How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook
by Susan Leigh Tomlinson


Stackpole Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-811-73568-1.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 03/31/2010

Nonfiction: Creative Life; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Arts/Crafts

Are you a backyard birdwatcher curious about the lives and habits of your feathered friends? A hiker who wonders about the world you ramble through? An artist or writer seeking to learn more about nature?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, Susan Leigh Tomlinson's book is for you. This thoughtful and elegantly written guide shows you to how to dip beneath the surface of the natural world through keeping an illustrated field journal. We journal about our lives, why not journal about the other species around us as well? Observing and noting nature is a way of getting to know that wider, wilder community, and through it, deepening our understanding of our own species. It's a way of honoring the living world, as Mary Oliver writes in these lines from Where Does the Temple End; Where Does It Begin, which Tomlinson uses as an epigraph in the book:

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
as though with your arms open.

That kind of looking is exactly what Tomlinson teaches in this guide to exploring nature. She begins with the basics: what kind of notebook or journal to pick, plus pens, pencils, field bag, compass, hand lens, binoculars. Then comes the illustrated part: learning how to sketch or draw. You say you can't draw? Not to worry, Tomlinson can teach you. And along the way, she shows you how to use a field guide, understand scientific names (each of which is a story in just two words), refine your observation skills, ask questions and research what you observe, and polish your writing.

How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook is illustrated with Tomlinson's lovely sketches, as well as field journal pages from her students, none of whom, she notes for the faint-hearted among us, were actually majoring in either art or science. (So if they can learn to sketch and observe...) My only quibble—and it's a small one—is the book's design, which is oddly formal, like that of a textbook. Tomlinson did write the book for her students, but the design could still have embraced the informality of her wry sense of humor and the medium she's writing about. The design could have been fun and full of wonder, and thus honored the spirit Tomlinson brings to her relationship with nature—and life.


Susan Leigh Tomlinson has a Ph.D. in geology, an undergraduate degree in fine art, and is the director of the Natural History and Humanities program in the Honors College at Texas Tech University. She is also one of the editors of To Everything on Earth: New Writing on Fate, Community, and Nature (Texas Tech University Press, 2009). Tomlinson also writes the popular garden blog, The Bike Garden, which chronicles her adventures in "re-claiming El Llano Estacado, one wild and sprawly prairie garden at a time," along with the lives of Pearl and Henrietta, two cartoon chickens. Tomlinson lives in Lubbock, Texas, with her husband, also a professor at Texas Tech.

Check out our interview with the author of How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook.

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