Last week our long time Publications Specialist Al Brown, sent out an email encouraging staff members to start journaling to document the events and happenings around them during these strange times. Recalling the journals, lists, and menus Clara Morgan Coogan kept, he noted that nothing is too mundane for reflection. These documents become part of our cultural heritage and serve to provide a “legacy of intangible attributes of society, that are inherited from past generations and bestowed for the benefit of future generations”. Clara certainly seemed to understand this as he documented the daily details of running the Coogan Farm, caring for her children, meals she cooked, and various happenings in nature.

Clara Morgan Coogan’s Diary Circa 1922. Courtesy of Mystic River Historical Society
Detail from Clara Morgan Coogan’s Diary. Courtesy of Mystic River Historical Society.

Farmers, naturalists and historians have long been avid journalists, documenting observations that help define us, from the groundbreaking to the ordinary. During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when photography was still time consuming and cumbersome, explorers were even more apt to document their findings in journals and drawings. Travel provides unlimited subjects for journaling. Yet sometimes it too, can take an unexpected turn, becoming even more isolating and monotonous than quarantining at home during a pandemic. In these cases, journaling may become even more important, helping to find something that can be observed, grounds us in the everyday, and provides meaning. 

I find the inner workings of artists’, naturalists’, historians’, and scientists’ minds is fascinating. When people journal, we get a glimpse into what they found meaningful or noteworthy as effort naturally forces everything to be distilled down to one note or sketch that stood out to them. So, when I spotted the book Explorers’ Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery & Adventure displayed on a warm oak table at Savoy Bookshop & Café a few months ago, I had to snatch it up. 

Rereading it through the lens of a global pandemic brings new meaning to light. Many explorers documented their exciting travels and observations, like John James Audubon who felt he needed to document wildlife before it vanished noting, “only time will uncover the truth”. But others found themselves enduring life-threatening predicaments beyond their control. Thor Heyerdahl on his 101-day voyage on the Kon-Tiki understatedly noted, “occasionally you find yourself in an odd situation” while sketching the sharks and flying fish he encountered. Charles Turnbull Harrison’s journal of his expedition in Antarctica with Douglas Mawson, bears peephole sketches of men cooking Christmas dinner in a tent next to sketches of snow petrels similarly nested in shelters among the rocks. 

Even in this digital age, while we take an excess of photographs every day, smaller observations of daily life worthy of documentation can be missed. We often feel we can’t possibly forget what we experienced or what we saw, and yet Charles Darwin noted that “the collector’s motto should be ‘Trust nothing to the memory’, for the memory becomes a fickle guardian when one interesting object is succeeded by another”. So, during this time, when the world has slowed down, and nature has been given a respite from the frantic activity of humans, observe what is happening in nature and put pen to paper to document your findings. 

Owl sketch by Arlo. DPNC Preschool.

You don’t need to be a skilled or trained artist. If we can honestly say we value our children’s emerging attempts at making art (which we do!), we should similarly value our own efforts. Learning should never end; it is not solely reserved for children. 

If you would like some inspiration to help you get started, we will be posting drawing tutorials on our Facebook page lead by our resident artist and educator, Robert Reas.

And if you are hiking on the greenway, please document and share your observations, we would love to see what you have noticed at the Nature Center! Feel free to send us a picture of video to [email protected]. Nature and human heritage go hand in hand. We can all be part of helping future generations understand what we experienced and how that shaped us through these challenging times.