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Unexpected Encounters

Updated: Jul 16

Why is our connection deepened by unplanned experiences? Using a combination of words and pictures in a recent nature journal page helped me to think more clearly about this topic.




During International Nature Journaling Week 2022, Ayoka Kaiser taught a workshop called “Expressing Yourself with Sketchnotes.” She demonstrated how to use simplified icons, symbols, and doodles to illustrate ideas and concepts. One way to develop your own visual vocabulary, Ayoka suggested, is to keep track of words you frequently use while nature journaling and create icons to describe them.


That same day also happened to be the neighborhood-wide garage sale where I live. It felt refreshing to see so many neighbors out and about, especially after the isolation of the past two years – to wave and say hello to people, even briefly.


Later, while I was nature journaling, I reflected on the impromptu greetings at the garage sale. It reminded me of some research I’d read somewhere about how unplanned meetings strengthen social bonds in a community. And of course, our encounters with animals in nature are unexpected too. You can’t plan for them, because you never know what will happen or who will show up in any given moment. You can only prepare yourself to pay attention to these chance encounters when they do happen.


Ok, I thought, here’s a good opportunity to use a sketchnote. What would be a good icon for “chance?” After thinking for a few moments, I drew a pair of dice. But then I realized that even though dice represent “chance,” they don’t exactly represent the idea of the “unexpected.” The exact result of a dice roll is unexpected, but you knew that you were rolling dice in the first place. What if the dice appeared out of nowhere, what if the whole encounter was unexpected, not just the outcome?


In the writing on my journal page, I originally wrote “chance/unexpected” as though they were synonyms. I gravitate toward using more words than pictures in my nature journal. But by using a picture, it helped me think about these terms in a different way, and clarified that these are two separate concepts.


As an adult (even though I’m an introvert), it often feels frustrating that I can’t just go out every day and randomly run into friends like I did back in college, especially since Covid. It seems like something special is lost when all your social time has to be carefully planned and scheduled in advance. According to a BBC article, casual interactions can lead to “more happiness and a greater sense of belonging.”


Even though animal encounters are unplanned, you can start to learn behavior patterns and predict when and where you’ll see them. Still, nothing is guaranteed. But in light of our social psychology….maybe that’s a good thing.


I often spend time sitting on the step outside my front door. I use all my senses to pay attention to what’s going on, and sometimes I record what I notice in my nature journal. It’s not the most “wild” or “natural” spot. I see people walking down the street in addition to birds, plants, and insects. But this has actually helped me to think about nature in a different way. Birdwatching, people watching – it all starts to seem like a continuation of the same thing. By regularly paying attention to chance encounters, I’ve been getting to know my human and wild neighbors.


Who knew a doodle could go so deep?




Prompts for you to explore:

  • Can you think of a good icon to represent “unexpected?” Or “chance?”

  • What words would be useful to have in your visual vocabulary to use on a regular basis? Start keeping a list, and add words when you think of them!

  • Ponder this – what’s an unexpected encounter you’ve had lately? (With a wild creature or a human!) How was your connection to them affected by that encounter?






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