Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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One morning at Refuge du Rulhe in the Pyrenees, we changed our plans for the day. Instead of hitting the trails, we decided stay around the refuge until lunch time and do something in the afternoon. With a few hours of complete freedom up in the mountains, my young niece and I decided to find a secluded spot above the refuge and start nature journaling.
I’ve written a journal since I was age 9 and this is my current journal, a beautiful handmade paper journal from Papirum, an amazing art store in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter. When in San Francisco, I also learned nature journaling from Susan Silber, then a naturalist in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and from a friend artist in Pinecrest, CA. That’s how I passed the skill on to my girls. Understandably, journaling seemed like a very natural option for us in the Pyrenees. Not to mention, my niece Adèle is an accomplished artist herself so I was thrilled to share this moment with her.
Our aim was to sketch plants from real life and attempt (important word, attempt) to ID the plants with a botanical flora guide I borrowed from the refuge’s book shelves. Hence, botanical nature journaling. When you are exploring a habitat that’s very specific, such as high altitude mountains with their own microclimate and local wildlife, chances are the biotope features local plants that are variations on more common species in mountain biotopes. Darwin, right? Adaptation being key in the natural world, flora at 2,200m of altitude in the Pyrenees had to be somewhat different from its lookalike in Romania’s Carpathian mountains. Just saying. Here in the Pyrenees be granitic ridges with wild and barren landscapes, hours from any human habitation. It had to have an impact on biodiversity.
As it were, the botanical guide I borrowed from the refuge was a generic mountain flora guide and I knew from the get go that it wouldn’t give us all the answers we were looking for. Too generic. That was alright. It would at least give a few keys to guess answers and that was fun enough — also, a great learning experience for the two of us.
Fortunately, the two of us were ready. Adèle doesn’t travel without journaling supplies and neither do I. With my journal, I always carry a blue and silver Parker Jotter ballpoint pen (pictured here in the middle) as my main writing and drawing tool, as well as an ink refill should the old cartridge die on me. I didn’t really have art supplies but I was lucky that my daughter packed my mother’s 1940s childhood school pencil case complete with new coloring markers. This 1940s pencil case sure came in handy.
After breakfast, Adèle and I stepped outside the refuge and embraced the view. The mountain was our oyster, literally. Left, right, front and center, all mountain, all green, all plants. Where to start? We were looking to draw plants from life and couldn’t settle on the first candidate. What made us move away from the refuge was a need for remoteness. Not that refuge life at 8am can be compared to wild nights in Ibiza but we might still have bumped into one or two stray hikers and preferred to be away from all trails, surrounded by unspoilt wilderness. The previous day, I’d spotted wild blueberry bushes on a promontory overlooking the refuge. Should we fail in our plant ID mission, we’d have a most delicious fallback alternative with blueberry picking.
This was our view. Right spot – check. Botanical nature journaling was on.
We started on a rocky slope with a type of heather. The mountain was dotted with purple spots and it was a lovely shrub, easy to single out and draw.
Here’s the plant in a photograph.
And here is my artistic rendition of a sprig.
It was also the easiest plant to ID that day – common heather, aka Calluna vulgaris. I dutifully copied the botanical guide’s description, complete with true botanical jargon. “Tiny, four-ranked, scale-like leaves in overlapping pairs on slender stems” – you get the riff.
The following plant was a lovely yellow flower that we IDd as Medicago suffruticosa. Medicago is a genus of flowering plants, commonly known as medick or burclover, in the legume family. We were thrilled to spot that the plant we drew had a elongated pod — just like beans and peas, which are legumes too!
After two flowering shrubs, we went on a journaling limb and adopted as our third test subject a small tree. Given the altitude, it could only be a pine tree and that’s where trouble started. There are currently 126 species of pine trees plus 35 unresolved pine species. The botanical guidebook only had half a page on pines. Spot the error.
To improve our future chances at IDing the tree, we were so very thorough. Were the scales on the bark more grey or more brown? Or perhaps more red with touches of grey? Any black or was I dreaming? Where were the pine cones?? No pine cones, no final ID when it comes to pine trees. Good grief, Charie Brown! After we initially IDd it as a Pinus nigra, we read the fine print – the altitude was wrong in the distribution range. Could it be a Pinus mugo aka dwarf mountain pine? Pinus mugo being native to the subalpine zones of the Pyrenees and usually found from 1,000–2,200 m (3,281–7,218 ft), this could absolutely fit our bill. Unless it was a third contender – Pyrenean subspecies of Pinus nigra aka Pinus nigra subsp. salzmannii, or P. nigra var. cebennensis? Either way without pine cones, we were toast.
Next up, another brain puzzle. This small yellow-flowering shrub looked quite innocuous. Surely, a yellow flower shouldn’t be too hard to find in the book? Bingo. Except the book had dozens of pages of yellow flowers. Yellow flower here, yellow flower there, all looking vaguely similar but never quite the same. It was a nightmare. Would we, like Olivia Newton-John, turn the page and joyfully sing “you’re the one that I want”?
Alas, no. Olivia and John could rest easy. We settled on a second-best ID. After painstakingly copying the text for Saxifrage hirculus, I realized it was a wrong ID (again, not the right altitude) and wondered if it could be Hypericum richeri – more copying ensued. To this day, I’m still in the dark for this yellow flower. Lesson learned – yellow flowers are too numerous in mountain botanical guide books.
That afternoon, we hiked to a crystal-clear blue lake and resumed our nature journaling session. I was able to add a devil’s-bit scabious (Sabiosa succisa), with a positive ID along the lakeshore. That earned me a well-deserved swim. Extremely satisfying. I added two more flowers in my journal before I’d had enough.
With every new new plant, we learned to notice
Each plant had something special to offer to our untrained eye. Instead of walking by without paying close attention to nature, we learned to slow down and sketch plants smaller than our hands, forcing our brains to record the world around us in minute detail. It was an exercise in mindfulness without us realizing it. It was also a moment to relax and ponder, using art as a medium to render a landscape, however clumsily or unfaithful to reality, rather than snapping a quick picture on a phone that would soon be forgotten.
I’m glad we took the time to do this and I’m grateful for Adèle’s company and unwavering enthusiasm that day. Mountains shouldn’t be only about hiking mileage. Botanical nature journaling is a very rewarding activity to appreciate them more slowly.