A practice in purpose: Using nature journaling practices to help create fire adapted communities

Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

By Miriam Morrill

What if I told you there was a practice, a process you could do that would not only benefit your cognition and observation skills but also help to visually represent your relationship to nature and fire and help to foster fire adaptation? Well there is – nature journaling.

The beginning of any adaptation effort starts with awareness of what is happening now, a place-based, fully immersive sense of your surroundings. You can’t adapt to something if you aren’t aware of the why behind it. One of the best tools that I know of for enhancing awareness and building a deep connection with the environment, is the practice of nature journaling. It is a personal, place-based practice that has a rich network for sharing and learning.

So, what does nature journaling look like? It’s often done as part of a group or network but can also be done on your own. We use the practices and tools developed by modern nature journaling experts like John Muir Laws. This practice starts by using core learning languages (words, numbers, pictures) and exercises that engage the senses. We employ framing questions (I observe…, I wonder…, it reminds me of…) and forms of investigation and measurement that allow the observer to see things from different perspectives. Then we take to our journals. Some may write notes, some may write poetry, while others may use mostly sketches and still others may record data and measurements. It is wholly personal, intentional, and expressive. We continue to cultivate the habit through journaling follow-up exercises (touch ups, summaries, research), organizing information (formatting approaches, indexing, cumulative journal metadata), and journal sharing (in person field trips, workshops, and online) that reinforces personal and community learning practices. Journaling practices have also been widely used as a form of creative expression and a trauma-resilience practice. Can you see how this might be beneficial to helping practitioners and others learning to live better with fire?

Nature journaling as a program and practice for fire adaptation, is not about just creating a sketchbook, maintaining a personal diary, or even maintaining a simple field notebook. Nature journaling practices are designed to support the development of the neural networks in the brain; the brain pathways that help increase observation skills, learning, analysis, memory, and a sense of connection to nature. Nature journaling practices create an intentional curiosity that awakens the mind and senses and brings the person into a closer connection and relationship with their environment, it creates a stronger “sense” of place.

I came to nature journaling around four years ago, when my husband and I discussed an early retirement and living full-time in our travel trailer. I was no longer going to have an art room with a large art table and a closet full of supplies. In my research for a more mobile art approach, I came across nature journaling. As I learned more and started the personal practice, I realized the far reaching benefits to enhancing my observations, learning, and connections to nature. I became a strong believer in the benefits and have strived to integrate my fire knowledge and experience into nature journaling practices that might be shared and applied by others. For many years, I have used and promoted visual art and graphics for fire communications and it’s a side benefit that nature journaling can be used to create better art, research, and communication products, but the product is not the focus as much as the practice.

If you think about it, the act of journaling is a very old tool that has helped historic figures like Darwin and DaVinci to document and understand their world. Most of us, in this modern world, are largely disconnected from the environment and from the basic learning practices and tools that could benefit us in so many ways. Many people are even more removed from the fire environment, which is surprising when you consider that humans have evolved in a near symbiotic relationship with fire. It’s important and good to see more focus and support for Indigenous knowledge and cultural burning practices but the vast majority of people are dislocated and dissociated from fire on the land and as part of the living system. I have also noticed that many of the new fire education and engagement tools are technology-based and can limit the personal and evolving learning practices that build an intimate connection to the environment. I am a strong believer in utilizing technology, science, and data but not in sacrifice of full-bodied place-based ways of knowing and experiencing the world. So, providing a practice that connects to someone’s sense of place and gives them a tool to employ that allows for a deeper understanding of their environment is essential, now more than ever.

Last year I used nature journaling tools and practices to help learn, teach, and communicate about fire through a yearlong practice of journaling fire weather. I explored many data sources and visualizations which evolved over time from a fire weather wheel to a weather/climate graph. Sharing these journal pages and practices with the online community, The Nature Journal Club, I saw my fellow nature journalers utilize the visuals and metadata to create and evolve their own practices tracking their weather influences on their garden, phenology, and other weather related observations. I have also used sketch-noting approaches, similar to nature journaling, to better understand and communicate fire science including fire acoustics, smoke effects on photosynthesis, and fire pattern indicators used in fire origin and cause determination.

I was able to host a nature journaling session at the Washington Fire Adapted Communities (WAFAC) conference in December 2020. Through the practice participants gained a deeper and more emotional and physical connection that can feed into and inform home and community evacuation planning efforts. Early last year I planned and developed a pilot project with the Nature Conservancy’s Fire Training Exchange program (TREX), the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council, and Karuk Tribe. We brought a group of nature journalers to observe, learn, and journal about a prescribed fire and cultural burning practices. I am currently working with several partners in Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona on developing nature journaling fire programs and scoping a workshop series with partners that will integrate the trauma-resilience model into the nature journaling of fire practices and education programs.

After 27 years of working for various federal agencies in different programs I have come to believe that becoming fire adapted starts with being more personal, primitive, and participatory. We are living creatures participating in a living system. To be adaptive we need to start with a place-based awareness, an ecological sense of place where we have conscious engagement with the local landscape. In addition, the fostering of community collaboratives that engage and integrate multiple knowledge sources and learning practices are essential in cultivating adaptation. The practice of nature journaling does all of the above and more.

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