Brilliantly rich in nature: A book preview of "How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook

I'm so excited about this book I can't wait to write about it till I've read the whole thing. Town mouse got a copy for herself and knowing I'd love this book she kindly gave me a copy too.

How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook, by Susan Leigh Tomlinson is a friendly, immensely practical, down-to-earth, and above all encouraging how-to book for those of us who like to observe nature, and learn and grow as we go. Susan wanted just such a book and none was to be found so she wrote one:
It is part lesson in the basics of sketching, part instruction in journal writing, and part walk through the process of identifying something and learning about it.
I'm particularly interested in her claim that field sketching is mostly a matter of learning a few simple techniques and practicing them. It's not as intimidating as you might think to sketch, for example a bird (circle for head, circle for body and so on) so you can record its characteristics for later ID. Not magic, just a technique.

To give you a flavor of the author's friendly tone, here's her advice on picking a notebook:
I've purchased my share of expensive journals with rich textured papers on which to write. They are all still on my bookshelf, largely untouched. Every time I open one, I feel compelled to write something important in it - something befitting its esteemed status. The trouble is that the best journaling is often exploratory, sometimes random, and usually just plain routine. Fancy journals are not the place for the everyday, and the everyday world is a big part of what we are recording. In my notebooks, I have sketches of grasses, grocery lists, variations in sentences from poems that I am working on (over and over and over. . .). Not only are the expensive journals intimidating, it usually seems the snazzier the tome, the fewer the pages. And since you'll be carrying these notebooks into the field with you, where they are going to get kicked around quite a bit, tough and utilitarian is the better way to go. In the best of all possible worlds, you'll take your journal hiking, backpacking, fishing, canoeing, and so on., so you'll want one that can go the distance with you. / In summary the features you want to look for in a notebook are as follows: inexpensive, durable, lightweight, and not too big, good tooth, and plenty of pages.
Her pick: the Strathmore sketchbook.

She goes on to itemize the characteristics of a good field bag and what you might want to put in it - all in the same practical and pleasant manner, and getting into many useful details you might not know about, based on her experiences. For example, in picking binoculars, she explains the difference in binocular types, those with the porro prism (they look like an M) and with the roof prism (look like an H) , interpupillary distance, and so on.

I love the attitude to nature that is behind all this preparation. It's summed up in this moment of discovery that set her off on her lifelong love of exploring the natural world.
I had grown up in New Mexico and west Texas and thought I knew something about my home ground--namely, that it was devoid of anything remotely interesting! But under the tutelage of the Midnats [a group of amateur naturalists], I was astonished to discover that that subtle landscape was in fact brilliantly rich in nature.
Brilliantly rich in nature. I love that phrase, and I love the sentiment that nature encountered anywhere - even in a potted geranium - even in a sow thistle - is a source of wonder and amazement. Especially coupled with her practical advice on how to support your fascination by keeping a naturalist's notebook.

I am reminded of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins which I disliked as a teenager but really enjoy now. Though I'm not a theist I do certainly feel the glory, especially when I'm out in a natural environment.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89). Poems. 1918.

13. Pied Beauty

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; 5
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: 10
Praise him.


Town Mouse said…
Ah, and let us not forget that Susan is also blogging at The Bike Garden (

Yes, love that book!
Christine said…
Ooooh, neat! I'll have to check this out- it can be daunting to have a sketchbook and feel like you have to make something brilliant on every page. I like that she uses hers for more stream of consciousness observances, like grocery lists.
Country Mouse said…
Oh, thanks for the link, TM, and for the book! I haven't gotten into the plant ID part yet at all and am savoring the anticipation. I just also got the Peterson's Guide to westarn wildflowers, forget the actual name - and it is very helpful for plant id.

I loved that aspect too, Christine. My notebooks have random stuff like that too - plant lists, odd thoughts, and Scrabble game scores, for example. On my week off next week I want to set up a naturalist's notebook following Susan's advice.
What a lovely idea for a book. I've tried keeping sketchbooks, sometimes because I was mandated to for something like a class, other times just for fun. The trouble is, I never seem to have it handy when I need it. Most of 'sketchbooks' de-evolve into random scraps of paper scattered in files or across my desk. Perhaps that's why now I'm so glued to my camera instead. At least, for me, it keeps everything in one place :P I'd love to see how your sketchbook comes along, I think it would be a lovely addition to a blog post to include the occasional sketch.
Elephant's Eye said…
'landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow and plough' is an endless fascination. Have already painted it for a blank wall, to make a 'window' in the kitchen. And plan more for the garden Folie.

Do hope you will share a little of your notebooks sometimes, we will love to see it (that is from Town AND Country)
I used to carry a sketchbook with me everywhere, but I fell out of the habit when I had to downsize my purse because my back was messed up. Maybe I should rethink that. . .

I really do like the encouragement to actually do something creative that involves writing and drawing. In this age of cell phones with cameras and tiny digital cameras, it is all to easy to snap a photo and forget about nurturing our creative side.
Susan Tomlinson said…
What a lovely review! Thank you, an I hope you continue to enjoy the book.