This past week, I began an online nature-writing class with a fellow science writer I met at the May 2010 Writing Away Retreat, Wendee Holtcamp. Our first week’s assignment: start a nature journal in which to record observations about a specific location.
This seemed fun to me—but a little old hat. I mean, as a writer, I do this already, right? I practice noticing details such as smells, sounds, colors and textures, the mood a place evokes in me.
But—because I’m the kind of person who does every exercise in a class (and most of those exercises in writing books, too)—I picked my spot and christened a new notebook. Besides, did I mention that it sounded like fun? I had an officially sanctioned half hour to sit outside and absorb nature.
The spot: the wooden slat lounge chair by my front door.
The time: late afternoon, on a cool, cloudy May day
I sat without writing for ten minutes (as instructed—I even used a timer) and just…observed. I breathed. I noticed the moisture in the air, scanned for manmade sounds and then let those sounds fade into the background.
And then I wrote. And wrote. And discovered all sorts of wonderful details about this place, mere inches from my front door, that I thought I knew—including three birds’ nests, one abandoned, one occupied, and one still a work-in-progress.
It was wonderful.
It made me think:
- …How much detail can I capture about a place by paying attention that I miss if I’m not wearing my observation hat.
- …How valuable those details will be for my writing, if I ever need to write about my yard, or the birds I observed, or the garden, or even another like it.
- …How I’ve visited other places and then, later, decided to write about them…only to discover that I can’t remember the details as well as I thought I would.
I want this practice of nature journaling to become a habit—and I’ll start collecting notebooks of setting detail to bring my writing to life, whether I’m working on nonfiction or fiction.
PS: If you’re interested in delving more deeply into the art of nature writing, check out Wendee’s class. It’s so jam-packed full of information, market analyses, and writing resources, it’s worth the cost even if you *don’t* do the assignments. I’d recommend doing the assignments, though. They’re a blast!