By Priya Ranganathan | Illustration by Asmita Sapre Ranganathan
Sitting in my balcony with a hot mug of coffee, it’s easy to take in the sights and sounds of nature around me. There’s a small brown sparrow perched on the balcony ledge, its tail flitting up and down as it chirps plaintively, its beady black eyes constantly shifting to look out for predators from the sky. A pigeon coos charmingly from its nest atop the AC box. Black kites circle high above the city skyline on thermals, which are pockets of warm air.
I start writing down the tiny details that I see – the way the sparrow’s feathers ruffle gently in the breeze and turn shades of cocoa-brown, like the many layers on an onion. The kites call in two different tones, communicating to one another. The pigeon’s coos have a rhythmic pattern that soothes me, but I start to subconsciously count the pauses between each coo. There is a strong smell of wet soil from the potted plants, as my mother has just watered them.
When I go to the forest, each and every detail gets noted down. My pocket journal is always brimming with descriptions of trees and plants and shrubs and fungi. When I see a lion-tailed macaque or a sloth bear, I write a few lines about it, describing its size, shape, and colour patterns. Sometimes, my notes reveal some hidden details, like the slight limp a tigress displays when she patrols her territory, or the way a gaur is heavily scarred on its right cheek, indicating a fight with some predator. The different yodels of a dhole pack hunting or playing or relaxing become labelled recordings or notes that I can refer to time and again.
But why do I bother writing down these details when they seem so small, so mundane, so insignificant? Why do I spend hours sketching the petal structure and layout of a flower that I’m not likely to come across again?
Journaling is a way of remembering the world around us. It is a way to practice observing things in such detail that we make them significant and bring them to the attention of the world. You might never think to stop and admire the colours of a butterfly as it flits, but someone else will, and their sketch or painting of that butterfly may help children in future generations fall in love with the natural world around them or remind them of the beauty of the tiny things.
Here’s an activity for you, young naturalists!
Go into your balcony or garden and take a seat. Blend in with the scenery around you as much as possible – that means no talking, laughing, or even moving, if possible. Engage with your five senses. What do you see around you? Do you see animals? Plants? Birds? Insects? What do you hear? The wind rushing through the trees? The gurgling of a stream? The call of a monkey or a bird? What do you smell? The scent of rain-drenched earth? The odour of a rotting flower? Perhaps the strong musky odour of a civet? What does the grass feel like? How about the petals of the nearest flower? The bark of a tree? Do you see any edible fruits around? What taste do they have (after you ask your parents if the fruit can be eaten, of course!).
Take out your notebook and pencil and begin noting down all the answers to the questions above. Try drawing the birds, the flowers, the leaves. Every plant has a slightly different leaf shape, structure, and form, so sketch leaves in as much detail as possible. Don’t just sketch the leaves, but also the arrangement of leaves around the stem! Try and describe how the leaf feels in your hand. Is it waxy to the touch? Soft? Crisp? What colour is it? If you have colour pencils or crayons, try to shade the leaf (or whatever you see) to bring it to life on the page.
Don’t be afraid to let your creativity run wild. If you can’t draw animals that look picture-perfect, who cares? It’s all about noting down what you saw and representing it in whatever way works best for you. No one expects your journal to look like a professional artist’s book! Just work on your observation skills and tune into the details, and you will have a wonderful book of memories of your time spent in the wild and wonderful outdoors.
About the Author:
Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist and geologist by training who works in the wild Western Ghats. When she isn’t out wading through swamp forests, she can be found scribbling away in her notebook or practicing Bharatanatyam. Check out her website ‘On Life and Wildlife.’
About the Artist:
Asmita Sapre Ranganathan is a doctor, Sanskrit teacher, artist, poet, and writer from Mumbai. She enjoys wearing her many hats and especially enjoys illustrating for children’s books and magazines.