Seeds glued to Rite-in-rain paper in my notebook from 1983, Asx‘ée, twisted tree (Eagle River delta). For more on seeds and dispersal, see pages 249-254, Nature of Southeast Alaska, 3rd edition.

Journaling is so important to me as a naturalist that I couldn’t sweep all my thoughts on the process or its outcomes into one cubbyhole on this website. Some ideas on how and why to journal are developed below. Comments on the almost inseparable process of illustration are in Tools>Field sketching. And an introduction to the journals downloadable from JuneauNature is in Media type>Journals.

I started keeping a journal a couple years before coming to Alaska in 1977. It’s not only the way I remember; it’s the way I learn. Not until slowing down to write, or make a map of the day’s experience, do I notice things too subtle or complex to be obvious in the field.

In the Fall, 2011 issue of Discoveries, I wrote a tribute to journaling called Recording nature: Field journaling as Raven goes global. It begins so:

I have a lousy memory; therefore I keep notes. It also pays to make maps, scribble diagrams, take photos, carefully file them, and return weekly to journals in pursuit of forgotten nuggets, pausing therein to relive and refresh old experience. Journaling isn’t discipline, in the sense of odious prerequisite to enlightenment. It’s often the highlight of my day, the time when real learning happens.”

Page from Kathy Hocker’s field journal. Setting aside the obvious point that notes like these are way more apt to ‘draw in’ the viewer than a page of dry text—what are the advantages to the journaler of ‘leading with the visuals,’ illustration first; annotation following?

I wish more naturalists and field biologists kept journals. In March, 2015, I addressed the Alaska Chapter of the Wildlife Society. It was a wide ranging talk called Focus & breadth: Science and natural history in Southeast Alaska. Journaling was one of several recommendations in my summary—to biologists in that instance, but more broadly to anyone wishing to participate in our communal effort to understand this glorious PLACE. If you want to go right to those remarks, scroll to 29:00 in the vimeo slideshow.

At the time, I’d just finished an amazing book called Field notes on science & nature. In the concluding chapter by Eric Greene, I was surprised to learn how widespread the decline in note-taking has become in the field sciences. Eric teaches an upper level Ecology class at University of Montana:

I’ve been puzzled by my student’s initial negative reactions to journaling for a field ecology class. . . To see if this is a general sentiment, I informally polled many of my colleagues in a broad range of fields at several universities . . .In general, lab scientists in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology tend to keep much better notebooks . . .than field scientists in ecology, behavior and conservation biology.

A delightful sampling of handdrawn sketches, maps, birdsong sonograms and behavior notes are in Greene’s chapter (and in most of the dozen contributions to Field notes on science and nature). So what are the relative roles and merits of the drawing versus the caption, versus pure textual description?

Sketches are obviously better for the shapes of things—whether a beetle’s wing cover or a mile-long bedrock landform. But I’m not too sure about the old trope that a picture’s worth a thousand words; that’s apples and oranges. Unquestionably, from where I sit as a naturalist, the annotated sketch is better than either alone. Case in point: this page on “amphibious plants,” by Kathy Hocker.

In Discovery’s formative years, Kathy taught in our Nature Studies program, later branching out as an at-large naturalist, increasingly incorporating art and illustration into her teaching. Most issues of our newsletter Discoveries have sample pages from her sketch-journals. She now (2018) lives in Gustavus, and continues to do artist-in-the-schools gigs in communities throughout Southeast. Her website is Southeast Alaska Sketchbook.

Kathy’s illustrating is usually done on-site. My process is flightier; rarely do I sit down to take notes in the field. On the other hand, I’m never without a pencil and scrap of paper for jotting reminders, usually just a word or two. For me the reflective time is back home or in camp. But it occurs to me that in both my daily journals and more formal productions, like Kathy, I “lead with illustration.”

In autumn, 1984, I was curious about behavioral and dietary differences between Keen’s mice and redbacked voles. By the way, I subsequently learned that one way to tell mouse from bat turds is to press them with a pencil erasure. Bats eat flying insects and you’ll detect the crunchiness of wing covers and crispy exoskeletons. (Probably best not to chew on that pencil.)

Rather than writing first, and saving illustration til later, I turn that process on its head. Installed at the computer, I first spend an hour or more processing the day’s pictures, GPS tracks, and GIS exports. This routine is described in Recording nature, linked above, and also in Ground-truthing methods and workflow. Once this sheparding of graphics is completed, I open a journal template in the Adobe program InDesign.

I drop those maps, panoramas, etc into InDesign, and then, start writing. It keeps the right brain happy with lush graphics, while the left geeks out, rooting around in the images for memory-triggers, story-lines, or, even better, big-picture conceptual stuff.

These intersections of graphics and text are potentially so rich, for both creator and consumer, that I find it disappointing when hurried publishing houses or magazines assign caption-writing to layout staff who may not even read the article. Fluffy captions insult the perceptive viewer. I don’t know how typical I am, but when flipping through a book or magazine, my eyes go first to pictures, then drift down to the caption. If it points out something I didn’t notice, or tells me something not self evident in that image, I’m hooked. I’ll be drawn into the body-text.


This website is my first experience with the public journal, better known as the blog. As my journals migrated from mostly handwritten to mostly digital, beginning around 2001, I shared them with a limited number of close friends. But they were certainly not community resources. With the re-launch of JuneauNature (2018), I hope to make more and more of my journals and other media available to anyone seeking information about Southeast Alaska.

But I’m obviously a beginner in the world of blogging. Models for me as I develop this site are Matt Goff’s SitkaNature and Bob Armstrong’s NatureBob. (Global sites such as eBird and iNaturalist are awesome for species observations, and can even link naturalists within small, physical communities, but don’t address the holistic themes of Matt and Bob’s sites, or JuneauNature.) On one level, the blog seems almost contradictory to the goal of natural history, which is all about connection to place. The web is in some ways the antithesis of that—the soul of placelessness. Can it be turned to the service of genuinely community-based investigation and stewardship?

Imagine Southeast Alaska 300 years ago, when people mostly lived in family-sized bands through the summer, convening in villages of a few hundred in winter. Natural history was shared around the fire, face-to-face. It was passed down by grandparents, themselves heir to time-honed skills and deep remembrances that make today’s LTER programs (long term ecological research) seem like weekend training seminars. Because everything necessary to survival was gathered or gardened from a few encompassing watersheds, plus a bit of trade with more distant neighbors, communal ‘ecological literacy,’ was at a level today’s PhD specialists could only envy (the ‘breadth’ in my title Focus & breadth, above).

Those days are over, and few miss them. But could we rekindle the best of that literacy—the paddler’s intimacy with home watersheds, and our greater archipelago? For 30 years Discovery Southeast has been getting children (and their teachers!) outside, in family-sized bands. That’s a good start.

The rest is kinda hit-or-miss. As adults, we don’t spend much time around that campfire anymore, and the trend is not encouraging. Seems to me, though, that the blog could be a key tool for keeping busy, distractable lives connected around the theme of Why do we live here. Not to replace but to leaven experience in nature. We can’t warm our hands over a blog, but browsing SitkaNature and NatureBob is inspirational.

Inspiration: “to breathe into.” As when friends revive a flagging campfire?

In this section

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2016: Update, July, 2020 | Richard Carstensen | 13 pages

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2019 | Richard Carstensen | 61 pages

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Since 2001, under the initiative of our friend John Neary (then with Admiralty Monument; now at the glacier visitor center),…

2017 | Richard Carstensen | 68 pages, 11 MB

Ground-truthing methods and workflow

Every few years I create an update of my methods and workflow: prefield prep, fieldwork, and postfield processing, journaling and…

2017 | Richard Carstensen | 5 pages

Focus and breadth: science and natural history in Southeast Alaska

In March, 2015, I gave a banquet presentation to the Alaska Chapter of the Wildlife Society. Afterwards, I archived it…

2015 | Richard Carstensen | 31 minutes

2001 summer newsletter, Gold Creek solstice: field notes from the crest of the year

On the solstice, I walked the Flume Trail above Dzantik’i Héeni, flounders creek (Gold Creek). Enamored of my newest tool—a…

Summer 2001 | Richard Carstensen | 4 pages

Field notes on science and nature

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2011 | Michael Canfield, ed. | 297 pages

1998 fall newsletter: The art of noticing

Kathy Hocker is Southeast Alaska‚’s premier artist-naturalist, teaching classes on field techniques for all ages. In 1998, she wrote a…

1998 | Kathy Hocker | 5 pages

Just before the camera: journal of Richard Meade

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2014 | Richard Meade (Carstensen, ed) | 42 pages

2011 fall newsletter. Recording nature

Field journaling as Raven goes global Journaling is my work and play. It’s how I taught myself to be a…

2011 | Richard Carstensen, Kathy Hocker, Kevin O'Malley | 16 pages

2006 winter newsletter. Sitka deer: Thoughts and field notes

Excerpts from 25 years of journals Feature on Sitka black-tailed deer: habitat relations, stotting, mountaintop bachelor gangs, differential wariness of…

Winter 2006 | Richard Carstensen | 12 pages