Hannah Hinchman,
A Trail Through Leaves:
The Journal as a Path to Place

(Norton, 1997)

There are few books out there that can alter the way you perceive the world -- one where, while reading it and being entertained by it, you can look up from its pages at the world around you and see the colors a little deeper, the movement a little more complex, the air a little sharper. A Trail Through Leaves is one such book.

Hannah Hinchman has kept journals for many years. From the time she was a very young girl, when those diaries were about the fresh newness of the world around her; through her late teens, when her surroundings were fodder for a "world-weary affected tone"; to her years of art school in Maine and a move to Wyoming, where she lives today. She's always been somewhat of a naturalist, as well, observing the world around her with a Thoreauean clarity and grace. Add in her sketches and drawings, from the complex to the very simple event maps, and you've got a set of fifty-four volumes that tell the complete story of one woman's time and place.

A Trail Through Leaves is about those journals -- but it's also about something more. It's a drawing resource for people who want to draw what they see around them in nature. It's political and social commentary about the state of art education in the United States. It's a natural history guide of the Yellowstone area, where Hinchman lives. It's a guide to creating your own illuminated journal, with examples, pictures and a naturalistic focus. It's hard to define, really -- it touches completely on so many topics, never leaving you feel cheated on any of them, but stays on none of them for the entire book. The varied text, that is sometimes snippets of her own journals/observations and sometimes narrative or instructional writing, is held together by a theme of her artwork. Pages from her journals are reproduced in whole or in part on every page. It gives the book a commonality of feel and keeps the wildly fluctuating text anchored to the topic at hand.

At the end of each chapter is a set of exercises. These range, for those who are interested in keeping an illustrated record of life as it is, from simply seeing the world as it is instead of griping about the petty and political day-to-day frustrations and annoyances, to a complex exercise that shows the reader how to see a tree -- really see a tree -- and to compare one's own life to the imagined life of the tree, and seeing if our scars match those of the wood. There are tips on painting with watercolor, tips on creating what she calls an "Event Map" (or a drawing with insets while walking) and tips on honoring the seasons.

One of the best sections is a short one: She claims that after a certain amount of hiking or walking, there is a breakthrough point that she calls the Color Barrier. Once breached, this Color Barrier makes things look brighter and more saturated, and theorizes that this is brought on by the increased oxygen content in the blood. For anyone who's been hiking, this entire section will sound familiar, if not exact.

I love this book. It is for artists, for journal-keepers, for scientists, for politicians. It's for mothers and children. For teachers and students. It's for anyone who's ever looked around and scribbled down words about what they've seen, or drawn a hasty sketch. Though at times it falls into a sort of overly-prosaic, overly-worded jumble, the artwork and practical information is invaluable, even for those who aren't fortunate enough to live in an area where they can hike in the mountains every day. Many of her tips would be equally at home on a city street -- the power of observation can benefit anyone, anywhere. A Trail Through Leaves is destined to be a well-worn, well-loved book in my collection.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]

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