Keeping a Nature Journal, 3rd Edition

Deepen Your Connection with the Natural World All Around You


By Clare Walker Leslie

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Originally published in 2000 with endorsements from E.O. Wilson and Jane Goodall, Clare Walker Leslie’s Keeping a Nature Journal was at the forefront of the nature observation and journaling movement. Leslie’s approach has long been acclaimed for its accessible style of teaching people to see, witness, and appreciate the wonders of nature, and her classic guide is still used by individuals, groups, and educators ranging from elementary school teachers to college-level instructors. The third edition features more of Leslie’s step-by-step drawing techniques, a new selection of pages from her own journals (which she’s kept for 40 years), and an expanded range of prompts for observing particular aspects of the natural world in any location. With an emphasis on learning to see and observe, Leslie shows how drawing nature doesn’t require special skills, artistic ability, or even nature knowledge, and it is a tool everyone can use to record observations and experience the benefits of a stronger connection to the natural world.



This third edition of Keeping a Nature Journal is dedicated to Eric Ennion, John Busby, Gunnar Brusewitz, and Lars Jonsson, who opened their homes in Scotland, England, and Sweden to me, kindly inviting me to learn alongside with them, how to draw nature.

My first book, Nature Drawing: A Tool for Learning (1980), is based on the techniques I learned in 1976 from Eric Ennion and still use today. The Art of Field Sketching (1994) could not have been written without the guidance of and long friendship with John and Joan Busby. Gunnar Brusewitz was the first to introduce me to a form of nature journaling that included both word and image, back in 1988. One of Sweden's top wildlife artists, Gunnar called himself a "nature reporter." I think that may be where I first termed myself a "nature journal keeper." The first edition of Keeping a Nature Journal (2000) is an amalgamation of the fantastic teachings I gratefully gathered from these three wildlife artists and excellent teachers. And I want to add Lars Jonsson, as he, beginning in 1984, inspired me to use pencil and watercolor to paint birds and landscapes directly outdoors, urging me not to be concerned with the product but to actively love the process.

Finally, after some 50 years in this field of writing, drawing, exhibiting, publishing, and teaching about seeing and drawing nature, I want to add the many teachers, friends, students, editors, and publishers, as well as all of my family members who have walked alongside me since February 1978, when I opened my first blank book and began wandering outdoors asking the insatiable questions of where, what, why, and recording my learning as both artist and naturalist. (This third edition, being worked on in the summer of 2020, has pages from my current nature journal — #55!)


It is with deep gratitude that I think of Charles E. "Chuck" Roth, emeritus educator at the Massachusetts Audubon Society, who kindly agreed to coauthor the first edition of Keeping a Nature Journal. We had hilarious and fun days together pushing and pulling the science vs. the art. With the fine and wise help of our editor at Storey Publishing, Deborah Balmuth, we produced a book that has become an international winner. Thank you, Chuck, and thank you, Storey Publishing.

Drawing by Charles E. Roth


Foreword to the First Edition


Part 1 Getting Started

Chapter 1    Why Keep a Nature Journal?

Chapter 2    Setting Up Your Journal

Chapter 3    Introduction to Drawing

Chapter 4    The Ongoing Journal

Part 2 Journaling Explorations

Seasons and Sky

Flowering and Nonflowering Plants

Trees and Leaves

Birds, Beaks, and Feathers

Mammals, Domestic and Wild

Amphibians and Reptiles

Insects and Others


Appendix: Teaching Nature Journaling

Suggested Reading and Resources


See Nature in New Ways with More Books by Clare Walker Leslie

Share Your Experience!

Foreword to
the First Edition

What is natural history? It is virtually the whole world around you. It is the vista of a great forest from a mountaintop, and a swath of weeds growing along a city sidewalk. It is the breaching of a whale, and the protozoans teeming in algae in a drop of pond water. Everywhere the world is alive, waiting exploration by those who prefer, if only at intervals, real reality to virtual reality. And as to the wonders of modern technology, bear in mind that a sidewalk weed and a protozoan are each more complex than any device yet invented by humanity.

Because humanity evolved in nature over millions of years, there is every reason to expect that we possess an innate capacity to draw deep excitement and pleasure from experiencing it. And because our species has been exquisitely adapted to the razor-thin biosphere covering the planet by this same evolution, our survival depends on understanding and protecting the rest of life. What we must enjoy, including a clean, healthy natural environment, also serves the interest of the human species.

This combination of pleasure and practicality is what makes the kind of illustration promoted in Keeping a Nature Journal important. For centuries it has been the mainstay of representing the natural world. For a time many believed that natural history and scientific art would be supplanted by photography and graphs. But these are merely the extremes available to the human eye, bracketing detailed rendition at one end and abstraction of data at the other. In between and just as enduring is natural history illustration, wherein the observer brings out those features thought most important and interesting in settings difficult for photographs and impossible for graphs to attain. Nature journaling is also extremely flexible. It ranges from scientific figures designed for professional publications to creative art whose principal purpose is to convey aesthetic pleasure.

The art of natural history, as nature journaling shows very well, serves yet another, equally important function. To a degree greater than photography, it involves the illustrator directly in what he observes. The illustrator re-creates what he sees and does not merely record. He expresses what seems important, hence worthy to stress and convey in a single compelling image. He can strengthen his impression with written description and commentary. This creative process is at the heart of natural history observation, and it helps to make the best of experiences also the most lasting in memory for anyone wishing to enjoy it.

Edward O. Wilson

Research Professor, Harvard University

Honorary Curator in Entomology,

Museum of Comparative Zoology


When I began my first nature journal, back in 1978, I knew very little about nature, and the prospect of the blank page and what to draw were daunting. But I was curious about the outdoors and I knew I felt happier when out wandering fields and woods. So I bought a blank book, found a pen, and began writing and drawing to remember what I was learning. My first drawing, done while exploring an Audubon sanctuary with a friend, was a hesitant description of a goldenrod gall, with the question "Who made this?"

As we walked farther, we found a meadow vole's nest, some rabbit droppings, and a few chewed twigs. A hawk circled above, and it began to drizzle. Rain droplets hung on the old raspberry brambles, and suddenly we could see the world upside down on the lens of those tiny watery orbs.

Some 40 years and 55 journals later, I can return to those early pages and remember the excitement and joy of discovery. I love going back through my journals, looking for patterns of changes — changes in my own life and the life of nature around me, as well as the ongoing consistencies as the seasons revolve, one after the other, year upon year.

When Keeping a Nature Journal was first published more than 20 years ago, "journaling about nature" wasn't really a concept. As people have become more aware of the state of the environment, however, the concept of being outside and recording one's observations of nature has become tremendously popular. The original book, written with Charles Roth, has been used all over the United States and in a number of different countries around the world. Over those years, I have had the great pleasure of teaching nature journaling in many places and to many people. Around the world, more and more people are paying attention to their environment and realizing how interconnected we all are and how we depend on every part of this living web that holds together the planet many of us call Mother Earth.

"Why keep a nature journal?" I asked a 5th grader. He answered, "Because it's fun and you learn stuff."

Everyone Can Do It

You don't need to know anything about nature, anything about drawing, anything about writing, anything about what to use or how to draw to start nature journaling. You can be living anywhere — city, suburbs, countryside — and even be indoors. You can be rich or poor, any nationality, or any age. You don't need to be in super physical shape or even have a car!

All you need is the curiosity to say to yourself "What is happening out in nature right now, right here, right where I live?" And then find out. Nature journaling is a kind of detective work or sleuthing. Begin with very simple questions, like "Are there clouds in the sky?" "Can I hear a bird?" "What's the weather doing?" "What plants do I see?"

Above all, nature journaling is fun. You can do it alone, with friends, with your kids, in a classroom, even when sick in bed. It can be done at any time of day or night, in any season and all kinds of weather. I have students teaching nature journaling in senior citizen homes, in prisons, aboard boats, while hiking and camping, and in many schools across the United States and in other countries.

Take 20 minutes out of your day to get outside (or just look out your window) and make a few scribbles about a leaf, a bird, a cloud shape, sounds heard on a brisk walk — I guarantee you will come away feeling better about life. As I will keep reminding you throughout this book, don't worry about whether your drawing is "good" or "bad." With nature journaling, it is all about how well you are seeing and recording — in both word and image.

Something about this January has been different from my first two winters in Williamstown and I don't think it's the weather. I think it's my eyes. . . . Carrying my journal with me around campus and looking closely at the shape of branches, needles, and the patterns of prints in the snow, I started to realize that life was still out there in winter, we just had to look at it differently.

— Tom Stoddard,
Williams College student

Part 1

Getting Started

In this 20th century, to stop rushing around, to sit on the grass, to switch off the world and come back to the earth, to allow the eye to see a willow, a bush, a cloud, a leaf . . . I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen . . . that seeing/drawing become one . . . and that I constantly rediscover the world.

— Frederick Franck,
The Zen of Seeing

Chapter 1

Why Keep a Nature Journal?

Many of us are looking for ways to connect better with nature — to learn its patterns, to help protect its inhabitants, to gain an understanding of what makes our own lives tick. Since the dawn of the human mind, people have sought to know nature better and to know their own selves better. Many of them went out with pen, parchment, paintbrush, and telescope to record their sightings. The nature journal has been the companion for countless men, women, and children with an insatiable curiosity about the natural world.

Nature journaling is your path into the exploration of the natural world around you, and into your personal connection with it. How you use your journal is entirely up to you. I have based my career on my journals. You can be as involved as you wish. Are you a classroom teacher, a self-taught naturalist, an artist who loves nature, a scientist who would love to draw nature, or perhaps someone who finds nature a source for healing, meditation, and connection?

What Is Nature Journaling?

Simply put, nature journaling is the regular recording of observations, perceptions, and feelings about the world of nature around you, with the date, place, time, and weather usually noted in some way. The recording can be done in a wide variety of ways, depending on your age, experience, interests, and time. There is no "correct" way to set up and keep a nature journal. The success of a nature journal is in its flexibility and very personal intention.

Some people write more than draw. Some are very scientific; some very artistic. Some take great care with their journals and use them regularly. Some are more casual, turning to them only occasionally. Photographs, postcards, online information, newspaper and magazine clippings, and other material can be added. I tell my students, "Learn the basic format for a nature journal and then launch off onto your own style and purpose."

Use the many illustrations in this book to inspire you and develop confidence in finding your way. Some were drawn by children, others by scientific illustrators. Some were done as classroom assignments, others in backyards or while traveling in far-off locations. Many were drawn quickly to capture an impression; others took several hours or even days to complete. I also recommend looking at historic nature journals and drawings, such as those by fifteenth-century artist Leonardo da Vinci (see many others in Suggested Reading and Resources). And there is a growing online presence for nature journaling, with a wide variety of courses and workshops available, as well as opportunities to share your work.

I have drawn ever since I could remember. Drawing is a piece of paper . . . and running your hand over it the drawing comes up — it's there. Writing is pain, agony, and backache. I certainly could write without drawing, but drawing makes me see so much more. And by the same token, writing and learning makes me see so much more when I draw.

— Ann Zwinger
Naturalist and author

Record Your Experience

A nature journal is less a personal diary and more a recording of your responses to and learning about the natural world. As I explain to students, "You don't moan here about how horrible your life is or how much you hate your sister." This is about getting out of your head and into the world of nature. You can imply those concerns, of course, but downplay them. For example you could begin your documentation of the usual date, time, place, and weather with a note such as, "Today is my birthday and I'm taking this time for myself!"

Returning to a Rich Tradition

Nature journaling is not new. In fact, it is one of the oldest methods around: Whether they drew on cave walls, etched marks into sticks, painted stories on vases or tepees, or laboriously inscribed sheepskin manuscripts, humans have kept some form of nature journals throughout history. People have recorded hunts and battles, the passage of time, the success of an exploration, the cycle of planting and harvest. These records may not have been called nature journals at the time, but nature journals they truly were.

For centuries, sea captains have kept logs (another form of nature journal) noting the weather, constellations, passing birds, human behavior, and other items of interest. Many explorers, then and still today, take scientists and artists on their expeditions. Why do you think President Thomas Jefferson hired explorers Lewis and Clark to lead the expedition on the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean? Yes, they were experienced explorers and skilled leaders, but each also kept meticulous journals containing detailed drawings and writings. Their journals contain some of the best records we have today of their hazardous two-year journey.

In the past, many schoolchildren created nature journals that recorded both the natural world and human life around them. Without textbooks, these became a form of basal reader. Today, many schools and homeschooling groups, nature centers and camps, and even colleges and graduate-level programs are returning to the study of local habitats and moving away from a focus on exotic and faraway ecosystems. Much of this is being fostered by an increasing awareness of global climate issues and a concern for learning how to protect local environments. The surge of interest in citizen science programs and phenology (see Participating in Citizen Science) has led to more students discovering that plants, animals, weather patterns, and moon phases exist right around them, not just in the Amazon rain forest or the Artic tundra or the Australian outback.

A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.

— Rachel Carson
The Sense of Wonder

What Is a Naturalist?

The overwhelming majority of men and women — throughout history and across many cultures — who became dedicated naturalists didn't gain their knowledge from formal schooling. Naturalists learn best outdoors, not in a lab or classroom. Naturalists are generalists, interested in everything from ants and sow bugs to daffodils and maple trees, to sea urchins and whales. The foundation for a naturalist's learning is curiosity and willingness to pursue learning in many different ways: watching, considering, recording, researching, asking questions.

When you begin a nature journal, you join the ranks of the great naturalists of the past who spent their days outdoors scratching their heads and asking, "What is going on here?" We can turn to the writings of Pliny, Aristotle, Copernicus, Leonardo da Vinci, Carolus Linnaeus, Charles Darwin, Rachel Carson, Anna Botsford Comstock, Jane Goodall, Edward O. Wilson, and so many others, as well as countless naturalists from other countries and cultures.

The naturalist wanders with an inquiring eye, pauses, ponders, notes the bloom of a prairie pasqueflower. It is a tradition that goes back to Aristotle and earlier; observing and identifying earth's myriad life-forms, and discovering the connections that bind them. For those with such interests, said British naturalist Miriam Rothschild, "life can never be long enough."

— John Hay
The Curious Naturalist

A. Cowbird (male) eying a caterpillar; B. Common birder's stance. Field guide braced between legs; C. People take time off from work to watch phoebes and are restored. Strangers smile at each other. D. Oriole (male); E. Goldfinch atop tombstone - black + gold flash.

The Benefits of Nature Journaling

Spending time in the world, using the simple tool of a journal to observe and record what you see, is a relatively easy way to establish a connection with nature. A journal offers a great excuse to simply "mess about" outside, noting the day, the weather, and signs of the season. I am often asked if I record in my journal every day. No. Like you, I am busy. However, knowing my journal is nearby, I can quickly jot down what I see out the window while eating dinner. As one eight-year-old said after an outdoor session of nature journaling, "Boy, I have seen the day."

Carry the sun in your heart even if it is stormy and snowy, if the sky is cloudy or the earth resounds with strife.

— from a daily inspirational calendar

Learning to Unplug and Reconnect

We all have so many distractions coming at us from every angle: job commitments, family obligations, commuting woes, economic worries, and an avalanche of electronic entertainment and information that often feels inescapable. The world can seem overwhelming, yet many of us feel a true hunger to reconnect. Amid the stories of upheaval and unrest around the globe, I find many examples of the solace of nature and the power of being aware of our surroundings.


  • "Deepen your connection to the natural world with Leslie’s easy journaling techniques. Be inspired, healed, and filled with joy as you start your own nature journal!" — Jessica Bussmann, Director of Education at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts

    "A keystone book for anyone developing their nature journaling skills. The insights of one of the best and wisest teachers fill every page.” — John Muir Laws, artist, naturalist, author, and educator

    "Leslie’s captivating journal pages ease you into the practice of keeping a nature journal. Now, more than ever, this practice is needed for solace, learning, connecting, and caring." — Sandy McDermott, artist and teacher

    "Using Leslie’s easy-to-apply techniques, my students were joyful, engaged, thinking on higher levels, and motivated to learn." — Stephen L. Houser, Jr., elementary school teacher, Recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, and American Geological Institute's US Earth Science Teacher of the Year

    "This new edition of Clare Walker Leslie’s classic book provides pleasure for hand and eye, while offering an alluring pathway toward greater attentiveness to the beauty and mystery of the world.  She explores both the “why?” and “how?” of nature journaling, in an engaging, encouraging, and accessible approach. Naturalists of all skill levels and backgrounds can benefit from this offering." — Thomas Lowe Fleischner, Ph.D. Executive Director, Natural History Institute; Editor: Nature, Love, Medicine: Essays on Wildness and Wellness and The Way of Natural History

    "Having known Clare Walker Leslie for over 45 years, I have been privileged to observe her development of this very personal, detailed and practical approach to nature journaling. It is just delightful to see this talented artist and teacher present us with her most comprehensive “how to” publication to date. Clare is not just entertaining us with her unique, keenly observed illustrations and text; she is instructing us (and imploring us) to develop our own techniques for recording the amazing natural world around us." — Trevor L. Lloyd-Evans, Director, Landbird Conservation, Manomet

On Sale
Jun 8, 2021
Page Count
224 pages

Clare Walker Leslie

Clare Walker Leslie

About the Author

Clare Walker Leslie is a nationally known wildlife artist, author, and educator. For more than 30 years, she has been connecting people of all ages to nature using drawing, writing, and observation of the outdoors. Her books include the bestsellers Keeping a Nature Journal and The Nature Connection, as well as The Curious Nature GuideNature Journal, and Drawn to Nature. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Granville, Vermont.

Learn more about this author