imaginary maps, and other visual elements.
  • The Sketchnote Handbook: the illustrated guide to visual note taking by Mike Rohde provides techniques for taking visual notes, whether in real-time during meetings and events or in outdoor experiences with no time limits. The idea is to make a visual map of the "big ideas" with words and pictures rather than attempting to record every detail. You do not need advanced drawing skills or attempt to create "art" - - you can create everything you want to draw with five basic shapes - a square, a circle, a triangle, a line, and a dot. Listening or observing with pen and paper (or digital tool) engages your mind to focus on what's important rather than trying to be a stenographer or court reporter.
  • Life Overlooked is a feature of the Humanities for the Environment Observatories which focuses on common backyard species. Focusing on one plant, or ordinary insect, or one common bird, or a microorganism, participants are encouraged to keep a nature journal. From the "journaling" exercises, participants are able to then create blogging exercises on a digital platform to reach increased numbers of people - these are published in the Stories section of the website.


Harold Wood, John Muir Education Team Coordinator
Sierra Club
P.O. Box 3543
Visalia, CA 93278

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