Anyone can be a naturalist. On the Academy blog, our scientists and experts share their knowledge to help you explore the natural world around you. This fall, Academy Senior Director of Exhibits and Public Spaces Jennifer Sontchi suggests starting a nature journal.
Keeping a nature journal and recording field notes have been common practice among scientific explorers for hundreds of years. Scientists’ journals and expedition field notes document important scientific firsts, offering colleagues back home a detailed glimpse of strange and exotic new worlds. American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark kept copious field notes during their 1804–06 expedition through the American West. And, long before he was president, Theodore Roosevelt kept childhood nature journals filled with drawings of small mammals and rodents.
Nature journals can include observational notes, illustrations, pressed specimens—anything that captures the sights, smells, and sounds that surround you. Perhaps start by collecting tree leaves. Compare the ones you find in early summer to the ones you find later in the fall, which by late October should be at the peak of their autumn color.
The color in leaves depends on the presence or absence of chlorophyll (green), carotenoids (yellow-red) and anthocyanins (red-purple). By the end of summer, the production of chlorophyll molecules slows and eventually stops, leaving only the carotene molecules and a yellow-orange color. During the fall, anthocyanins form, giving the purplish-reddish hues to the leaves.
These brilliant fall colors can be retained by properly drying and pressing the specimens. It’s important to dry the specimens very shortly after being collected. Place the leaves between two sheets of newspaper and stack a few heavy phone books or hardback novels on top of the leaves. Allow to flatten and dry for at least 24 hours. In order to avoid mold, the newspaper should be replaced every day until the leaves are dry.
Once they’re ready, secure the pressed leaves to the pages in your journal—the Academy uses archival quality glue and linen strips. Most importantly, just like the great scientific explorers of the past and present, be sure to record data when you’re collecting, such as the date, location, weather conditions, and what other plants and animals you see around you. In your next entry, try journaling the behavior of a bird or what flowers are blooming or dying.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Academy Frontiers.
By Mary Alice Hartsock