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Artist/Naturalist Pages

Hannah Hinchman

Hannah in a beargrass meadow
Sisu, Hannah's Finnish Spitz
"Sisu is a flying wedge of attention in whose wake I follow. I don’t know what I add to her experience—she amplifies mine beyond reckoning."

Hannah Hinchman is a brilliant writer and painter who is deeply immersed in nature. She has been keeping illuminated journals for 35 years, and has written three books on the subject: A Life in Hand: Creating the Illuminated Journal and A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place, and Little Things in a Big Country: An Artist and Her Dog on the Rocky Mountain Front. Hannah has also illustrated many books, among them C.L. Rawlins' Sky's Witness, A Year in the Wind River Range and Kim Stafford's Lochsa Road, A Pilgrim in the West.

Hannah lives in Montana, on the small ranch below.

"As you see, it's an enormous and wild landscape, bordered by the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Grizzlies and mountain lions both use the area, so I'm never totally relaxed when I walk here.
I live and write and draw in the wilds of northwest Montana. I especially like to combine calligraphy and drawing in my Illuminated Journals, using nature as my inspiration."

Hannah is a mature artist who takes risks and pulls them off. The natural world is ambiguous and in continual movement/process. But Hannah's work somehow manages to convey that movement, of wind, of body, and especially of light. As a naturalist who spends a lot of time exploring her chosen ground, Hannah is deeply aware that, as a century ago John Muir said about his hiking , "...going out, I found, was really going in."

Little Things in a Big Country won the 2004 Regional book Award of the Western Booksellers Association. From the Award Judges: "Hannah Hinchman is a real writer --a powerful prose stylist who just happens to have a wonderful visual sense and calligraphers hand, as well.  In Little Things in a Big Country, she brings these elements together in the tradition of William Blake in his poetic and visual masterpieces, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. In the words of Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, "I can't remember the last time I've come across a writer so utterly in tune with the place he or she is writing about.  And she draws and paints as well as she writes!"


"Light and its effects are always my first aesthetic avenue. There’s a quality of light that seems “nostalgic,” as though it had arrived from some distant past. A low-angle beam falling at the base of a tree, sometimes, or a backlit clump of wintergrass will trigger the sensation, along with a wash of sadness. But it’s the exalted kind, not workaday sadness."


Juniper from Little Things in a Big Country


Snipe that just sank down on its heels,from Little Things in a Big Country

Hannah's sandhill cranes, John Caddy's poem.
In Little Things in a Big Country they sit side by side

Here she dares to paint the
dimple-shadows of the waterstrider's feet
Waterstrider may dash off any second
fine detail

"Hairline fractures ping into cracks
Ice and lichen broker mineral solvency"

"Ever smaller fragments true to their structure to the end, all rendered through the dazzling equation of the present"

old Dodge pickup
old wren-nest in headlight

"Cleavage planes obey crystal lattices
Arrested shallows, a mild archaic beach"


In Her Own Words


catwash snooze

A room without a couple of cats would be a deadly room. Cats produce soothing brain-waves, in much the same way that plants give off oxygen.


Here's a picture of Journal Volume 57 (open), and next to it is Volume 58, that I haven't started yet. I made volume 58 myself....that's a pretty wild color for the cover, isn't it? And those are all my art tools around the books, and one of my four cats. I have to have animals around me where I live and work -- they're part of the spirit of what I do. Those dried plants are things I'm going to draw.

I also make paintings (to show in galleries) that look like pages from a journal, as you can see in this illustration. And I write books, too--the one I'm working on now is about our ranch up here in Montana. I walk around on it, making notes and sketches. I follow animal trails, listen to bird voices, and discover all the life that goes on here.

I teach other people to create their own Illuminated Journals, in wonderful places like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Many of my students start out believing that they can't draw, but I help to show them that they can.

On Writing

Sometimes I think [the fierce girl I was] is lost forever. Is it because I no longer have the Peter Pan-like power simply to believe? Breaking through to the wellspring requires a certain kind of cultivation now. It is an intentional act of recovering innocence. A great weight of sadness accumulates over the years, building up like travertine hot-spring deposits onthe original bedrock of wonder. Enchantment is burdened by disappointment, unfulfilled promises, exhaustion, cruelty, the shackles of habit. And yet even the first journal, and the awakening it was meant to record, was undertaken deliberately. It was a prescient attempt to preserve innocence.

It took many years of writing thousands of pages to discover that II could not find the fit between experience and record by using “summing up” words. To say that a canoe trip was wonderful, and that the river was beautiful…accomplished nothing. I didn’t even have the pleasure of reliving the best moments while writing about them. A journal filled with nices, wonderfulls, terribles, and interestings is one drained of any live juice. If that kind of writing merely reflects habit, there is hope for change. If the writer insists on it, consider it a sign of a deep-seated fear of the real.

The act of writing regularly tends to solve the problem on its own…we bore ourselves. After awhile, we begin groping for something more, the magical formula that will make experience live on the page.

The best way to avoid the trap of dead words is to keep a firm grip on the real stuff, prickly, slimy, or bony as it may be. Think how we are awash in gutless speech: the space-filling of the report, the obfuscation of the academic paper, the evasion of the political statement.

Keep alert for dense, rich words, and don’t hesitate to fling them around. How about fox, dirt, leather, squirt, chafe, warp, vortex and crinkle? Being on good terms with words like that will keep you from losing yourself in the labyrinth of the abstract and the over-intellectual.

And cleave to verbs. A drifting, off-target account can suddenly ignite if you insert the right verb. There are plenty of verb-gems languishing out there that deserve to be polished up and placed in new settings: dissolve, mirror, badger, uproot, winnow, slather, suspend, carve, blot, bundle, contort, revolve, flood, crumble, dither, tamp, utter.

On Attention

To follow the actual workings of attention when it thinks it isn’t being watched , I have to be willing to go into dark places, and like most of us, I’m afraid—that way lies madness, and we shy away from it as though sensing how close to disintegration the self really is. But if we insist on staying in the well-lighted places, we never learn the full range of the territory, and become more susceptible to sudden ambushes from the darkness.

My local bookstore is stocked with books about meditation techniques that can coax out of hiding the true shape of attention. I’d vote for solitary walking. Stepping outside the comfortable padding of books, music, news, movies, magazines, conversations, all the reassuring attention absorbers, is a necessary act of exposure. In fact, removing all that padding must be one of our deepest fears, judging by the enormous amount of ingenuity we’ve employed over the centuries to keep from doing it. The art of making something from nothing is our greatest virtue, and we can’t and shouldn’t try to thwart it, but to stay awake, we need to leave the swaddling behind.

On Kinds of Nature Journals

“When I teach workshops on the illuminated journal, I explain what I call a “scale of journals”: On one end is the Informational journal, the true naturalist’s field journal. It concentrates on the quantifiable and identifiable, gathering names, facts, and observations with an impartial thoroughness. It contains drawings, but they are meant to be explanatory. There is little room for the personal in this kind of journal, though I admire it for the valuable role it serves in adding to the body of knowledge.

On the other end of the scale is the Reflective journal. It’s purely personal, mostly concerned with human-generated culture, investigations of the psyche, relationships, responses to art and writing, dreams, memories”as in Anais Nin’s diaries. The self is the subject rather than the world. The art in this journal might look more like William Blake’s paintings.

In between the two poles are two other kinds of journals that have become more and more central to my interest. The first is the Investigative: It documents the outer world, but includes many unmeasurable and unnamed phenomena, like the effects of light, ways the seasons change, patterns and textures in nature. It goes outside the categories of the Informational journal and finds links between apparently dissimilar things. Thus it includes more of the person making it, because it’s up to that person to invent new categories. Art in this journal would look more like what we find in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.

The other is the Resonant journal, so called because it acts as the place of interweaving between the person and the world. Curiosity extends both inward and outward: You are a naturalist on the trail of your own life, and you search for insights in the more-than-human world as well as the human. These two kinds of journals, as embodied in Goethe and Thoreau, seem to me the richest of all. The art included in them might look like anything from Albrecht Duerer to Paul Klee.


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