by Whit Gibbons

February 15, 2015

According to the entry in a spiral-bound notebook I found in an old box in my office, "Most of the time it was raining heavily and later hailed." Other information on the page noted that "Bob Helms and I collected at Lake Wildwood near Tuscaloosa, Alabama." The date of the entry was April 15, 1956. A few pages earlier in the same notebook I had written that I "collected at Payne's Prairie south of Gainesville, Florida." The date for the Florida trip was Oct. 18, 1955. Reading that notebook was like examining a decades-old time capsule.

I had rediscovered my notes taken on nature field trips from when I was in high school. Both of those entries listed who I was with and what we caught, which included 12 lizards and 7 snakes for the rainy day in Alabama. The Florida trip yielded the first eastern kingsnake I had ever caught, or even seen. The notes were handwritten in India ink, the indelible ink used by scientists of the time to take permanent notes that were to last forever. For me, the system has worked just fine for well over half a century.

Children interested in developing ideas for future stories or just remembering what they said to whom and when may enjoy keeping a journal or diary. But for boys and girls who love nature and the outdoors, a field notebook is the way to go. Taking field notes can be a gratifying experience in many ways, and I urge teachers and parents to encourage children to keep records of their outdoor nature experiences.

One simple technique for instructing children how to take nature notes is to teach them the six questions that journalists are taught to ask: "who, what, why, where, when, and how." Start the entry by noting where you were as precisely as possible and when you were there (date and time). Who you were with will be important if you later need to check a fact that you're not sure about. Plus, the memory of which friends or colleagues you had a particular adventure with becomes more meaningful as you get older. If you are on a quest for wild plants or animals, what you saw and heard are critical bits of information. If you caught something, record what it was and how you caught it. A description of the weather is always important ecologically.

The why question may get a bit more iffy, although some excursions are undertaken for a specific reason. For example, in an entry from August 9, 1955, I recorded that we camped along the Black Warrior River near Jasper, Ala., because we were in search of a questionable new species of turtle that had been described from the area a little over a year earlier. The description had been based on a single adult specimen. Turns out we caught the second, third, and fourth adults of the species ever seen, confirming that it was a valid species new to science. Based on my field notes and the little map I drew in India ink I could go back to the exact same spot today. Only difference now, assuming a big box store hasn't been built on the site, would be that the species, the flattened musk turtle, is listed as threatened on the endangered species list, so collecting one, much less three, would be a bit more problematic.

Adults who enjoy outdoor excursions, whether near home or far away, can also benefit from taking field notes. When I taught college classes, students were required to take copious notes on field trips. One point I stressed was that our powers of misremembering events is much greater than we like to admit. Writing down details when they are fresh is the only sure way to be certain your memories are accurate.

Teach a child how to take nature field notes. Fifty years from now they will be glad you did.

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