When Dr Fiona Boxall takes her dog Ruby for a 20-minute walk, it never takes under an hour – for Ruby to do her sniffing and Fiona her sketching.
It’s a deal they’ve made together – and it works. While Ruby does what, doggedly, comes naturally, Fiona sketches, jots down notes and observes the beauty that is Canberra, a city she now describes as the nation’s “best-kept secret”.
It works so well that a collection of Fiona’s observations covering her Canberra walks has just been published in A Canberra Nature Journal.
The former journalist, magazine editor and anthropologist said the book wasn’t something she had set out to do. But like most good things, it seems it was meant to be. She moved to Canberra with her family from Sydney about five years ago, after spending her early life in the Southern Highlands. Their daughter had moved to Charnwood and Fiona wanted to be “a hands-on granny”.
“I started taking the dog for walks and just came across the most amazing places, like Ginninderra Creek. There were birds everywhere, like superb parrots, and beautiful orchids. It changed from me taking my dog for a walk to me looking for things, keeping my eyes open.”
Fiona, who has a degree in anthropology, said her passion for nature journalling came into its own around the time of the Canberra bushfires, saying such writing had well-documented benefits for mental health and wellbeing, and provided an enduring record of the local environment.
“Canberra was so full of smoke,” she said. “I was so distraught about what I was seeing around me – thirsty kangaroos, desperate birds and the impact on the entire ecosystem. Then COVID hit.
“I found my mental health was suffering and nature journalling put me in the moment, grounded me, stopped me spiralling into catastrophising about things. Journalling changes the way you look at the world.”
Fiona said she wrote the book “to the illustrations”. “I just like painting and drawing. My journal pages are about being in the moment, so I suppose it’s a bit like an artist’s diary. My husband calls it my scribble book,” she joked.
She said she was surprised at how excited she was when the book was published.
“As a journalist, you see your byline on things you’ve written all the time,” she said. “But this was different. This was a book … something I can inflict on my friends and family. My kids were very proud. My husband now reckons we should go on to bigger and better things.
“When we moved to Canberra, I wasn’t looking for a job, my life was sorted, I was pretty much retired. But then I started doing these botanical art courses, and through that, I met people as nerdy as me.
“Through these courses, I’ve ended up teaching at the NatureArt Lab, which I love, and that’s connected me to a lot of other groups.
“That’s what’s amazing about Canberra. It has an incredible social network going. If you want to, there are so many people you can get connected to – for me, it’s become a fabulous third career.”
Fiona said plans for another book were in the works but her immediate goal was to run journal workshops.
“I’d just like to encourage people to give it a crack. The more you do, the better you’ll be at it. Doesn’t matter if it’s drawing, writing , taking photos … I’d just like to encourage everyone to develop a relationship with the natural world.
“Nature journalling is a type of citizen science that recognises we all have a voice and provides a space for those voices to be heard.
“The anthropologist in me would argue it’s a type of global community that is going from strength to strength.”
Fiona’s work is also currently on show at Kinkora Gallery, Queanbeyan. It will be on display until 10 December.
A Canberra Nature Journal is available from the Australian National Botanic Gardens, National Arboretum, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, or through Etsy.