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For me, it started with jealousy and ended with the knowledge of plant and animal species.

I have long been interested in learning the names as well as the medicinal and edible uses of plants, wildflowers, and mushrooms. I have struggled to identify specific types of salamanders or recognize a bird hidden in the canopy based on the sound of his song. I keep field guides and ID booklets scattered around the house: on the nightstand, in the bathroom, and anywhere else where I might have a few quiet minutes to absorb the information. But staring at the pages didn’t result in memorization.

My friend and BRHC Hiking Guide, Leah LaRocco, told me about the TN Naturalist Program at Tremont that she completed and I thought that might be the perfect way for me to absorb information. The weekend programming all looked incredible, but with my work and travel schedule, I didn’t feel like I could justify the extra time away from home. Plus their calendar fills out so far in advance that it is tough to book any classes within 12 months.

Then I found out that the NC Arboretum in Asheville is offering a Naturalist Program in another one of our guides, Tamera Trexler, is taking part in. I thought this might be a great local option, but once again the scheduling conflicted with work/parenting commitments, plus several of the classes have been moved online due to Covid and I really want to learn ecology and Plant ID in person. Ugh… I was jealous of my friends who prioritized these programs and didn’t feel that I could offer up weekends or weekday mornings to pursue these programs. As a working mom, I didn’t have days to hours, I had minutes. And that’s exactly why I started a nature journal.

At least one morning a week, sometimes two to three, I will send my kids off to school, sip my cup of coffee, and then sit down and sketch a plant or animal from my guidebook in my nature journal. Unlike staring at stagnant guidebook pages, I have a very high retention rate of knowing/remembering the plants and animals I sketch. Using my hands to translate the image into a notebook helped me embody the look, feel, and facts surrounding the subject matter. And it’s fun to sit and draw.

The goal is not artistic perfection. I try to limit my sketch to 5-10 minutes and sometimes I am doing it with a child on my lap. (Both my children have started nature journals too. This helps to keep them occupied and off my lap, plus they are learning plants at an early age. Win-win.)

Sometimes the pictures are UGLY, but I find I often remember the disaster drawings better than the plants that turn out well. As much as possible I try to sketch things that are “in season” because it then becomes like a scavenger hunt to try to find one of the species when I hit the trail. It also makes me feel more connected with nature and aware of seasonal changes when I am spending more time indoors than I would like.

This winter I am sketching year-round birds of Western North Carolina, which has been a challenge – birds are tough to draw! As I try to do some justice to the shape, coloring, and patterns of the bird, I also listen to the bird call or bird song as I draw. I really struggle with bird calls but I have noticed a big improvement since combining a sketch with a song.

Anyway, I started this practice a little over two years ago and since then I have learned a couple hundred species. I wish I had started it sooner. I am no longer jealous of my friends and while I would still love to take more formal classes/workshops, I am content right now with a cup of coffee, colored pencils, and a few minutes each week to learn and appreciate the many native plant and animal species that make Western North Carolina such a beautiful and unique place to live.