On Keeping a Journal
Fixing Images on the Emulsion of Memory
Alexander Mackenzie did it. So did Henry David Thoreau, Mina Hubbard, Raymond Patterson, and Sigurd Olson. And you can, as well. In fact, if you canoe or kayak — or if you just take an active interest in what’s going on in the world outside your door — you’d be foolish not to. Curious? Then read on. Tamia will tell you all you need to know about keeping a journal.
by Tamia Nelson | March 16, 2018
Originally published in different form on May 21, 2002
When Colin Fletcher smashed his only camera, far down a trail in the depths of the Grand Canyon, he cursed his luck. After all, he was walking through country he’d probably never visit again. Before long, however, his spirits had soared. He discovered that he’d escaped from the “tyranny” of photography. “Instead of stopping briefly to photograph and forget,” he later wrote, “I stood and stared, fixing truer images on the emulsion of memory.”
The emulsion of memory… It’s a wonderful turn of phrase, isn’t it? But there’s a problem. Unlike the silver halide colloid once used to capture images in film photography, the emulsion of memory is none too stable. As the years pass, even the most vivid memories begin to fade like old photos pinned to a sunlit wall. And sooner or later, they vanish completely. That’s when the head-scratching begins in earnest. Just when did the ice go out in the year of the Great Storm? What was the name of that couple we met at Bullfrog Pond in ’98? When did we see our first hooded merganser on the ‘Flow last year? There’s no end to such questions. Sometimes, with luck, the faded emulsion gives up its secrets, and the image snaps back into focus. But this doesn’t happen often. So I’m glad that, for almost all of my adult life, I’ve kept a journal.
I’m grateful to earlier scribblers, too. I’ll never have a chance to paddle with Samuel Hearne, Joseph Burr Tyrrell, or Raymond Patterson, but I can read what they wrote during their travels. They all kept journals. So did Mina Hubbard. After her husband died of starvation in a failed attempt to cross Labrador by canoe in 1903, she travelled to Goose Bay herself, determined to finish the job that he’d begun. Her husband was dead, but she and her three canoemen weren’t alone on the river. Her husband’s journal traveled with them, and two months after she’d started, Mina reached Ungava Bay, where she wrote the final chapter in her husband’s unfinished story. That story was published in the May 1906 issue of Harper’s Magazine, which is how I learned about her trip.
Nearly all early explorers made written records of their travels, of course. It was a vital part of their job description. And their notes and comments make for mighty interesting reading today, as do the diaries and sketch-books of naturalists. Gilbert White, Henry David Thoreau, Beatrix Potter, and Helen Hoover are long gone, but their words and pictures live on, educating and entertaining modern readers in equal measure. Diaries and sketch books? Yes. Words and pictures are natural complements, and there’s a place for both in every paddler’s journal. Even if you never get beyond stick figures, there are times when a picture — any picture — is worth a thousand words. You don’t need to be another Leonardo da Vinci to sketch a bird or a leaf or a range of hills, any more than you need to be another Pepys to describe what you had for dinner. You just need to learn to fix what you see (and hear and smell) in the emulsion of memory, and then put it down on paper. That’s all there is to it. Keeping a journal is a very democratic art.
That said, I was slow to catch on. When most other teen-age girls I knew were keeping diaries, I was staying up past midnight waiting table and washing dishes in my parent’s restaurant. By the time I got to bed at the end of a long day, I was too tired to write anything at all, and on my rare free weekends I just wanted to head for the hills. Then I found myself in college, standing next to an anticline on a petrology field trip. My assignment? Map the anticline and write up a report. I had an hour to study the outcrop. That was all. I didn’t have a car, so I knew I wouldn’t get a second chance. My professor had just one piece of advice: “Take notes as if you knew you’ll never come back again.” Well, there was no “as if” about it. I knew I wouldn’t be coming back, so I did as the prof suggested, and I was glad that I did. While my well-wheeled classmates were making frantic midnight trips back to the outcrop to fill in the blanks in their notes by flashlight, I was writing up my final report, drawing on my detailed field notes as I did. I got an A, too. Piece of cake.
From that day forward, I carried a notebook with me on every field trip. And I always took notes as if I knew I’d never come back. Years later, when Farwell and I were conducting historical and archaeological surveys throughout northern New York, my site notes contained exhaustive descriptions of topography, soils, forest cover, ruins, watercourses, weather, and wildlife — and that was just the beginning. Our reports often ran to hundreds of pages, but my notes made them easy to write. I only had to crack the cover on one of my blood-stained, blaze orange notebooks — mosquitos and blackflies give no quarter to note-takers — and I was immediately transported back to the job site. This got me thinking. If keeping what amounted to a journal made sense during the workweek, didn’t it also make sense on weekends? It did. So I started taking a notebook on all our paddling and camping trips. Within a year, I was keeping a daily journal at home, too. I still do. Now, when Farwell wonders when we saw an otter fishing in the shallows, or when we last saw bats dipping low over the water on the ‘Flow (it’s been years now), I know just where to look. No longer are we dependent on the fading emulsion of memory when we want to revisit the past. We’ve fixed those images forever.
You can do the same thing. You don’t need anything special to start. You just need a notebook and a pen or pencil. Some people like using diaries with the date and day of the week preprinted on the pages. Others get by with spiral-bound steno pads. I’ve used both, as well as hardbound surveyor’s field books with water-resistant paper. These are expensive, but they’re very tough, and the orange covers make them hard to lose. Still, my current favorite is an inexpensive, bound 5-inch by 7-inch drawing pad. It’s perfect for field sketching, and I find the absence of blue lines wonderfully liberating. I can write where (and how) I want to.
But don’t agonize over choosing the perfect journal. Grab whatever comes most readily to hand and get started. If you think you’ll have trouble finding something to write about, think again. Once you get the habit, you’ll have just the opposite problem: You’ll have so much to say that you’ll be hard-pressed to find the time. Difficult as it is, however, it’s worth the effort to make time, even at the end of a long day. Then just pick up your pencil or pen — a pencil is less likely to smear in the wet — and write or draw to your heart’s content. You’ll find yourself describing everything from displays of maternal affection shown by a mother moose toward her calf to the shape of a thunderhead building over Sawtooth Ridge, not to mention jotting down a list of gear not taken and needed (and other gear, taken but not needed), along with the ingredients for that unforgettable shepherd’s pie you fashioned from odds and ends left in the food bag at the end of Day 8 of what you’d thought would be a seven-day trip. The possibilities are endless. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation or your handwriting. Don’t worry about perspective. Don’t worry, period. Just do it! And don’t forget to date your entries.
Of course, if you’re a photographer, you’ll probably want to enliven the pages of your journal with photos, though this isn’t as easy as it was in the film age, when it was just a matter of taking the prints out of the envelope and sticking them onto the page. Be that at as it may, be sure to jot down where each photo was taken — you may even want to add a sketch map — along with the subject of the photo and anything else that’s relevant. (When I do a formal field survey, I keep a separate, and very detailed, photo log.)
That’s all there is to it. Simple, isn’t it? Better yet, it’s fun. Just wait till you need to answer a question about some vaguely recollected incident or half-remembered trip. That’s when you’ll reach for your journals and start refreshing the emulsion of memory. Before you know it, you’ll be journeying back in time, revisiting places you thought you’d never see again — without even leaving your easy chair. And you’ll be in the best company imaginable.