Keynote for Oath Ceremony

I was honored to be invited to give the keynote remarks at a naturalization ceremony yesterday hosted at the Davis Branch of the Yolo County Library. It was very moving to be a part of this momentous event for the 39 new citizens representing 17 different countries of origin.

Following is the text of my speech:

Keynote Talk for Oath Ceremony
Mary L. Stephens—Davis Branch Library
March 16, 2023
Robin Lee Carlson

First of all, I would like to say welcome to this place and this community. I am so glad that you are joining us.

I grew up here, in the Central Valley, in Turlock and Davis, under hot blue skies and periodic drought. My whole being is shaped by this flat land stretched between two long mountain ranges, a land that was originally and still is the home of the Patwin people, including members of the Cachil DeHe Band of Wintun Indians of the Colusa Indian Community, Kletsel Dehe Wintun Nation, and Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation.

My family came here from Europe, Swedish farmers via Minnesota and Nebraska, and British farmers via dust bowl Oklahoma.

I try to honor this place by understanding its history: all of the people that have called it home and all of the ecological communities here too, plants and animals, fungi and lichens. I do this by immersing myself in the place where I am, the specific moment, observing closely and paying attention.

I have been shaped by this open, sunny, fertile place. But as a quiet and not at all outgoing child, I also felt a great affinity with coastal redwood trees. Fog-loving, green, and dripping with moisture in soft, cool, gray days, redwoods seemed a model of independence and self-sufficiency, just what I wanted to be.

I loved science and nature, so it wasn’t long before I wondered how it is that redwoods live long and grow to great heights. That was how I learned that they are not as solitary as I thought. Instead of deep roots to anchor them in the ground and find water far underground, like many other kinds of tree, redwoods grow dense mats of shallow roots, just beneath the surface.

And this is the important part: their roots interweave with the roots of other redwoods nearby. The closely twining roots hold them fast with their neighbors and keep them upright in the wind. These connected roots allow water and nutrients to be exchanged between trees, so that those that are struggling are aided by the other trees around them.

From these underground communities of roots, I learned that even the things that seem the most self-contained are not alone. And that my greatest sources of strength and inspiration can be the communities around me. Communities of people—family and friends—but also the rest of the living world around me too.

Art and science have always been my two loves, but I thought for a very long time that I had to choose one or the other. I did as much art as I could growing up because I thought I would need to give it up or relegate it to a hobby when I grew up and became a serious scientist. I studied biology in undergraduate and graduate school, meaning to become a research scientist, but as I studied, I realized that what is most important to me is communicating science and nature with other people. I want to share what I know about nature with everyone around me, binding together the work of scientists, my own observations, and my community in shared concern and care for our world.

I draw, I paint, and I write, using everything I see around me when I am out in nature, in my neighborhood, on nearby hikes, or traveling to other ecosystems. I especially love to use sketches drawn directly in the field to invite viewers and readers into that time and that place along with me.

Most importantly, I merge art and science to grapple with the consequences of climate change. When a wildfire burned a place I love to hike in the hills near Davis, I found a subject that I urgently needed to understand. My close study of Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve after the fire and regular monthly observations over six years culminated in the publication of my first book last year, The Cold Canyon Fire Journals. Through this study, I learned to see fire as an inextricable part of nature in California, essential to the plants and animals that have evolved here. And I am sharing this knowledge through words and images based on my own direct experiences.

In writing the book, I looked to the work of a long line of women nature writers before me, sharing their own experiences in nature with their communities and the world. From Rachel Carson, studying the sea and warning us to protect what we love, to Terry Tempest Williams, exploring environmental justice and the Utah wilderness. To Robin Wall Kimmerer, sharing an indigenous model of science and reciprocity with the natural world, and so many others. I looked to them for the curiosity and courage to investigate deeply my own particular natural places and what wildfire and climate change have meant for them.

I have a son, ten years old, and I walk and hike with him and look for all the beauty and wonder of the world around us. In both art and science, I think a lot about beauty and find it to be, most meaningfully, usefulness. Beauty is what serves the community and strengthens its relationships, both within our human communities and in the larger world around us.

There is great beauty in making communities wherever we are, like the coastal redwoods that grow in Davis. Far from their original home, they still find strength in the roots of their neighbors.

This is what we all have to offer each other, the support of our roots intertwining. Keeping us stable and strong, able to withstand wind and storm and sharing sustenance when times are difficult.

Sierra Writers Conference

I’m excited to talk about writing this weekend at the 2023 Sierra Writers Conference.

I’ll be describing how I constructed the literary narrative of The Cold Canyon Fire Journals and how I approach natural history writing more generally. We’ll explore the following themes:

  1. Storytelling on multiple levels: the stories of the individual organisms and how they relate to their habitats over time; the story of my own observations and interactions with the landscape; the stories of scientists and their research; and the larger narrative of environmental change.
  2. How I bring the place around me to life in writing using sensory details and close observation, and how I extend that close personal knowledge to an understanding of larger patterns in the world.
  3. Thinking ecologically to always situate the species I am considering into their broader environment—knowing that it is impossible to understand that one species without knowing all of the other lives to which it is tied.
  4. Sitting quietly and walking carefully and patiently to allow the stories to reveal themselves.

Registration and more details about the conference can be found here.

Reading the Ashes

As someone who never imagined publishing a book and who did not ever think I would be able to call myself a writer and author, I am exceptionally proud to have an essay published in The Common. My essay, “Reading the Ashes,” just came out in Issue 42, and is featured in both the online and print editions of the issue. It is accompanied by illustrations from my sketchbook. I can’t wait for the print version to arrive in my mailbox!

A Conversation with Bethan Burton (Journaling with Nature Podcast)

Last month, I had the great pleasure of joining Bethan Burton on her podcast, Journaling with Nature. Bethan’s podcasts are so insightful and inspiring that I wholeheartedly recommend listening to all of them!

In our conversation, we talked about the work I have done documenting wildfire response at Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve and the general concept of ecoreportage—documenting ecosystem change over time. We talked about the big picture of climate change and changing fire regimes in California and in Australia, and about cultural and prescribed burning practices. Bethan is a fantastic interviewer. Her questions are spot-on and she is an empathetic and engaging presence. I am proud to be part of her growing archive of conversations.

My Fire Ecology Workshop at Wild Wonder Nature Journaling Conference 2020

UPDATE: I had a truly awesome time teaching at Wild Wonder 2020! The teachers and workshops were all incredibly inspiring. You can still register for a video pass to view all of the amazing content before April 10, 2021. Start here to register:

I’m excited to announce that I have been invited to teach a workshop at the virtual Wild Wonder Nature Journaling Conference, October 7-11, 2020! I will be presenting “Ecoreportage—Fire Ecology and How to Draw a Changing Landscape.” We will take a field trip through time and explore an ecosystem after a wildfire. We will start with the fire, wander through the burned canyon, and then observe and draw as plants, animals, and fungi regrow and return to the area over the next five years, with many examples and strategies from my sketchbooks.

Here are the details, schedule, and link to register:

John Muir Laws and the Nature Journal Club are thrilled to partner with The Foster to host Wild Wonder Nature Journaling Conference, October 7-11, 2020, an annual event that gathers people who are passionate about nature, art, science, curiosity, and wonder to share ideas, learn from each other, support each other, inspire each other, and have fun together in a nature’s beauty. This year’s virtual event is 5 full days, with a rich schedule of classes, panels, lectures, nature journaling challenges, social time. Please visit this page for more details on the event including a detailed schedule and a link to register:

You can also go directly here to register and view the schedule.

Cultivating a Deep Sense of Place and Time

This was written as an invited post on the International Nature Journaling Week blog.

rlc spider and caterpillar

I always feel better when I have a sketchbook in my pocket and a little naked if I’m out in the world without one. I’m a biologist by training and my previous career was in salmon restoration. Then and now, I use field sketching to feel closer to my surroundings and more deeply understand the world around me.

rlc hare's foot inkcap

In 2015, I was looking for a way to use art in a long-term project to explore local environmental change. I was moving away from data and information and into a career as a natural science illustrator and was hoping to increase my naturalist knowledge and become intimately acquainted with a local landscape. That summer, there was a wildfire in the hills to the west of my town, and one of the areas that burned was a well-loved natural area run by the University of California Natural Reserve System. I went up to take a look at the site shortly afterwards, and realized that this would be a perfect opportunity to watch rapid habitat change as the reserve responded to the fire.

RLC wragg fire

rlc stebbins resprouting

I started to hike the trails at the reserve monthly, drawing and documenting everything I could. The spring after the fire, I watched the first fire-following wildflowers appear, chaparral shrubs begin to sprout new growth from their bases, and animals return to the canyon. It has been over four and a half years now since the fire. The depth of understanding that I have gained from this practice—into fire ecology and into the specifics of the habitats at the reserve­—has given me immeasurable joy. You can find this journey on my blog, Wildfire to Wildflowers.

rlc wildflowers and insects

rlc stebbins visits

We are all watching the world change around us in unprecedented ways. With climate change accelerating, many things we once took for granted are no longer certain: weather patterns, seasons, wildfire frequencies and intensities, the populations and behavior of the plants and animals around us. Artists, naturalists and all close observers of the natural world are in a unique position to chronicle this change. We have the tools to document, analyze and share what is happening in our own neighborhoods and the environments we encounter regularly. We have a great power to become more deeply enmeshed in our world: understanding its past and watching as the present unfolds into the future.

rlc stebbins march 2020

This is ecoreportage: close observation of the environment at a specific place and time, repeatedly returning to build a picture of ecological change. As a long-time field sketcher, biologist and artist, I have focused on this practice. I want to know how my surroundings came to look the way they do and I want to understand how they change as I observe them over time. I have come to see the work as a form of journalism, requiring me to understand my subject’s past and ask probing questions about what it looks like now, compiling a detailed picture as I return again and again over the years.

rlc cultural burn

Just before the pandemic, I had embarked on a new project to explore my immediate surroundings more deeply. I live in Yolo County and am working on an investigation of the history of this landscape, including all of our human impacts over time. With the latest restrictions on movement as we shelter in place, I am currently focusing on my own neighborhood, with suburban homes and agricultural research fields. What plants, animals, fungi are thriving in this built and actively managed environment? Which ones have been or are on their way to being eliminated?

rlc gulls and landfill

rlc burrowing owls

As sketchers, journalers, artists, naturalists and observers, we each have our own fragments of the picture—a full understanding is something we can only discover as a community. Although sketching is often a solitary pursuit, in order to reveal the bigger picture, we must combine our own small parts. As we do, we are seeing the emergence of a great, ever-evolving tapestry of change in the natural world, in our homes, and in ourselves.

Ode Volume One: Orcas Island


Last August, I spent a few days on Orcas Island getting to know the Cascade Creek Watershed at the invitation of Ayn Gailey and Sara Farish, authors of the just published Ode Volume One: Orcas Island. Having seen my Orcas sketchbook pages on Instagram (@anthropocenesketchbook), they wanted to include a few of my drawings in the book. This project turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to put together an ecosystem exploration in cohesive set of drawings. I am working on a more narrative presentation of the entire process, but for now, here are all of the completed sketchbook pages!

I visited four different spots along the watershed, starting at the mouth of Cascade Creek where it enters the sea at Buck Bay:

CascadeCrSketchbook Spread 2 sm

I hiked the loop trail at the Coho Preserve:

CascadeCrSketchbook Spread 1 sm

I visited Cascade Creek near the middle of its length, at a series of waterfalls:

CascadeCrSketchbook Spread 3 sm

And finished at the creek’s headwaters at Mountain Lake:

CascadeCrSketchbook Spread 4 sm

Interpretive Panels are Up at Black Lake Canyon Preserve!

On April 27, 2019 I was excited to attend the grand opening of Kathleen’s Canyon Overlook to see my interpretive panel artwork installed! The Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County threw a great party with a mariachi band and taco truck. It was a fantastic experience to see Black Lake Canyon and Kathleen’s Canyon Overlook in person for the first time and meet Lindsey Roddick and Jamie Creath for the first time after working with them over the past year and a half! It was also lovely to talk about the panels with all of the enthusiastic LCSLO supporters who attended the opening.

Text and graphic design on the panels are by Jamie Creath of LCSLO.

sm Habitats and Me

sm Flyers and Viewers

sm Birds and Mesm Monarch Photosm Invasives Photo