It’s been almost a decade since I bought my field journal. When I saw it in a gift shop I knew I had to have it – the Col. Littleton No. 9 Journal, wrought of thick leather and brass. It looked like something that Hemmingway might have opened under the glow of an oil lamp to record some electrifying showdown involving a flurry of dust, a custom English side-by-side rifle, and a pissed off cape buffalo. When I told mom what I paid for the No. 9. she wryly replied (in that motherly tone of unmistakable endearment) Hunter, I doubt you have anything that important to say.
Mom was more or less right. No doubt, the Nobel Prize Committee would not find my entries fit for personal use in a public bathroom. Nevertheless I have accumulated a priceless pile of journal refills, filled cover to cover, each one stained with the sweat and dirt of a thousand wild moments.
Fortunately for most of us, neither a literary propensity nor grammatical precision is requisite to keeping a field journal. In fact laboriously technical composition in a field journal only tells first-hand that the author wasn’t paying attention to, well… the field. Formalism is tacky in a field journal, so if that’s your thing, keep a diary. Meanwhile two deer just slipped right past you.
Indeed, it is precisely the informality and imperfections that make your entries yours and over time are the underpinning for their intrinsic value. Your handwriting, if you record events in real time, can add more to your record than words ever could. The the last word in nostalgia is thumbing through old entries to find the details of a hunt, recorded with inelegant strokes of frost-stiffened fingers and blood on the page as standing proof of meat on the ground, or a sweat-smeared rendering of a blackburnian warbler that lit on a branch and blew your mind.
A record might even be expressed by some musty piece of wildness pressed between the pages. Naturalist Joe Hutto would smear deer flies and yellow flies on the pages of his field journal as he followed his flock of wild turkeys through the Florida hammock. The more smears from the respective species of fly, the worse that species was on that particular day and at that particular time. It saved him time, he explained. I doubt that, but I like the idea. Upon reading that I naturally began doing the same thing, and when I run across an old entry with 10 or 12 mosquitoes smeared into the margin, the memory of an early season deer hunt among black water and cypress trees comes rushing back with more momentum than words alone can summon.
In time, your field journal takes on a life of its own. Your entries accumulate to something more than the sum of scarcely legible notes on dirty paper. A distinctive character emerges from your scribblings, with feathers from dead turkeys and autumn leaves pressed between the pages. Finally, the entries become a deeply personal anthology of wild strivings and a tangible collection of moments that define your passion and nourish your love of wild things.