The art of notebooks & metaData: A means for pondering all manner of things about life

Post by Lindsey Boyle


Butterfly illustration, © Lindsey Boyle, 2019
​I found the course I took this semester — The Art of Notebooks & Metadata — incredibly inspirational, and it has led me to make multiple changes in the way I do science and in my day to day life.

I had always known that my file and data management protocols were terrible (nonexistent), but until this course, no one had ever addressed good data management practices or called me out on my lack of them.

I was not sure what to expect going into this class. I was envisioning a class more geared toward journaling and drawing and didn’t realize how much of the class would be data management oriented. The focus on metadata practices in this course turned out to be an amazingly helpful addition. It’s not a particularly exciting subject, but it certainly is important, and it was presented with enough variety to keep things interesting and engaging.

Since this class started, I have purchased an external hard drive and have my files and data saved in multiple places and shared with multiple people. I have also made many additions to my field protocol which I am excited to execute this summer. I now have a plan for backing up my field notes daily by taking pictures and making more detailed notes and observations about the sites we visit.

I am still working on increasing the level of detail in my field notes. My current field work in the Snowies is too frigid to allow for long minutes of note taking, and it requires discipline to develop the habit of writing detailed notes upon return from the field. Without this course I would have been much more lackadaisical in this practice. This course made it easy to acknowledge the importance of good field notes. The many examples we looked at in class showed how essential previous field notebooks could be for modern science. It is also important for the more immediate future, both for my benefit and the benefit of other researcher on my project to clearly understand the data we are using.

One of my favorite places to observe nature is in the deserts of Southern Utah. I have visited the area every spring since moving out west and I never get tired of the striking scenery and beautiful color contrasts I find there. Spring especially brings a myriad of colors and contrasts and I love that I often get to experience the vibrant hot-pink and yellow cactus flowers one day and the odd, almost alien sight of pure white snow on red rocks the next. Up until this spring, I had never taken a trip to the desert with other people. Grand Staircase-Escalante is the place where I first learned to be comfortable and happy alone. As a solo backpacker, you can observe and be a part of nature in ways that you simply cannot experience in a larger group.

​Many people have suggested that I would enjoy Edward Abby’s book, Desert Solitaire, but I only recently started reading it. His beautiful and detailed observations of nature exemplify the level of detail and romanticism I aspire to add to my field notes and observations. I appreciate his ability to watch a single organism so closely and to ponder all manner of things about its life.

For example, in Desert Solitaire, Abby writes:

My favorite juniper stands before me glittering shaggily in the sunrise, ragged roots clutching at the rock on which it feeds, rough dark boughs bedecked with a rash, with a shower of turquoise-colored berries. A female, this ancient grandmother of a tree may be three hundred years old; growing very slowly, the juniper seldom attains a height greater than fifteen or twenty feet even in favorable locations. My juniper, though still fruitful and full of vigor, is at the same time partly dead: one half of the divided trunk holds skyward a sapless claw, a branch without leaf or bark, baked by the sun and scoured by the wind to a silver finish, where magpies and ravens like to roost when I am not too close.

I’ve had this tree under surveillance ever since my arrival at Arches, hoping to learn something from it, to discover the significance in its form, to make a connection through its life with whatever falls beyond. Have failed. The essence of the juniper continues to elude me unless, as I presently suspect, its surface is also the essence. Two living things on the same earth, respiring in a common medium, we contact one another but without direct communication. Intuition, sympathy, empathy, all fail to guide me into the heart of this being—if it has a heart.

At times I am exasperated by the juniper’s static pose; something in its stylized gesture of appeal, that dead claw against the sky, suggests catalepsy. Perhaps the tree is mad. The dull, painful creaking of the branches in the wind indicates, however, an internal effort at liberation.

This spring break I visited Moab and Escalante with 5 other people in tow and Abby’s words in my mind. It was an entirely different experience. On one hand, it was highly enjoyable to have friends along.

However, I did not have the same near-spiritual experience that I usually have in the desert.

The only time I felt that connection to nature was when I took some alone time mid-week and hiked off to sketch the canyon we were camped along. I had hoped this class would spark my artistic side and it has certainly done so. I decided to try watercolor painting after the first day of class and have attached several watercolors I created after our drawing class. The watercolors I created were detailed and time consuming.


Beetle illustrations, © Lindsey Boyle, 2019
This desert trip was my first time attempting to capture landscapes and sketching things quickly without great attention to detail. I loved drawing the scene in front of me without the pressure of perfection, and the drawing captured more memories and emotions from the trip than pictures ever could have. Sketching the area is something I would not have considered doing before this class. I felt that it was the first step towards making a habit of sketching frequently in the field and I’m excited to continue the practice this summer.

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