It's Only Natural!
Write On! Fixing Images on the Emulsion of Memory
By Tamia Nelson
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 mood had changed. 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."
Wonderful turn of phrase, isn't it? "Emulsion of memory." But there's a
problem. This emulsion isn't any too stableat least mine isn't. As
years pass, even vivid memories begin to fade, like old photos pinned on a
sunlit wall. And sooner or later, the images vanish completely.
That's when the questions start to nag. Just when did the ice go
out in the year of the big blizzard? What was the name of that couple we met
at Little Clear Pond in '98? When did we see our first hooded merganser last
year? There's no end to such puzzles. Sometimes, with luck, the emulsion
clears and the image snaps back into focus. At other times, though, it
doesn't. Then I'm glad that 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 while trying 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: they had her husband's journal with
them. Two months after she'd started, Mina reached Ungava Bay, where she
wrote the final chapter in her husband's interrupted tale. It was published
in the May 1906 issue of Harper's Magazine. That's how I learned
about her trip.
Nearly all explorers made written records of their travels, in fact. It
was a big part of their job. And their notes and comments make for mighty
interesting reading today. So do the diaries and sketch-books of
naturalists. Gilbert White, Henry David Thoreau, Beatrix Potter, and Helen
Hoover are long gone, but their descriptions of animals and plants
surviveand they're still fascinating.
Diaries and sketch books. Words and pictures. There's a place for
both in every paddler's journal. Even if you never get beyond stick figures,
there are times when a pictureany pictureis 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
see, and then put it down on paper. That's all there is to it. Keeping a
journal is a very democratic art.
Oddly enough, though, 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.
Even the "writing breaks" in the Outward Bound course I took later didn't
give me the habit. Once I'd filled the spiral-bound notebook I'd taken into
the mountains, I put it away. End of story.
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." I
knew I wouldn't, so I did as he 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. Piece of cake.
I'd learned my lesson. From that day forward, I carried a notebook with
me on every field trip, and always took notes as if I knew I'd never come
back. Years later, when Farwell and I surveyed a thirty-mile pipeline
corridor, my field notes included detailed information about topography,
soils, forest cover, ruins, watercourses, weather, and wildlife. And that
was just the beginning.
Our report at the end of this job ran to hundreds of pages, but my notes
made it easy to write. I only had to crack the cover on one of my orange
notebooks and we were immediately transported back into the field. This gave
us another idea. What worked on the job ought to work on the weekend. So we
started taking notebooks 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 last saw an otter fishing in the shallows in front
of our house, I know just where to look. No longer are we dependent on the
fading emulsion of our memories to hold the past. We've fixed the images
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 week pre-printed 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. My current
favorite? An inexpensive bound 5" x 7" 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
appeals to you and get started. If you think you'll have trouble finding
something to write about, think again. Once you've got 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. The rest is easy.
You just pick up your pencil or penpencil's less likely to run if it
gets wetand write or draw to your heart's content. You'll find
yourself describing wildlife and weather, making sketches of rapids run (or
portaged), jotting down names and addresses of people you've met, making
lists of gear to take next time (or leave behind)
. The possibilities
are endless. Don't worry about spelling or punctuation. Don't worry about
perspective. Don't worry, period. Just do it! Don't forget to date your
Of course, if you're a photographer, you'll want to illustrate the
entries in your journal with photos. Be sure to jot down where each photo
was takenyou may even want to add a sketch mapalong with the
subject of the photo and anything else that's relevant. (When I do a formal
field survey, I even keep a separate 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 almost forgotten incident
or half-remembered trip. That's when you'll reach for your journals and
start renewing the emulsion of memory. Soon you'll be journeying back in
time, revisiting places you thought you'd never see againwithout even
leaving your chair. And you'll be in good company.
Copyright © 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights