Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mark Baldwin - "Recording What I Notice"

Gray-Breasted Jay

I've always liked nature and collecting things, from mussel shells to lists of new wildflowers identified in dog-eared copies of Peterson field guides. But I didn't become a naturalist until I started keeping a nature journal.

As a graduate student, I signed up for a weekend workshop in natural history illustration taught by Clare Walker Leslie. Her book, THE ART OF FIELD SKETCHING, was to be our text. Considering my lack of drawing skill, I bought the book a few weeks in advance and started practicing. The exercises in that book were visual and methodical. Soon I was drawing satisfactory representations of what I was seeing. I also found my observation skills improving.

After the weekend course, I searched for more books on drawing, nature drawing, and the published journals of natural scientists. I started practicing the exercises in THE NATURAL WAY TO DRAW by Kimon Nicolaides (who was, by the way, Roger Tory Peterson's drawing instructor). I've been keeping a nature journal ever since.

Connemara Meadow

Recording what I notice in a journal does two things. First, it directs my attention away from my self and engages me with what is there in front of me. Because the event is caught on the page while the event is happening, and while the sensory channels are wide open - no symbols, cliches or preconceptions allowed -- I end up with a record I can rely on. Second, the event is caught in my mind in a way that makes its recollection, even years later, vivid and detailed.

In addition to helping me notice, my journal helps me wonder. Questions propel scientific inquiry. The questions I ask in my journal range from "What is this?" to "How has this woodlot changed in the last 50 years, and why?" Sometimes I need to know the answer right away. Other times a question needs further investigation or refinement before productive inquiry comes out of it.

White Oak

My nature journal is like a bank account. Recorded observations are like deposits; the more I deposit, the more knowledge grows, like accruing interest. Plus, I can draw on my simple jottings and sketches and use them to make essays or watercolor paintings. However, unlike withdrawals from a bank account, borrowing from my fund balance in this way can never decrease, but only increase its value.

Mark Journaling

Mark Baldwin was born in Jamestown, New York, received a BS in biology and secondary education from SUNY Fredonia and MS in teaching from Antioch University. He has taught middle school and high school science in Alaska, Vermont, and New York.

Mark serves as Director of Education at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History in Jamestown, where, for the past 20 years, he has worked with teachers throughout the country to infuse their curriculum with the outdoors and the natural world. Mark has a special interest in keeping personal nature journals to observe and record natural events and teaching the discipline to others. Mark also has a longtime interested in place-based education, especially creating maps and using them as tools for evoking a sense of place in both children and adults.


Mark lives in Jamestown with his wife, Ardy. They have two daughters, Kristin and Kelly. You can reach him at:

Mark Baldwin
Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History
311 Curtis St.
Jamestown, NY 14701
Tel: 716-665-2473, ext. 228
e-mail: mbaldwin@rtpi.org

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps you've addressed this here before, but I love The Private Eye method of inquiry, which includes drawing. I carry a loupe with me everywhere!http://www.the-private-eye.com/index.html

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