This piece was featured as an Editor’s Pick on Discover WordPress June 30, 2016.
I began my first field journal in Belize, during my time there for biology field school. Each evening after night walks I would jot down a list of the day’s seen species under the fluorescent hum of generator lights. Flipping through the spiral-bound notebook now a decade later, I wish I hadn’t been so rigid in my musings, so clinical in my descriptions of those treasurable weeks in a new place. Now and then memories surface – hiking up trails in Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve; huddling close to campfires pitched by the Sibun River after a day of canoeing; swaying in a hammock and looking out at the sunset while listening to someone strumming the guitar. These happenings now slip through my mesh of English and Latin names, scrawled neat on ruled lines. I wish I did a better job at capturing moments. I wish I could go back.
Maybe regret is why I so admire those skilled at conveying the essence of the moment. I’ve highlighted works from these authors and explorers before, from Oliver Sacks’ Oaxaca Journal to John Steinbeck’s The Log From the Sea of Cortez. This week I want to do justice to Lyn Baldwin, another deft at telling stories of presence and place. I first came across the field ecologist’s work through her exhibition, Finding Place: Collecting Home Through Field Journal Art, while volunteering at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. Captivated, I next read her essay, Laura’s Collection: Finding Community Through Field Work, in Terrain, one of my favourite publications. Now with her permission, I would like to share my thoughts on her illustrated field journals here on Ekostories.
Finding Place: Collecting Home Through Field Journal Art
“Finding Place explores the intersection of art and science through detailed botanical field journals and paintings. Plant ecologist and artist, Lyn Baldwin, captures her home province of British Columbia in great detail while searching for what it means to belong to a place and find stories of home.”
Volunteering at the Beaty museum on a weekly basis affords me the chance to see Baldwin’s illustrated field journals over an extended period of time. Each displayed shadowbox features excerpts and artefacts from her journals, which contain everything from brief botanical sketches to detailed watercolour compositions. I can find few words to describe Baldwin’s work without resorting to clichés; her skill in capturing both natural aesthetic and anatomical accuracy awes me whenever I return to view her work:
In an accompanying guide on field journal illustration, Baldwin describes the act of drawing as a powerful means to know something on an intimate level, whether it be a single flower or an entire landscape. In an increasingly disconnected and attention-deficient world, sketching the veins on a leaf or the mountains out the living room window can help ground us in place and time, train our gaze towards the ordinary beauty we would otherwise skim over. While her finished illustrations are stunning, Baldwin stresses the importance of process over product. “Regardless of what the final drawing looks like,” she writes, “I always see more when I draw.”
Drawing also helps Baldwin find the right words to describe what she sees:
“Wolves at 6:00am. From the tent fly five wolves coloured black prancing and wrestling on the sand in front of Anderson Creek mouth. Once again, the feeling that I have been gifted with something wild and precious rises up, rises up. The world is alive and I am caught within its own wonderful grip. It is a remembrance of another time, when we hadn’t domesticated ourselves, when the glory and the pain and the deep splendour of a breathing world filled our days.”
– Mounted Field Journal Volumes with Artefacts: Wells Gray Lakes Vol. 1, 3
There is a raw urgency in Baldwin’s recorded musings that moves me. They ring true because they are formed from the heart of the present, as life is streaming by, and I can see how joy, emergent and unaccountable, wells up and out onto the page. To articulate these instants of splendour as Baldwin does, to reach with language to describe what lies just beyond past comprehension, is something I aspire to do. I know now that these are the shards and shimmers that stay with our minds and hearts, reminders of what was once luminous in a world marching ever forward, precious mortal glimpses that endure even as all else changes, fades away.
Laura’s Collection: Finding Community Through Field Work
In her Terrain essay, Baldwin delves into her experience conducting fieldwork with a promising student in the Lac du Bois Grasslands of Kamloops in my home province. Working at the ecotone of art and science, she argues that while understanding from any discipline or practice is always at best an act of translation, we can strive to build a fuller picture by embracing multiple paths to knowledge and different ways of knowing. Her approach reminds me of the writings of Leonard Shlain, a surgeon who wrote about his profession’s need to utilize both left-brain logic and right-brain intuition:
“[Through] the complementarity of art and physics … these two fields intimately entwine to form a lattice upon which we all can climb a little higher in order to construct our view of reality. Understanding this connection should enhance our appreciation for the vitality of art and deepen our sense of awe before the ideas of modern physics. Art and physics, like wave and particle, are an integrated duality: They are simply two different but complementary facets of a single description of the world. Integrating art and physics will kindle a more synthesized awareness which begins in wonder and ends with wisdom.”
Baldwin writes about her hopes for Laura as an ecologist, the comfort inherent in the rhythms of good field work, the challenges of putting down roots in a new place. She delves into the traditions and conventions of ecology, the limitations and biases of her chosen field, even the guilt of collection for the sake of understanding. Throughout the piece, she continually turns over the notion of community, trying to see its different facets, much like what she does in her field journals, using words and drawings to weave connective tissue between fact and feeling, self and world, personal and collective good.
For me, the piece speaks deeply of our universal yearning to belong: How one seeks communion with others and with place, what those connections demand of and afford to us, and how history and context perpetually shape the perceptions of our ties with the larger world. I appreciate Baldwin’s willingness to face her own uncertainties, her ability to embrace contradiction and complexity as a necessary step towards cultivating a deeper and broader relationship with the world.
I keep a daily journal these days, a Hobonichi Techo, designed by my favourite renaissance man Shigesato Itoi. It’s still filled with too many lists: Grocery items and tasked to-do’s, work deadlines and daily meals. But sometimes I try. Sometimes scribbled down are small gratitudes. A perfect food moment spent with a rice bowl, dotted with fish roe. The chance to stare a Harris hawk straight in the eye. Sometimes a writing prompt expands out to fill a page. Two. Five. Lyrics to a new song from 1971 that makes the day right. And no one’s gonna take that time away. Now and then at the museum, ink sketches in brown or blue of an antelope, a seal skull, a fossilized ray. Outside, the silhouettes of birds. Bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky. Wings, shapes, shades. Not forgotten.
- Art and Science, Wonder and Wisdom
- More than Ferns: Oliver Sacks’ Oaxaca Journal
- Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World
Featured image: Grassland Green View of Lac Du Bois Grassland, Kamloops, BC. All images posted with permission from Lyn Baldwin.