There’s a Chinese proverb you find all over the internet, The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the second best time is now. This isn’t true only of trees. If you’re not keeping a nature diary or journal, then now is an excellent time to start.
I’m writing now during the COVID lockdown, where around the world people have been quarantined in homes with various degrees of severity. When you read this, it could be much later. In either case now is a good time, but COVID era diaries will be particularly helpful thanks to shifting baselines.
A shifting baseline is what happens when a degraded environment gets accepted as the new normal. It was first recognised in the mid-1990s as a form of generational amnesia, where a new generation don’t have the knowledge to understand what has been lost. Papworth and colleagues add personal amnesia, as we update our own perceptions of what is normal.
In my case, I’ve just moved house. As I write, I’m looking out over the back gar* watching various birds flit about looking for caterpillars to feed their chicks. It looks pleasant, watching them flutter through the air, looking over all the back yards. If Google Street View wasn’t dated, then I wouldn’t know this was a degraded neighbourhood. A massive tree has been cut down by the side of the house. It probably blocked a lot of sun from my, and my neighbour’s, lawns. But it also would have been habitat to an awful lot of caterpillars in the leaves. Out the front, front gardens have been paved over, and awkward trees chopped down.
As I write this a sparrow has landed on the fence to look for something. About three quarters of them have disappeared over my lifetime, and if they’d disappeared from here, would I have noticed? There have been bright blue damselflies in the back, rising from the grass like a cross between a drone and a hypodermic needle. I’ve rarely seen them away from water, so I certainly wouldn’t have missed those.
This loss of memory matters, because it inoculates us into accepting lower environmental standards. We simply don’t have experience of how things could be better. A good diary can remind us of what we have experienced, and act as a record for the future.
Diaries turn anecdotes into data
Has Spring come early this year? I’m not sure. Around March I was working out how long the supply chain was likely to have problems and thinking a month’s stockpile should cover things. Even so, what does Spring coming early mean? The opening of snowdrops in drifts? Daffodils in bloom, or the first call of a cuckoo? And can you remember the dates these happened every year?
When you start putting observations and dates together, patterns emerge. A surprising paper is Tim Sparks’s Local-scale adaptation to climate change: the village flower festival. Flower festivals in England are thought of as fairly conservative (small c),** so you wouldn’t expect them to be innovators in reacting to climate change.
Tim Sparkes looked at the dates for the Daffodil Weekend in Thriplow. If the weather were the same every year, you’d expect the dates of the weekend to get a day earlier most years, and then fall a week back.
Of course, the weather isn’t always the same, so the daffodils don’t always bloom on the same date, and therefore the Daffodil Weekend moves too. Sometimes it’s earlier and in bad years it’s later. So aside from the normal variation in dates, there’s the weather adding an extra factor over the top. However, when you put the dates together over half a century, there’s an obvious drift to earlier and earlier in the year.
It’s not just flower festivals that follow the seasons. A visit to Zooniverse will often provide projects you can take part in, that ask you to transcribe observations from past years. As these diaries and logs have tended to have the same approach to making observations from day to day, they can form a record to compare past and current times. Similarly, if you like to watch for the first crocus opening, or the first swallow arriving, then as the years pass you’ll have a record of how the seasons are changing.
Tools to keep a Nature Diary
If you’d like to make something that could help research, then you’ll need to record where, when and what you observed, and keep those records somewhere. It’s reasonable that you’ll know where you are, and when it is you’re there. But recognising what you see is a bit more difficult. Thankfully, there is help.
I get asked to identify plants from around the world. I can’t. I’ve been known to misidentify plants that I have bought, so I’m not the person to identify a rare orchid or moss. What I do is refer people to two apps, put out by the same people. Seek, available for Android and Apple, uses the camera on your phone to identify what it is you’re looking at. You can snap a photo and add it, or you can click the camera icon, and watch as it narrows down the options in front of you.
I’ll admit, I spend a frustrating amount of time looking at Dicots as I don’t get the easy identification that you see in the demo video. But as you get closer, you can narrow down an ID to a family or genus or species. Seeing how the options systematically narrow down helps reveal how organisms are related.
For example, looking at a pear tree, for quite a while the app was only willing to say that the plant was related to roses, in some way. Better botanists than me will be able to tell you that pears are in the genus Pyrus and in the family Rosaceae, which includes pear, roses, blackberries, and plums.
Seek is a good app, and fun to use, but for identification sometimes it’s helpful to have an expert eye. Here’s where another app does better.
Seek is produced by the iNaturalist community. But iNaturalist has its own app for Android and Apple. Using this app, you can snap a photo and upload it to the site. The site has spooky machine intelligence that can often identify a good image down to species level. That’s fine, but I take a lot of bad images, and this is where iNaturalist shines.
As well as machine recognition, people can examine each other’s photos and offer identification for them. iNaturalist doesn’t rely on just one ID, so multiple people saying a photo is the same thing can help with an identification. If you know your mosses, you can help ID mosses, and if you don’t know your slugs, then someone who does can tell you what kind of slug you have.
It’s difficult to over-state how helpful the iNaturalist community is.
In addition, iNaturalist is a repository that research biologists use. As an example from earlier in the week, biologists were able to identify which butterfly Gloriosa superba was using to transport pollen from iNaturalist observations.
But it’s not all measurement. Along with these elements of where, when and what, there’s also an element that you need to bring to a diary, and that’s you.
A photo doesn’t capture everything about an organism. How did it smell? How did it feel? How did it move? As I write this, down at the bottom of the gar, a Mexican Orange Blossom, Choisya ternata, is nodding in agreement in a slight breeze. The cherry tree the Choisya is under is ignoring the wind and fluttering only as little feathery bullets impact the leaves, looking for grubs for their chicks.
Again, this week we had an example of Goethe drawing sketches showing how willow twigs varied in the mountains. These sketches may be the first record of interspecies variation. I can’t guarantee you’ll be the next Goethe, but I’m sure there’s more that you can bring to a diary than simply time and ID.
Where to keep your Nature Diary?
iNaturalist has a journal option that I had overlooked. You can click to connect your observations to your journal entry. It also has an old school manual HTML interface that appeals to me, but probably not to a lot of people. But there are other options,
Online, there’s Instagram – if every entry is going to have some artwork. Tumblr is another easy to use site for maintaining your diary. But your fiary doesn’t have to be online. Another option would be to have a physical fiary and it has its advantages.
The Natural History Museum suggests using a physical journal, as you can keep pressed flowers or feathers between pages. You can also sketch into your journal and privacy, if you want it, is a bit more assured in a physical object.
But why now?
The lockdown, no matter how porous, is making changes to how we’re managing nature. In some cases that shows in roadside verges. But for some species that benefit from human activity, this could be a bad year. Making a diary now, and noting the species you see will help quantify what is lost and what is gained as things develop.
However, there is a better reason to start a diary now. That’s you.
There are mental health benefits to journaling. It can help relieve stress, reduce anxiety and introduce a calm space into your life. It can also help you keep track of things that may affect you without realising. While a lot of the research into nature journals appears to be geared towards children, it seems plausible that journaling could increase awareness of ecological relationships, and your connection to your own local habitat.
It’s ridiculous during a pandemic to be talking about all the time you have to do things. For many people dealing with their own stress, or the stress of family members is enough of a challenge, without the extra hassle of learning a new language or musical instrument. But a nature diary offers the opportunity to make a little bit of quiet and relaxation for you in a chaotic world.
* It’s generous even to call it a gar, as it’s under half the size of the average UK garden.
** There is (at the time of writing) a Conservative political party in the UK. I’m emphasising the small-c as I’m not implying the festivals have opinions on taxation or immigration.