Photo Credit: Pages from Miriam Morrill’s nature journal capturing a contemplation on a photo that was shared during the Kincade Fire, October 2019.


What if I told you there was a practice, a process you could do that would not only benefit your cognition and observation skills but also help to visually represent your relationship to nature and fire and help to foster fire adaptation? Well there is – nature journaling.

The beginning of any adaptation effort starts with awareness of what is happening now, a place-based, fully immersive sense of your surroundings. You can’t adapt to something if you aren’t aware of the why behind it. One of the best tools that I know of for enhancing awareness and building a deep connection with the environment, is the practice of nature journaling. It is a personal, place-based practice that has a rich network for sharing and learning.

So, what does nature journaling look like? It’s often done as part of a group or network but can also be done on your own. We use the practices and tools developed by modern nature journaling experts like John Muir Laws. This practice starts by using core learning languages (words, numbers, pictures) and exercises that engage the senses. We employ framing questions (I observe…, I wonder…, it reminds me of…) and forms of investigation and measurement that allow the observer to see things from different perspectives. Then we take to our journals. Some may write notes, some may write poetry, while others may use mostly sketches and still others may record data and measurements. It is wholly personal, intentional, and expressive. We continue to cultivate the habit through journaling follow-up exercises (touch ups, summaries, research), organizing information (formatting approaches, indexing, cumulative journal metadata), and journal sharing (in person field trips, workshops, and online) that reinforces personal and community learning practices. Journaling practices have also been widely used as a form of creative expression and a trauma-resilience practice. Can you see how this might be beneficial to helping practitioners and others learning to live better with fire?

A series of drawings about smoke and light.

Pages from the author’s journal sketch-noting and synthesizing science on smoke and photosynthesis. Photo courtesy of Miriam Morrill.

Nature journaling as a program and practice for fire adaptation, is not about just creating a sketchbook, maintaining a personal diary, or even maintaining a simple field notebook. Nature journaling practices are designed to support the development of the neural networks in the brain; the brain pathways that help increase observation skills, learning, analysis, memory, and a sense of connection to nature. Nature journaling practices create an intentional curiosity that awakens the mind and senses and brings the person into a closer connection and relationship with their environment, it creates a stronger “sense” of place.

I came to nature journaling around four years ago, when my husband and I discussed an early retirement and living full-time in our travel trailer. I was no longer going to have an art room with a large art table and a closet full of supplies. In my research for a more mobile art approach, I came across nature journaling. As I learned more and started the personal practice, I realized the far reaching benefits to enhancing my observations, learning, and connections to nature. I became a strong believer in the benefits and have strived to integrate my fire knowledge and experience into nature journaling practices that might be shared and applied by others. For many years, I have used and promoted visual art and graphics for fire communications and it’s a side benefit that nature journaling can be used to create better art, research, and communication products, but the product is not the focus as much as the practice.

Drawings and text with title Stebbins Cold Canyon Trail

A page from the author’s journal recording a post-fire journaling trip guided by friend Robin Carlson. Photo courtesy of Miriam Morrill.

If you think about it, the act of journaling is a very old tool that has helped historic figures like Darwin and DaVinci to document and understand their world. Most of us, in this modern world, are largely disconnected from the environment and from the basic learning practices and tools that could benefit us in so many ways. Many people are even more removed from the fire environment, which is surprising when you consider that humans have evolved in a near symbiotic relationship with fire. It’s important and good to see more focus and support for Indigenous knowledge and cultural burning practices but the vast majority of people are dislocated and dissociated from fire on the land and as part of the living system. I have also noticed that many of the new fire education and engagement tools are technology-based and can limit the personal and evolving learning practices that build an intimate connection to the environment. I am a strong believer in utilizing technology, science, and data but not in sacrifice of full-bodied place-based ways of knowing and experiencing the world. So, providing a practice that connects to someone’s sense of place and gives them a tool to employ that allows for a deeper understanding of their environment is essential, now more than ever.

Pages of drawings and text with title Weed or Wonder

Pages from the author’s journal focused on Tar-Weed growing along the neighborhood edge and sometimes fuels break. Photo courtesy of Miriam Morrill.

Last year I used nature journaling tools and practices to help learn, teach, and communicate about fire through a yearlong practice of journaling fire weather. I explored many data sources and visualizations which evolved over time from a fire weather wheel to a weather/climate graph. Sharing these journal pages and practices with the online community, The Nature Journal Club, I saw my fellow nature journalers utilize the visuals and metadata to create and evolve their own practices tracking their weather influences on their garden, phenology, and other weather related observations. I have also used sketch-noting approaches, similar to nature journaling, to better understand and communicate fire science including fire acoustics, smoke effects on photosynthesis, and fire pattern indicators used in fire origin and cause determination.

Drawings and text with title reading MAY WEATHER WHEEL

A page from the author’s journal – May, 2019 Weather Wheel using meteorological data combined with observations. Photo courtesy of Miriam Morrill.

Drawings and text from nature journal

Pages from the author’s journal – February, 2020. Climate weather graph. Photo courtesy of Miriam Morrill.

Drawings and text with title reading SMOKE and AIR QUALITY

Pages from the author’s journal focused on the smoke experienced during the 2020 fire season in Ridgefield WA. Photo courtesy of Miriam Morrill.

Drawings and text from journal with title FIRE ACOUSTICSf

Pages from the author’s journal, 2020. Sketch-noting about fire acoustics. Photos courtesy of Miriam Morrill.

I was able to host a nature journaling session at the Washington Fire Adapted Communities (WAFAC) conference in December 2020. Through the practice participants gained a deeper and more emotional and physical connection that can feed into and inform home and community evacuation planning efforts. Early last year I planned and developed a pilot project with the Nature Conservancy’s Fire Training Exchange program (TREX), the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council, and Karuk Tribe. We brought a group of nature journalers to observe, learn, and journal about a prescribed fire and cultural burning practices. I am currently working with several partners in Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona on developing nature journaling fire programs and scoping a workshop series with partners that will integrate the trauma-resilience model into the nature journaling of fire practices and education programs.

Drawing and text reading Evacuation Route ExercisePages from author’s journal from the WAFAC journaling session during the December 2020 conference. Photo courtesy of Miriam Morrill.

Pages from author’s journal from the WAFAC journaling session during the December 2020 conference. Photo courtesy of Miriam Morrill.

Photograph of a group of people gathered around a table looking at journals.

The prescribed fire nature journal pages shared by workshop participants at the Klamath TREX community meeting in October 2019. Photo courtesy of Miriam Morrill.

After 27 years of working for various federal agencies in different programs I have come to believe that becoming fire adapted starts with being more personal, primitive, and participatory. We are living creatures participating in a living system. To be adaptive we need to start with a place-based awareness, an ecological sense of place where we have conscious engagement with the local landscape. In addition, the fostering of community collaboratives that engage and integrate multiple knowledge sources and learning practices are essential in cultivating adaptation. The practice of nature journaling does all of the above and more.

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Miriam Morrill is a consultant working in fire communications and education, nature journaling, and illustration. She has started a program called Pyrosketcholgy where she integrates fire science with nature journaling practices to provide a deeper foundation to place-based learning about fire. Retired from federal service, she has combined her creative talents with 27 years of experience to forge a new path in fire education and community fire adaptation. During her federal fire career, she has guided statewide fire prevention and mitigation programs, supported numerous community wildfire planning efforts, and participated on incident management teams around the country and on international fire assignments to Australia, Micronesia, Palua, Guam, and Jamaica. You can follow Miriam and her fire journaling practices on her Facebook Page at https://www.facebook.com/pyrosketchology.

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