Review of Dr. T’s How to Keep a Naturalist’s Notebook


UPDATE:  Our winner is Lochlanina of Pieceful Slumber

Guest Blogger Doug Jones reviews for us this lovely book by frequent Rant commenter Susan TomlinsonSTBook cover

"Why is it so important that I
draw?” I asked after looking through the table of contents of How to Keep a Naturalist’s Notebook and
realizing that author Susan Leigh Tomlinson devotes about one half of the pages
to teaching drawing.

Initially browsing and skimming this attractive book, I liked very much what I read.  For example, while Tomlinson downplays the
importance of gear, the advice she does offer is good:  "Cheap binoculars are better than none
at all."  I was also happy to notice
that she includes a copy of the Beaufort
scale, which is used to quantify wind speed by observing movement of leaves and

Although I've spent as much
time as possible in outdoor activities — fishing, camping, kayaking, hiking,
gardening — my previous attempts at keeping journals and notebooks had yielded
mixed results, and this book seemed a promising aid to jump-starting new
efforts.   But still the question
remained:  "Why is it important that
I draw?"

Tomlinson answers the question to my
satisfaction by asserting that the act of sketching plants and animals forces
us to slow down and study details, to really see as opposed to looking.  This sounded good because my natural
inclination is to see the outdoors with wide-angle eyes.  Wide angle is fine, but I would benefit by
shifting more often to telephoto to direct my attention to one detail, or to
macro to view the detail up close.  In gardening, my tendency translates
to favoring overall design as opposed to appreciating the detail of a single

STBlackfoot Daisy small The author is a professor at Texas
Tech University and like any good teacher, she has learned from her students.
 From her experience teaching drawing skills to enhance students'
abilities to focus on details in nature, she has noticed common obstacles.  Students often have problems drawing wild flowers,
for example, because flowers “are so familiar to us that we forget to look at
them.  Most people have in their heads a symbol of a flower (most often it is a daisy) and when they sit down
to draw they have a tough time drawing anything but that."

OK then, now she has sold me on the desirability of slowing down to study
details and on drawing as a method to achieve this, but what if I have little
or no talent?  Tomlinson says she hears this
all the time from students and confidently responds that she can teach anyone
to sketch a reasonable facsimile of what they see.  The book presents a series of simple
exercises towards this end.  I
picture her rapping a ruler on a desk while scolding students on the importance
of practicing these exercises.  So here I
am, a man who hasn't drawn since elementary school, half a century ago, and
even then I wasn't very good (except P-38 fighter planes and 1957 Chevrolets). Here
I am practicing drawing circles, triangles, and other shapes according to the
book's directions.

Drawing exercises aside, How to Keep a
Naturalist’s Notebook
has much to say about relating to our StRobin natural environment.
 Tomlinson argues that it’s important to learn the names of plants and
animals and illustrates this by making a comparison to our social relationships
with other humans.  She notes that "something is missing from our
relationships if we don't know each other’s names.  When a nameless person
has baked me cookies, she's just an acquaintance, albeit a nice one.  But
when the cookie lady is Nancy, the relationship becomes one of
friendship."  She believes that it
is beneficial to learn both the common and the scientific names for plants and
animals and offers suggestions for correctly pronouncing the latter.

Getting in touch with our natural
surroundings involves using senses other than vision.  Tomlinson’s emphasis on drawing is
understandable since we can sketch what we see. On the other hand, what we
hear, smell, and touch while outdoors cannot be as easily recorded directly in
a journal.  The author helpfully provides
guidance in using words to describe what we hear, smell, and feel without using

I very much liked How to Keep a Naturalist’s Notebook and
feel I have benefited from reading it. 
Now I’ll have to move beyond drawing circles and triangles to attempting
birds and squirrels.

To enter, tell us in a comment about your own experiences with drawing or observing nature.  The winner will be randomly chosen tomorrow night (3/16, 8 p.m. EDT).


  1. Oh man, I’m not the artist. I married the artist. He’s a beautiful sketcher and his water colors are beautiful. He teaches at the local center for the arts. This makes me incredibly nervous to draw around him. However when working with cut flowers or in my garden I often find myself sketching forms and shapes so I can see the combinations I’m creating. Just don’t compare my scratches to my husband’s artwork.

  2. I also think of a naturalist as one who keeps a notebook or journal with observations. In these days of technology, too often that means snapping digital photos and then creating captions for those that turned out the best.

    This is a good reminder to slow down enough to observe the details of the plant or animal rather than the lighting around them for a good photo. You learn much more by actually drawing the details. Mother Nature has provided us with incredible subject matter. I’d love to own this book, and maybe just maybe, I’ll dig out my old journal and start making some hand-drawn entries.

  3. Again, I am no artist. When I was young I would pretend that I could draw, boy was I delusional. This book could actually help me not just draw the squiggles on my page, but recognizable squiggles. My daughter could draw better than I do when she was 2, sad but true, I kept those drawings.

  4. I was taught in my Master Naturalists’ class to sketch wildflowers because it requires intense observation. I’ve yet to try it but this review may move me to grab a pencil and journal.

  5. I sketch with words. My pencil and I walk through the woods recording sights and sounds in fragments of poetry, but I have often wished that I could draw what I see. Sometimes it seems like it might be so simple, a line here, another line intersecting there and curving so, a splash of color. But I do not try. Afraid the artistry to capture nature elludes me I put away my clumsy pencil, snap a photo, and move on with only a digital image and my penciled words.

  6. I use to spend my time outdoors frantically trying to capture everything I saw with my camera. I believed if I saw it through the lens I was really “seeing” it.
    Now, I know better. I just look and capture it with my mind. Perhaps if I begin to sketch (skill or no) I will enhance the mind capture — no intervening technology between me and what I see except a pencil.

  7. Actually, I think it’s all of our senses. Smelling the fragrance, listening to the birds and the wind, and using our eyes. And even for the eyes, the camera sees some things, the pen and sketchbook another. That said, I’d love to become a better sketcher! Here’s a book I’d like to win!

  8. I am a more utilitarian sketcher, certainly not an artist. I draw my garden each year (I have a garden journal) and plan what projects I want to start, and what materials I’ll need. I have detailed drawings and calculations of a pentagonal bench around my tree, an arbor out of copper pipe, and a plan for landscaping and planting my front yard. Some drawings are prettier than others. I really like looking back to see from where the garden has progressed. You’ve inspired me to take more time and include detailed studies of the plants and animals I love so much.

  9. I have a good friend who has been living with multiple sclerosis for many years. The bottom half of her body is immobile, and she struggles to keep the rest from falling victim to the disease. She is a wonderful artist. Most of the time she paints vivid, bold shapes in acrylic. Her works are abstract expressions of what it’s like living with MS. But every so often, I’ll bring her a flower from the garden or a mushroom from the store and she’ll crack open her sketchbook. Though she struggles to keep her hand from betraying her as she draws (as I often do), the results are amazing. She creates patterns of texture and light that seem to honor a part of the mushroom that I cannot see from just glancing at it.
    She has inspired me to work through that initial resistance I feel as my hand guides the pencil. I know I am not the only one with this resistance, because I see it in the kids I teach when I tell them to sketch one of the things we collected on a nature walk. They love to study the natural world, but they are not quite confident enough to interpret it in this way, just like me.
    All I need is a little push, and I think that Naturalist’s Notebook might do the trick. Never mind the fact that I have hefty texts on landscape graphics lying around. It’s time I start with the small things. This one has come recommended by someone who can appreciate those small things for all they’re worth.

  10. Everyone, at least silently, feels pride when praised for a drawing, but unfortunately too many are intimidated to attempt. I do draw, and one of my resolutions this year is to visit my local botanical garden weekly (so I rejoined) and draw for at least a half hour. One of my teachers told us that if you can write, you’re drawing, as the alphabet is just a bunch of pictures. One of the best drawing teachers I had wore a brace on her functioning arm so she could use it. She’d swing her arm up to the paper or canvas, and whether representational or abstract, always turned out impressive work. Everyone would so benefit from a book like this, so if they’re not the winner, they should buy it, or just buy a little sketchbook and start. Thanks for putting the information up.

  11. Yes, I’d like to win this book! I used to draw a lot when I was much younger. Then I moved on to being a drafter. Years of drawing with ink on mylar and finally drafting on the computer. As newly retired, I’m encouraged to go back to a sketchbook journal to stimulate my eye hand coordination instead of my touch typing and mouse skills.

  12. I have sketched and painted nature for many years… since I was a child really.

    I would wander through the woods of Northern Illinois with a briefcase. What a strange sight I must have made:) Deep in the forest, I would encounter a clump of Bellwort, or Showy Orchis, sit down, open the briefcase, pull out a water bottle, water color paints, and sketchbook. When finished with my masterpiece:), I would pack up, and continue off through the woods.

    I remember sitting, painting, when 2 Garter Snakes slithered right by my legs as one followed the other.

    Probably the most determined drawing I ever did was in the Tetons… I found a beautiful orchid in full bloom…and it started to rain! I lay down on my back next to the orchid, threw the poncho over me, the orchid, and an adjacent branch, and sketched the flower right next to my face (sideways), while rain poured down! Just me, the orchid, and the rain:)

  13. What I enjoy about sketching is it helps you remember the whole experience better, not only the plant or animal you were working on. It is also fun to look back on last weeks/months/years sketch book and see how much better you get at it. You keep imrpoving as long as you keep at it!

  14. The book sounds wonderful. Please enter me to win! I love how the author discusses relationships with each other as well as nature. I love to draw and flowers are my favorite subject. Oooh, I hope I win!

  15. I think no one ought to whine that they lack the resources to become a naturalist. Even the most urban among us can look out a window and note changes in the atmosphere, the searing, cloudless heat or foggy cool. If you cultivate one single plant in a terra cotta pot, you’re given a front row seat in a theater of classic plays: the miracle of new growth, the bump and tickle exotic revue of blooms and pollinators, and the high drama of insect invaders. Record it all. And here come reptile-lizards and feathered-flocks with a society all their own. How do you rank with them? Can you remember ides and equinoxes past to uncover future clues? Put pencil to paper and draw for yourself a map to the center of the universe and your own heart.

  16. How wonderful that the book review stresses the ability to really “see”. Garden designer friends who came into the profession as artists first have the most incredible ability to identify plants, and have an edge on those who came into the profession from a plant stance. I envy that ability, and hope to cultivate it.

  17. I’m not entering to win, but just to say: I started taking oil painting classes years ago because there was no sketching class available. I had been inspired by another book on nature journals to do this very thing. I didn’t think I’d like oils, but I loved it & never went back to look for a sketching class. Of course, oil painting has taught me enough about drawing that I can do a passable sketch.

    But the key point here is: anyone can learn to draw! This is not something you’re just born with. It’s an absorbing and rewarding technical skill that anyone can learn to do reasonably well. I highly recommend it!

  18. i used to work on a farm, and the other apprentice and i came up with a complicated plot of veggies vs. weeds. we were, of course, the inevitable heroines of the hour as we vanquished our foe. this lead to each vegetable getting a distinct personality (broccoli was very refined and kind of stuffy, lettuce was hyperactive, etc.). i still draw these cartoons today. even when it’s just a tomato with stick legs yelling about the vegetable revolution, i enjoy it immensely, and it made each veggie more real to each of us!

  19. I enjoy Susan’s blog very much. Most posts are informative and funny and on rarer occasions, heartfelt and touching. If her book follows the same style, I am sure it’s a winner. I’d post a link, but as it is not on the current blogroll, perhaps that is her wish? If no, I’m sure she’ll respond; be sure to drop in if she does! You’ll be glad.

  20. I keep a two color pencils and an notebook with alternating graphed/blank pages. I have drawn landscapes that I have visited or rough sketches of scenes that involve human/nature interaction. I agree, it does help us recognize the smaller things and allows us to be in the present moment.

  21. I commented to a friend after she had a recent landscape job that I really liked her display of dianthus and the Japanese red maple. How do you know the names, she had asked me. I just enjoy the plants and the names come naturally. Perhaps drawing will too.

  22. What a nice review from Doug Jones–thank you very much! And I am enjoying seeing everyone’s responses; I wish that we could away books to all of the commenters. Even so, I am glad to see people endorsing the idea of giving sketching nature a try. At worst, you’ve spent some time out of doors; at best, you’ve seen something you might otherwise have missed.

    And Sondra T, thank you very much for your kind words about my blog, too. I don’t mind posting the link at al:

  23. I’ve been trying to learn to write by keeping notes every day. It is amazing how hard it is to remember your feelings about what you see as you walk around the garden. You almost have to make notes on the spot!
    I do calligraphy, and love it, but feel lost when I try to draw anything.

  24. I had a highschool biology teacher who used drawing as a way to teach us to see. We had to keep a notebook of our drawings, which I still have around here 40 something years later. We drew birds, a skeleton, the internal organs of a grasshopper and I’ll never forget having to draw each individual segment of a worm to capture it’s true worm essence. If I cheated by drawing two parallel lines, it didn’t look like a worm at all!

  25. I take my children out with their Nature Journals. They sketch while the dog and I flit about with digital camera set on micro to get the super close-ups. I used to sketch, before the camera…

  26. A phrase that has always sparked my imagination is: “the microcosm within the macrocosm, and the macrocosm within the microcosm…”
    I think sketching makes us look at nature both ways.
    In my first job as a landscape designer I was hired to replace someone who was a really good artist. Her training was in graphic, not landscape design, but her sketches were sooooo much better than anything I have done. I would, therefore, love a book that helped me loosen up with a pencil! Thanks for this on behalf of the winner! I know anyone who gets this book will benefit from it.

  27. When I was in school, I had a teacher who taught me how to draw the bare branches of trees. I used to draw them all the time, and then for some reason stopped. I have been thinking about trying to draw again and would love to have this book to help me.

  28. I was just debating whether or not to go outside to take a few pictures to ‘illustrate’ my “notes from the garden” posting I’d been composing. . . . I’ve been struggling with the internet protocol that seems to require pictures (or at least one picture) to make the words a bit more palatable. I’d just about decided not to photograph the burgeoning signs of life in herb garden, underneath the leaves I cleared away and now after reading this posting I’m firmly decided! I’ll go out after this and do a quick sketch. That will be a much better medium – and more rewarding. It’s so true, that drawing forces you to stop and really look.

    This book sounds simply lovely! Here’s hoping I’m the lucky winner of a copy of my own. . . .

  29. I can’t sketch. Really, I can’t.

    I’ve tried, lord knows. Even took classes in college, which today are noted by the dark smudges on my transcripts. I see it, I just can’t get the detail from my brain to the nerves in my hand.

    But give me a camera and I’ll show you the detail I’d love to sketch.

    Maybe I’m up for another try. And I’d like to see what else Susan has to say about keeping a naturalist notebook, beyond the drawing. My notebook attempts always fail after the first few entries – or I suppose I’m the one who fails them, hm ? But maybe with this book, I’ll find the inspiration to keep journaling.

  30. This post just reminded me of something I used to do before kids, have stopped doing because of kids, and need to start doing with my kids! Get out there! Draw! Observe! Duh!

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