Thoreau’s Style of Keeping a Nature Journal

photo of Henry David Thoreau [Public domain]
Henry David Thoreau [Public domain]
Thoreau’s style of keeping a nature journal is a guide for nature journal keepers. Essential to his nature study, they contain the best of his writing. Henry David Thoreau’s method of keeping a nature journal developed over many years.

He started his journal on October 22, 1837, just a few days after his graduation from Harvard. He wrote in it nearly every day until November 3, 1861, seven months before his death on May 6, 1862.

Henry David Thoreau stopped writing specifically for publication around 1852 and focused on creating his journal which grew to 14 volumes. His essays such as “Walking”, “Autumnal Tints” and “Wild Apples”, were drawn from these journals. They published these essays in the book Excursions.

In speaking about a poet, he said: ” Is there any other work for him but a good journal?” (Journal, vol. X, October 21, 1857, #115)

Reading his journals provides inspiration for our own nature journal writing. Free ebooks of some of Thoreau’s are available on Project Gutenberg.

Spyglass owned by Henry David Thoreau used to observe nature.
Spyglass owned by Henry David Thoreau used to observe nature.

Thoreau’s Style of Keeping a Nature Journal

After 1850, going on long nature walks and recording his observations became the central task of his life. He grew into an expert naturalist and it filled his life with learning and living well in the land where he lived.

He took walks in the afternoon and wrote notes in a field notebook.

Each morning or at the end of several days, he would enter his entries into his journal. Some entries he would rewrite or polish into essays or lectures.

He recorded, as he said, everyday phenomena so people could see how wonderful their world was.

He used his journal to record his observations of the life cycle of plants, the sequence of plant blooming (phenology), animal behavior, the weather, and other happenings.

He made very simple sketches and maps to illustrate an observation or an event.

Henry David Thoreau’s journal is filled with simple nature essays, character sketches, news events, stories, quotations and snatches of conversations, along with his social commentary on human society.

He used all this raw information to write essays and lectures. He had learned from experience that lacking well-detailed notes made recalling information and writing an essay later a headache.

Pages from Henry David Thoreau's nature journal. Marble, Annie Russell [Public domain]
Pages from Henry David Thoreau’s journal. Marble, Annie Russell [Public domain]

What He Said About Nature Journal Keeping

“My journal should be a record of the things that I love” and then “I love nature, I love the landscape because it is so sincere. It never cheats me. It never jests. It is cheerfully, musically earnest. I lie and relie [sic] on the earth.” (Journal, vol. 2, November 16, 1850)

“The forcible writer stands bodily behind his words with his experience. He does not make books out of books, but be has been there in person” (Journal, vol.3, February 3, 1852)

site of Henry David Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond - Marble, Annie Russell [Public domain]
site of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond – Marble, Annie Russell [Public domain]

What We Can Learn From Thoreau’s Method

  1. The first-hand experience is crucial to living responsibly with the land.
  2. Develop a routine or schedule for recording observations.
  3. Always have a pocket-sized notebook with you to record and sketch your observations.
  4. Make very simple sketches, maps and diagrams to enhance your learning and jog your memory.
  5. Use your observations to write finished essays or create finished drawings or other creative work.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 (New York Review Books Classics) – this is the abridged version I recommend and own. ( link)

Download free pdfs of Thoreau’s journals  from the Walden Organization


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Nature Journal Prompts


Observing Nature

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Phenology is Deep Ecology?

Collecting Phenology Data

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