A natural observer

Jennifer Powers uses art as an avenue to observe nature closely and capture details about the plants and animals she encounters in the field.
April 28, 2023

Jennifer Powers spends hundreds of hours in the field every year setting up and monitoring experiments. She also makes a point of documenting the world around her through art. For Powers, an art kit is an essential item for her forays to the field. Over the years, she has filled numerous  notebooks with sketches and watercolors that provide a window into the places she works and travels. She shares her thoughts on the value of art for engaging with the world around her.

What inspired you to start keeping a nature journal?
We live in such a highly digital world. We are plugged into our phones and computers all the time. Keeping a visual journal has been one way to help me unplug, slow down, and really look at the world around me. Keeping a nature journal has definitely made me a better biologist. I now have many journals – one for nature journaling, a travel journal that I take on all my trips, and another journal for daily drawing – in which I record one thing that I want to remember each day on a monthly calendar that I drew. This keeps me drawing just a little bit every day and  is a great way to remember details from every day.

There’s a long tradition of scientists using art in this way. Why is that?
Keeping a nature journal puts us back into the traditions of observing and documenting natural history, which people have practiced for millennia. I think of the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, and the field notebooks of early explorers. Two hundred years ago, if you wanted to show people what you saw when you went somewhere, you could not bring your iPhone and then post your images to Instagram. Making drawings and sketches was one way to record and share what you see, and also to highlight what is most important to you. I like being part of that tradition. 

What’s your advice for those interested in starting a nature journal?
Anyone can use art as one approach to learn more about the natural world, and it is fun and meditative.  Keeping a nature journal is not about making pretty images – it is a tool to help you observe the natural world more closely.  Once you start it, you realize, quite literally, how the natural world is all around us.