My 10 Favourite Books: #8 A Trail Through Leaves

A Trail Through LeavesHannah Hinchman’s A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place is part instruction on how to keep a nature journal, part memoir, and part contemplation.  Hinchman has kept illustrated nature journals since the age of 17, and when this book was published (in 1997), her journals filled over 50 volumes.  A Trail Through Leaves is illustrated with pages from her journals, and I think the book is well worth reading for that alone.  This was one of the first books I encountered that showed me that art does not have to be perfectly finished drawings and paintings, but that it can also be rough, imperfect sketches.  I love Hinchman’s sketches more than many “finished” drawings I’ve seen, and this book helped to inspire me to try sketching, even though I had long believed that I couldn’t draw.

One thing I love about A Trail Through Leaves is that it is never just about one thing.  Hinchman seems like someone who is interested in and curious about almost everything, and this book reflects that.  In one chapter, she discusses her favourite pens, pencils, and other tools for writing and drawing; in another, she reads Thoreau’s journals and contemplates what she calls “unmeasurable phenomena” (a term I happen to be particularly fond of); in others, she writes about her garden, quotes a Roethke poem, or describes her experiences in teaching journal-keeping.  Her writing may at times feel a bit rambling, but I prefer to think of it as like the trail or path referred to in the title: it meanders from topic to topic, always following a thread, however thin, that connects the topics together.

At the end of each chapter Hinchman includes a practical exercise that you can work on in your own journal.  These exercises are not boring writing prompts, but exercises that will help you to observe and remember more carefully.  For Hinchman, journal-keeping is not just for self-reflection, but for fully experiencing the place in which you live.  A Trail Through Leaves reveals how keeping a journal is always about more than just writing or drawing, and how, in Hinchman’s words, “the act of recording a life, in healthy solitude and active connection to loved terrain, is also the act of creating a life.”

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